Satisfying roles in a relationship

An interview with Joanna Dulińska, psychologist, psychotherapist and supervisor at the Process Oriented Psychology Institute (Instytut Psychologii Procesu).

A conversation about what roles are needed in a relationship, how to make changes in a relationship, why people cheat on each other, and many, many other important issues.

Agnieszka Serafin: You said recently that in a relationship it’s very important for people to draw on the potential that lies in various roles – that of a wife, mother, lover or husband, father, lover. What did you mean by that?

Joanna Dulińska: These are important roles in close relationships between people. There are more, of course – in terms of relationships, I would add the roles of friend, companion, support person.
Above all, it’s worth noticing that these roles are larger than any particular person. This means that various people can perform them, and that they can be shared. Let’s take the roles of mother or father, for example – these are archetypal roles which encompass a large range of possibilities and there’s no need to try to perform them all fully – other people can be asked to do that. Sometimes, if somebody wants to perform one role completely, it can “suck them in”. The role of mother is particularly engulfing. If we try to perform 100% of it, we will have no energy left for anything else. Then it’s good to remember that other people can perform some aspect of this role. You can ask a sister, nanny, housekeeper, friend, other mothers, school teacher, etc. to do this

Mothers, daughters, kids...

But people also often forget that a person is much more than any one role. Each of us plays many different roles and each of these roles is slightly different. If somebody identifies with only one of the roles they perform, they may reject or marginalize characteristics and behaviors which don’t belong to that role. For example – if a woman is very focused on the role of wife, on ensuring stability in her relationship with her husband, taking care of the house, etc., then she is less able to focus on her relationships with her children, for example, or on the role of lover or friend.
To sum up: for a role to be performed completely, more than one person is needed, but also each person needs to be in more than one role in life.

Based on your therapeutic experience, would you say that partners need to perform all of these roles in order for a relationship to be happy?

No, I don’t make any statements like that. I would simply say that they are generally important roles in close relationships between people.
However, a relationship can be very happy if both sides consciously and congruently decide to fulfil one of these roles. They don’t cut themselves off from other experiences, but at that time in their relationship they decide to focus on one aspect of it. And perhaps they may break up afterwards. But it can be a very happy relationship, if it is genuinely based on one role.
Problems begin when we don’t play the roles that we actually long for and need.

And what might we need?

Archetypally, these roles belong to intimate relationships, and so we grow up observing them and making use of them. We need them – the things that they carry with them. This means that we need protectiveness and caring, and this is in the mother or father role. We needs partnership and mutual support, and this is in the role of a spouse. We need intimacy, sex, excitement, we need our sexuality and attractiveness to be highlighted – and this is in the lover role.
And if we are cut off from something or imprisoned in something, this creates unhappiness and a lack of satisfaction. If we long for a sense of safety and can only give ourselves sex, then an important need of ours is going unfulfilled. We are not allowing ourselves to enter into that role, so the role starts to seek its own fulfilment in various strange ways, and this creates suffering for us.

Why is it often difficult for us to identify with some of these roles?

It’s about upbringing and a kind of talent, but also beliefs, role models, our environment and culture. All of this influences who we want to be and who we are.
We live in a culture in which the role of mother is very important for women. This is why it’s often difficult for women to identify with the role of lover after they get married. Their main focus – supported by their environment and social norms – will be how to perform the role of mother as well as possible. And not in any way they choose, but in a way that matches the norms of their culture or community.
The environment you live in has a huge influence on which roles are easily accessible and which are more “engulfing”. Of course, this also depends on our own individual limitations.
If our parents put a lot of energy and attention onto one of these roles, then this becomes a kind of norm for a child. Some roles might be rewarded and some punished. Some behaviours are forbidden and this means that we operate on certain given tracks and it’s difficult for us to notice other possibilities. Often these alternatives are defined as something bad, immoral, unpleasant, difficult or hard work, and then we don’t make use of these roles. Yet in each of these roles, there is potential, there is something good.
But it’s worth remembering as well, that each of these roles involves paying a price. It’s never the case that they only have a positive side. Let’s go back for a moment to the first question: “why is it a good thing to draw on the potential of each role?”. Moving from role to role smoothly is the most useful approach. Firstly, it allows you to feel more fully yourself, and secondly, in the long term, you can pay less of a price. At any given time you might make difficult decisions, but in the end you meet very important needs of your own, and also of your family’s.

Is there a particular role that is the hardest for people to identify with? Or is it more individual?

