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Aug 262013

Each of us has various “roles” we play in life, different positions. If we are female, then we have the role of how a female “should” act (though through the centuries some of  these roles change, and in various cultures they differ from one another). If we are a married woman, then we have the role of “wife” we are expected to pay. If we are the CEO of the company or own it, then we have the “boss” role which we play.

At birth we are designated the “baby” role and as we grow, mature and change, our role changes with in our own family change. When a new baby is born we assume or are assigned the “older sibling” role, and if our mother and father both work we may be assigned the role of “caregiver to little sibling” in which we are expected to care for the younger child/ren in the family.

When we go to school we are assigned other roles, maybe the role of “good student” who studies hard, or we may be assigned the “could care less about an education” and when we graduate from High School or quit school we are assigned another role of being an “adult.”

Within the family various roles are also assigned usually by the parents. Maybe you are assigned or take on the role of “family bad boy” and you seem to be always in trouble. Your parents may assume a complementary role of “enabler” when they continually bail you out of trouble.

If you are an abused spouse you may take on the role of victim to your abusive spouse’s role of controlling abuser. One child in the family may be assigned the “cat bird seat” of the “golden child” in which they can do no wrong, to your “family scapegoat” in which you can do no right and all family dysfunction is assigned to you.

In many of these roles, if a person within the family group dies or leaves the family and the role is not “filled” there is a vacuum and a previously “good” child will  assume the role of “family bad kid” and start acting out. Thus the family resumes equilibrium and is no longer “off balance.”

·  Family Beliefs: These are beliefs that are shared (or believed to be shared) among family members.

  • Family Myths: beliefs that serve the same function as individual defense mechanisms (Cook & Oltjenbruns, 1989; Simon, Stierlin & Wynne, 1985). They are accepted and adhered to by family members that defend against disturbances or changes in existing family relationships (Cook & Oltjenbruns, 1989). These can be myths of harmony, myths of forgiveness and atonement or rescue myths (Stierlin, 1973).

  • Family Secrets: this refers to topics that carry negative emotional weight . They are not discussed, and treated as if they do not exist, even though the entire family, or members of the family know about them. Family secrets may be maintained in the service of family myths (Simon, Stierlin & Wynne, 1985). A suicide that is not discussed, or the refusal to allow anyone to discuss a death are examples.

  • ·  Roles: Social expectations and norms held regarding an individual’s position and behavior within a group (Simon, Stierlin & Wynne, 1985). Following the death of a family member, roles may need to be reassigned or roles shared, with role behavior apportioned to various family members (Walsh & McGoldrick, 1991).

  • ·  Rules are prescriptions for and proscriptions against certain behaviors of all or some family members and are related to appropriate role performance (Krauss & Jacobs, 1990). They may be implicit (i.e., hidden) or explicit (i.e., known). Implicit rules are believed to be more powerful in affecting family behavior; the fact that they are hidden makes them powerful. With the loss, many implicit rules become explicit, causing stress to the family. New rules must be created or existing rules must be modified to adapt to the altered family system (Satir, 1988). A death results in disequilibrium in family rule systems and rules may need to be changed to meet the needs of individual family members (Cook & Oltjenbruns, 1989).

  • ·  Family Rituals: Rituals are composed by metaphors, symbols and actions that are “packaged” in a highly condensed, time-bounded and space-bounced, dramatic form to establish and maintain family identity (Burr, Day & Bahr, 1993). Family rituals are built around common symbols and symbolic actions that are familiar to family members, providing an emotional anchor. They provide a sense of safety and acceptance to members. Rituals serve five functions within families: relating, changing, healing, believing and celebrating (Imber-Black & Roberts, 1992). Imber-Black and Roberts (pp. 28-56) indicate that the relating function addresses issues of expressing and maintaining relationships; changing addresses transitions for self and others; healing is concerned with recovery from relationship betrayal, trauma or loss; believing functions are focused on voicing beliefs and making meaning; and celebrating is concerned with affirming deep joy and honoring life with festivity. Rituals serve a powerful function when families deal with loss and can facilitate the necessary reorganization of families when a family member has been lost.


In years past when there were usually large numbers of children in a family, and little or no social services for the elderly, one child, many times the youngest or oldest female child in the , would be assigned the “old maid” role and would never marry, but stay home and take care of her parents until they died. This was the expectation of the family and of society for that “role” to be filled by one of the children.

