Learner Therapist (54) … 1 person 4 rolesTorrey Orton
February 17, 2015
Parent, sibling, peer, partner
Many couples have been illuminated by the following idea: we all get to play any one of four roles in relation to each other – parent, partner, peer or sibling. If we are competent partners we know that our other half may at any time need us to be their peer, parent or sibling for them, and that we may need the same from them. Our need for others to relate to us in these roles may be upon us before we are aware, usually signalled by role specific behaviours like being needy (parenting), competitive (sibling), cooperative (peer) or interdependent (partner).
While it is totally normal not to be available in the appropriate role at the appropriate time because of our engagement in role needs of our own, what is more confusing and confounding is discovering that our respective capacity in the roles may be very different because our original learning was unbalanced (so a role got less developmental attention than is required to grow it to workable levels). We may not even really know the role because our upbringing did not contain it. An only child, for example, is likely to have an underdeveloped sibling competitiveness, unsurprisingly and wholly unknown to them, and unknowably so, too!! It is beyond their experience, existing perhaps only as a sense of aloneness exposed when in the presence of other families’ siblings.
So, who am I for you today?
The most obvious role is parenting. We need this throughout life whenever we approach significantly novel steps or stages in our paths, especially unpredictable ones and even more enervating those which we could have predicted but failed to. The parent for the day is needed to be unreservedly supportive, to be unconditionally accepting – a hard row to hoe under any conditions.
Sibling associations most clearly come into view when we relate to partners as brothers or sisters, deferring to them or competing with them while being bound together in a wholeness which affirms us all. Similar dynamics may be found in work place, spiritual and leisure associations with all the variety and less control since we do not understand such settings as family. Other cultures see them as always family in the sense that the various expectations of leaders, for example, are bounded by parental expectations.
Peers are our equals more or less. The equality comes from shared experience not shared outcomes, aspirations or inspirations. If you are 10 years older or younger than your partner, the peer potential is low, even within families, where 10 years makes often for an unshareable childhood by the same parents and siblings. They bring to us a kind of experiential corroboration which parents and siblings cannot – that of the world outside the family but inside the same history! The extent of moving home in one’s life, increased by any distance which makes neighbourliness with old acquaintances only sustainable by conscious action is a demonstrable destroyer of such peer potential in our lives.
First amongst equals, our partner - the one who makes us whole and for whom we do the same in return. In fact we are inextricably implicated in our partnership needs, even more clearly so by our lack of a partner. Of all four roles this is the most fundamental and it seems at the same time the most perilous, hence perhaps the importance of the others as backstops for the ones which pass through even the keeper. Who would invest in a role which has a reliable 40% chance of failing? The other three roles provide fail safes against the almost inevitable failure so easily imagined that its play in our awareness and not is one of the major themes of literary and moral history – deception and infidelity.
…and, who are you for me?
Probably by this point you are noticing that these roles may be covertly in play throughout our lives, most clearly so in the major everyday interpersonal settings like work, sports, religious, and various avocational and political groups. They are the means of establishing and maintaining deep bonds in the relatively distant relationship worlds of post modernity. These may resist the pleas of justice, honour or prudence, as we can see in various instances of groups which prefer their publically guilty members to the rights of victims of various abuses. Add identity dynamics to such group and we have the material of gross discriminations against out groups, especially easily stigmatised ones.