I think that women who are in relationships do in fact find it hardest to identify with the role of lover. But we are in times of change, and more and more women are afraid of becoming identified with the role of mother, and men with the role of father.
In fact for men in general, it’s hardest to identify with the role of father. In the sense of relationships – they often have trouble relating to their child. It’s easier for them to identify with the role of husband or “head of the family,” who is supposed to put bread on the table. Sex is important for men, to an extent their identity is based on it, so very often they do play the role of lover, in that they adopt it fairly easily. When a child is born, problems often arise. The husband still wants to have a sexual partner, but the woman is quickly drawn into the role of mother, into taking care of the children. She stops emphasising those features that belong to the role of lover.

Why do you think women are afraid of identifying with the mother role?

Because we are in a time of cultural transition, the roles of men and women are changing. Of course, this unwillingness to identify with the role of mother does not apply to all women, but often to those who are well educated struggled to attain independence, freedom and a sense of being modern women.
Success in the world is harder for women to achieve than it is for men, they have to put more effort into it. A return to the roles of mother and wife cuts them off, in a sense, from this kind of victory. They are afraid of the negative side, of being “just a housewife”- as they might see this role in stereotypical terms. They’re afraid of being tied to their children and that their career will be threatened.
It’s much easier for men, because it’s still women who are actually taking care of the house and children. And a man’s professional, personal and often sexual life does not suffer in any way.
So women’s fears are actually reasonable – on the level of society, this is what things are like – the world is for men, and the house is for women. This isn’t about judgement, but about describing what things are like.

What can we do about this?

We can work on turning these roles around. The aim would be for women to have a choice, and not have to choose one side or the other.
Things are changing slowly, but the change is still quite transitory. At one time, a dad who went to the playground with his child was a rarity. Now, fathers can be seen with their children more and more. But these relationships based around partnership can be found in particular groups of people, those who are more educated and aware. I think that the real sign of the times is that a woman is imprisoned between these two possibilities. These days there is a gulf between being a wife and mother, or a lover or a career woman. This conflict is so big, even on the outer level, that when you are in one role, you are cut off from the other.
For example, it can take the form of wanting something, but not being able to go after it because the costs are too high. Or you believe that the other thing – the thing you are not choosing – is bad for some reason. So on one side you have the bored housewife, and on the other, the slut, or who knows what. And the suffering and pejorative connotations are the problem here, not the fact that not all roles can be fulfilled as a matter of course.
Above all, often people have no models that could show them how to combine these different roles.

Do the roles of mother and father only apply to couples who have children?

Of course, the role of parent is above all about having children. But because the roles of father and mother are so significant, even couples who don’t have children often play these roles with each other. They were given powerful messages that the role of mother or father is the most important one in close relationships. Women who enter into a stable relationship often start to mother their partners. In my opinion, this is also related to the …. popularity of the role of mother (laughs).

And do men play the role of father with their partners?

Yes, very often.
It’s worth emphasizing that roles have a particular power of their own. And when you are in a given role, you are using its power. Caretaking can provide a sense of strength, but also of control. These patterns, partly based on stereotypes, are very much valued in our society. We all know them: a man should be the caretaker, should be strong and powerful, and a woman should cook well, be warm and comforting…

Why do people often act out the role of lover outside their marriage or relationship?

Luckily, that is not always the case.
But when it is, it’s the result of the limitations we talked about before. If the situation is such that a woman is very much settled into the role of wife and mother, then that is what she is basing her identity on. But perhaps the man is basing his identity on his sexual energy and has easier access to entertainment, to being in the world and being active. So he is focused on not being at home and that is where he seeks to satisfy his needs. In a sense, this is his only chance, because he can’t find it at home. Very often these lovers represent what his wife is lacking, at this moment – his wife as a role in this situation, but also the woman who is stuck in the role of wife and won’t allow herself other kinds of behaviour, and marginalizes them, doesn’t value them.

Why are women unfaithful?

Women are often unfaithful, too, and have a lot of affairs, but it isn’t talked about much. I think men seek it out more openly, it’s more socially acceptable for them to have lovers, go to escort agencies and so on. But for women, affairs are more something that happens to them. It is more difficult for them to meet these needs directly. But when their identity is based around the role of wife and mother, of course they still have other needs and in some way they send out signals about this.
It’s very rare for a woman to simply go to an agency. I think that in 98% of cases, she suddenly meets someone, and the affair happens to her, in the sense that her needs, which she has been thinking about and pushing to one side, find a way to be met. And for this to happen at home, she would have to make a decision. Whereas here, this happens somewhat without her intending it to.

How can this be prevented?