In families where there was alcoholism, many times the wife or some or all of the daughters would be assigned the “role” of “peace keeper” at any price to keep the children from making noise and “upsetting daddy” and to keep the “family secrets” secret inside the family. I am most familiar with this family dynamic because in my family it was passed on for generations on my mother’s side. Her mother, my grandmother, grew up in a family of abusive males that traced back to before 1800, and the wives and daughters were expected to “keep the peace” at any price and to protect the alcoholic or abuser. To keep the family secret as much as possible.

When I was growing up, my granny provided this service for my mother’s brother, my “uncle Monster” who was a physically and psychologically abusive drunk who beat and  terrorized his wife and children, later his girl-friends when his wife finally left him. I was unaware until I was an adult about his drinking and abuse, up to and including beating his wife when she was nine months pregnant with their son, in an attempt to kill the child.

For years after the divorce from his wife, he would come to her house, drunk, take her and the kids at gun point, make her drive them around while he screamed and raged at her, telling her she had to obey him or he would kill the children, or telling the children to obey him or he would kill their mother. But she never called the police and reported him.

Only when I was a little over 30 and my grandfather was in the hospital did I find out the extent of his abuse. My uncle drove my grandmother back to her house to pick up some clothes as she had ridden the ambulance to the hospital 60 miles away from her home when her husband had been in a bad accident. At the time Uncle Monster was sober, but after they left, we did not hear from my grandmother for three days, when she called my mother and told mom that she had been held at gun point for three days while he was on a “spree.”

I parked my kids with my mother and drove the 70 miles to her house, stopping off at the local sheriff’s office and telling him what was going on and that I was going to my grandmother’s house to get her, that I was armed, and asked him if he wanted to send a deputy with me. He told me (and yea, I can laugh about this now) “Nah, you go on, if you have to kill him, he’s paid for.” LOL

Fortunately for us both, by the time I got there he had woken up and was gone from my grandparent’s house. At that time, my mother was not a big time enabler like her mother.  That role was still filled by my grandmother. Later, when my grandmother died, the role of “family protector” of the family bad boy fell to my mother and she changed her behavior 180 degrees and defended her brother from any criticism at all. She was quite punitive about it as well.

When my mother’s  aging led her to believe that she was not too many years from leaving this world, she started trying to groom me to take her place as the protector of the family bad boy…in this case now, since her brother had died,  the family bad boy was my son  Patrick. When I refused to do this, she became irate and tried to recruit my son Andrew’s wife to that role, and started buying her things to cement her being “beholden” to my mother. That seemed to work for a while until my DIL started  having an affair with the man my son Patrick sent to kill me and when her husband  discovered it, she and her boy friend decided to steal money from mom and kill my son Andrew. That didn’t work, and so my mother again lost her apprentice enabler.

Keeping the family “status quo” is very important to maintaining the equilibrium so that the family members remain “secure” and know what to expect from other family members. If a family member “breaks the rules” they are punished until they toe the family line, or leave. Sometimes they will leave instead of toe the line, sometimes they are cast out for not toeing it.

In families where there is grave dysfunction, if a family member tries to “get healthy,” by say, stopping drinking, the family will band together to actually covertly encourage them to resume the drinking.

In looking at your roles within your family you can start to see the dysfunctional parts of those relationships and work on getting “healthy.” In so doing though, be aware that those family members who are sent “off balance” by your changes in the way you relate to them may become very uncomfortable.

In order to be healthy, and to have a healthy family, we need to stop enabling if we are playing that role, we need to stop being the family “bad boy” if we are playing that role. Whatever our unhealthy roles are, we must stop them, even if it means that we are cast from or must leave the family unit as we know it. Changing the roles we play is difficult as it is ingrained in our thinking by the time we are adults. Living a different and more healthy life is problematic when all those closest to us try to drag us back down into the abyss, but it isn’t impossible.

Just as the drug addict or alcoholic must take life one day at a time to make changes, so must we when we are redefining the roles we choose.

Here are a couple of more links that you may find interesting in learning about roles we play in life and how stress in the family affects those roles.



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  7 Responses to “The roles we are assigned Family role theory

  1. Excellent article Joyce. Thank you for writing it.
    The examples you wrote, from your own family experiences, are particularly enlightening because I know they are true, but the behavior seems unbelievable.

    It seems unbelievable that people would choose to live that way, yet as you explained it, it makes sense. People feel off balance when the drama stops, so they have to find a way to fill the old roles and start up the drama again.

    It’s also unbelievable how long I played these roles in my own family. I was the family glue, the one who kept my siblings and my parents together. I took it upon myself to remind people of birthdays, inspire celebrations and collaborations. I rescued whomever needed to be rescued. It never would have occurred to me that taking all this responsibility would make me become the scapegoat as well. But that is what happens.