There is a saying that for men, the world is like a heart, whereas for women, the heart is their world. But it could be put a different way, that often a woman’s identity is more based around being at home and playing the role of mother, because socially – here, at least – it’s more possible, defined, and, in fact, valued.
So a woman like this pushes aside the role of lover, doesn’t allow herself to have it and doesn’t really look after it, and to some extent, the same thing happens with the role of partner. Whereas, for a man, it’s the opposite. His main identity is built outside the home, and is based on being successful, achieving things and meeting his own needs. Whereas a woman is more likely to take care of the needs of others. For a couple like this to really meet in all these roles, the man should tackle his difficulties in creating relationships with his wife and children, and get closer to them. At the same time, he needs to try to meet his other needs at home, rather than outside the home.
And what can a woman do, to be in a genuinely passionate relationship with her husband? It’s worth emphasizing that this is about having a passionate relationship, not just a sexual one, which is often not the same thing at all. So a woman needs to value her sexuality in a way, to take responsibility for it. Recognize her needs and take care of them. And not in the sense that it all happens a bit against her will, and someone is coaxing it out of her.
It’s about a conscious decision to make this happen at home.

Would you say that these differences are biologically determined?

No, I think they are the result of social conditioning, and that our environment has a huge role to play: what our culture supports and what the stereotypes are.
A person does in fact grow beyond biology, although it does of course have a huge influence on him.

Are the dynamics of these roles similar in homosexual relationships?

Yes. We don’t reinvent the wheel each time, and we don’t reinvent relationships. There is a certain structure which we enter into, and these roles are contained in it.
Also, in terms of the roles of man and woman, even in heterosexual relationships, it’s interesting to see who is who. People say, for example, that she wears the trousers in the relationship, which means that she is the boss and has a certain kind of energy. This is a stereotype, of course. This could be seen, though, as a statement about energies, that one is more receptive and open, and the other is clear and active. Quite simply, these roles always occur in relationships. In fact, if we were to take a look at close friendships, they can be observed there, in a way, as well. But in a less intense form, of course.

If I don’t like the role which my partner is always playing in our relationship, should I argue with him/her about it?

No (laughs). No, because it’s completely pointless. The only person you can change in this world is yourself. You only have any real influence over yourself.
If, for example, I am upset that my partner is not in the lover role, that means that I need that in some way. I need to identify with the complementary role, so in this case, to be a lover myself, to bring that energy to the relationship. Sometimes that means that I need to leave the role that I normally occupy. If I change, then he will need to change as well. If I am really congruent and consistent in my change, then there won’t really be any other way, it will change the whole situation.
Very often in relationships, partners blame each other for this kind of thing. For example, she might say: “you don’t treat me like a woman, you don’t find me attractive, you don’t want to sleep with me, I’m not attractive to you”. However, if you ask her whether she feels like a woman, whether she looks after that aspect of herself, whether she seduces him …then it normally turns out that she absolutely doesn’t. This would be unthinkable at the beginning of a relationship. At that stage nobody goes up to the other person and says: “You need to treat me in a certain way!”
You need to overcome that in yourself, to become that lover, so that somebody can respond to that. And if a woman, for example, has got stuck in the role of mother and would like someone to free her from that role, then the thing is for her to find her own way out.

Fairly often in therapy, woman complain that their partner doesn’t identify with the father role. What does this mean?

He doesn’t look after the children, doesn’t interact with them.
If complaints come up in the relationship, then both sides are responsible for them. And unfortunately, it’s often the case, that a woman like this will demand that her partner be a father, and at the same time tells him what that means, what kind of father he needs to be, how he should interact with the children, at what time, not to do that, but to do the other. If so, then she keeps playing the role of mother towards him.
Being in the role of father is indeed difficult sometimes for men, but it’s certainly not possible to force him into it. Above all, you have to give him some room, move away, move out of the role of mother and create some free space around the children. This is what happens in all those films in which a father who has been absent previously is forced by outside circumstances to look after the children. In a way, only the child can force a father to be a father. It’s the child who is in the complimentary role to the father, and not the wife.
So you have to simply back away, leave the child with the father, and that’s it! He’ll be the kind of father that he is, and not the kind that the woman would like him to be. If he was to carry out her instructions, then he wouldn’t be a father, but a child who has to listen to his mother…Men find it fairly easy to get into the child role. The role of the mother is very powerful in our culture.
It would be good for the father to go away on holiday with the child. And the woman’s job then is not to call, not to text, not to control. When they get back, he will definitely be more of a father than he was before.

Joanna Dulińska is a psychologist (the Department of Psychology at the University of Warsaw), a certified psychotherapist, supervisor and a teacher of process work at the Research Society for Process Oriented Psychology in Zurich, she has a psychotherapeutic and trainer’s accreditation from the Polish Society for Process Oriented Psychology. She practiced Lacanian psychoanalysis, and then from 1991, process oriented psychology. She is a founder member of the Polish Society for Process Oriented Psychology. She founded Poza Centrum center for psychotherapy and training.