    I recently told my parents that my brother and sister did not attack me INSPITE OF all that I’ve done for them, rather they attacked me BECAUSE OF all that I’ve done for them. Good people tend to be hated by spaths. When I took on the role of sacrificer, it inspired them to help me finish the sacrifice PERMANENTLY.

  2. Yea, Skylar, it is amazing what happens when someone opts out of their “assigned family role.” It throws the entire family out of kilter because they don’t know what will happen if the person abandons the role.

    My mother assigned me the role of her companion and caregiver after she had discarded and devalued me because I found out what Patrick was and refused to go along with it.

    My DIL had taken care of her disabled son until he died, so she was no longer “tied down” doing the role of caregiver to her son, but she had no money of her own, and son Andrew and she had no savings…they could have had,but for her spending habits. She wanted out of the marriage so started the affair with Hamilton. When son Andrew discovered it he said “let’s go to counseling and work it out.” Her way of “working it out was to steal money from my mother, and buy guns and plot to kill Andrew. That of course didn’t work and my poor mother was flabbergasted that she and Hamilton had “broken the contract” and refused to be her caregiver 24/7 (and frankly she didn’t need 24/7 care when Hamilton stopped drugging her.

    When my grandmother died, I noticed the 180 degree change in my mother, who had not put up with Uncle Monster’s behavior before my grandmother’s death (except keeping it as secret as possible) but when granny died, mom immediately became the “peace at any price maker” and insisted that I go along with it. After he held my grandmother at gun point, I wanted NOTHING to do with him, and for holidays I would go somewhere else rather than eat a mom’s house with Uncle Monster there.. I explained to her that I couldn’t stand the sight of him…and mom would cry and carry o n about how I was “ruining her holiday” and because I didn’t “forgive” him (pretend none of that had happened) I was going to hell to burn forever.

    When he became terminally ill and out of his head, my mother was his POA and I helped her hire caregivers to live in his house until we had to transfer him to hospice. I advised her on how to meet his medical needs, etc.as a consultant role.

    At that point in his life he was not mentally competent or functional. His kids came to visit once or twice but except for visiting him in the hospital after he had brain surgery, they did not do much for him. Mom was quite frail at the time so I did advise her.

    It amazed me though how she was emotionally a basket case. He had an OLD dog that was unable to eat anything except wet food, and then she was still unable to walk or take care of herself and mom would not let me put her down for quite a time because she wasn’t sure what Uncle Monster would have wanted. She was even upset that she was spending 25 cents a can to feed the dog. DUH??? She was afraid he would be upset at such a big expense. DUH? After several weeks when the poor dog was covered with fly maggots, I got her to let me put her down, but I had to go to the vet and get injections of potassium choloride to inject directly into the dog’s heart, where a bullet would have been 35Cents, and the shot cost $50, plus, the bullet would have ended her life painlessly and the KCL directed into the heart hurt her. That episode made me realize just how emotionally invested in her role as his “protector” and whatever he wanted (even in his out of his head state) was what she would do and her anxiety about doing NOTHING to upset him was off the charts.

    When he started fighting his caregivers we had to put him into a hospice that could keep him from falling or hitting someone.–he wanted booze, cigarettes and a woman in that order. LOL

    His son, my first cousin, is now my mom’s POA, but that’s his choice. I think he does it out of obligation not because he wants to and he wrote a protest letter for Patrick’s parole hearing, AND when he found out mom wanted Patrick to come live with her, he went and got a concealed carry permit for a gun. But I figure it this way, I took care of his dad when he was ill, so I guess it should be tit for tat.

    I used to have some “guilt” about abandoning my mother, but that i s long gone now. There’s no need for me to feel guilty, SHE was the one who devalued me and discarded me, when she thought she had a replacement in my DIL, but that didn’t last of course, and so now she has hired house hold help and my cousin visits her from time to time, but not often. Neither of my other sons have spoken to her in 5 years either, so she made her choice and I’m sorry she did, but at the same time, I do feel empathy for the role she was assigned as the family enabler.

    She did everything she could to make be “beholden” to her and I refused her offers of money or favors. She is well aware of the concept of “being beholden” to someone who gives you things or does things for you, and aware that I was REFUSING to be beholden to her. I’ve often said I would eat out of a dumpster before I would ask her for food.

    At the time I refused my assigned role, I hurt very badly going against that assigned role, but at the same time, I realized what it would have done to me emtionally. The drama was more than I wanted to “pay” for “peace.”

  3. Joyce, I cannot describe how IMPERATIVE this discussion is in the course of healing and recovery. Whether we have a family member who is a convicted criminal, or have experienced family dysfunction and/or abuse, the impact of this discussion cannot be undervalued.

    I wholeheartedly agree with “assigned roles” and the “rules of play,” etc. I also agree that it is very painful to extract one’s Self from those dynamics – it takes tremendous courage and fortitude to even consider that option and much more is required to accomplish that goal.

    I identify with the price of peace within the dynamics, and I cannot afford to EVER pay that bill, again. Even in non-family relationships, these dynamics are pervasive (Triangle article), and this is no simple decision or challenge.

    Thank you so very much for posting this article and starting a much-needed discussion.

  4. I know they are long but I do hope that everyone will read the entire articles I listed, they are really VERY good even if they are very long. And yes, this is a important part of healing from ANY dysfunctional relationship. If you stop and think about it, we are aware at least on a limited basis in every day life because we “behave differently” in different situations…like we don’t behave the same way in church that we would at a tail gate party. LOL

    Just as “manners” are rules on how to behave in various situations we all take on a deeper roles within our lives and our relationships with others. What impels us to chose a role, or to accept the assigned role that becomes “US”? I wish I knew the answer to that.

    Skylar talks about the “scapegoat” and what the meaning of it is in her blog, but why THAT child and not some other one? Why does a child accept the “family bad boy” role and become a criminal? Is it partly biology and partly something else? My guess is that it is partly DNA and partly environment. But that’s just a guess on my part.

    Yea, there’s a lot to mull over here.

  5. Honestly. I have always been the bad guy and the scapegoat.I have taken on the family role since I was eight years old.Mt shoulders are always heavy with burden. I know now that I too to let that role go.I have put distance between my family and myself and taking it one day at a time. after m0thering since and protecting since I was eight,I know feel empty nest syndrome which I am sure will pass and I still have a lot of good family.I to have learned through my life that when people know that you do not want to be used at times they do discard you because you are of no more use to them.It has become a very selfish world to many and life is all about them and what they can gain from you.It could be happiness it could be time it could be money it could even be your soul.It is hard to leave this job when one is so trained for it.Being a protector is s hard job and it is a hard job to give up. I care for people but do now how to back off when I feel there is no appreciation just abuse. The only person that I have a hard time in drawing the help line is my daughter although I did finely tell her that I would not do any more finical help as long as the couch potato was on her sofa,I told her that I will not ever enable that man.Her oldest son is the scape goat in that family and it hurts him and myself so much but I have come to terms that she is the only one that can fix it and may God watch over and protect those boys they need all the guardian angles they can get. Joyce you have been a very busy women this summer great job.

    • Grandmother, it’s good to “see” you and I identify with the role of “protector” and “peacemaker.” I switched roles so often that a lot of my life was a blur.

      Good for you to set the boundary for what you will and will not tolerate!!! That’s a tremendous and courageous step! GOOD FOR YOU!!!

  6. Dear Grandmother, yep, pretty busy…stressed out pretty badly with the parole protest, but finally lay that burden down, gave it to my attorney and to God. I did all I could do and more, and now it is just time for me to trust in my prayers to a Just God and figure that He knows what is the best thing to do…He protected me when I was not depending on Him, and my faith is stronger now that I realized that.

    All we can do in some situations is like you have done, realize we have done ALL WE can do, and let the rest of it rest on HIS shoulders. Years ago when I first heard your story I felt your fear and pain for those grandchildren you love so much and realized that YOU WERE POWERLESS to do anything. Legally your daughter has the “carrot” and she is and has been using it as a stick to get you to do what SHE wants or she will jerk the carrot (contact with your grandchildren) away from you.. But the truth is that you ARE powerless in this situation legally, so the only option you have is to lay that burden down on God’s shoulders and to get on with YOUR life.

    That is the most difficult thing in the world to do. Back when I was trying to convince my mom that he had sent a man to kill us, that she believed was a godsend not a monster she would not listen to me, I begged, I cried, I pleaded and told her what I had found out, showed her rap sheets and sex offender registry and still she would not believe. I was terrified not only for my life, but for hers…she blew me off, called me a liar, and eventually I realized I could not continue to stay in danger because she would not listen. I fled my home and didn’t come back for some months after Hamilton was arrested. I did all I could do, Same with you Grandmother, you did all you could do but your daughter is dysfunctional (at best) and you are learning how to set boundaries. That’s a tough lesson that we must learn. I had to learn it myself and I still have to practice it and work hard on maintaining those boundaries.

    Glad to see you back and hope some of the stuff I have written over the summer while you were gone is helpful. You are always in my prayers.

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