Relationship Roles

This blog by Alison Jenaway explains more about the idea of reciprocal roles and how this concept is used in cognitive analytic therapy.

Split second judgements

Have  you ever made a split second judgement about someone before even talking to them? I once went on a Buddhist silent retreat and started to hate the person next to me because of the way she wrapped her blanket around her. Later on, when we got talking on the train on the way home, I discovered that I really quite liked her. My initial judgement will have been based on a gut feeling that I was not even aware of in terms of conscious, deliberate, thought.

As humans, we live in a complex world where we come across many new strangers every day. Walking around the supermarket, travelling on the bus, jogging in the park, we need to make quick assessments about people. Are they safe? Are they like me? Who do they remind me of?

In cognitive analytic therapy (CAT) we think about this as comparing this new person, and how they behave, with our expectations of relationships. We instantly try to match up the person with a “template” that we have learned growing up. We automatically internalise this template so that it has become a part of our personality.

Reciprocal roles

In CAT these templates are called reciprocal roles as they invite people to play out the expected reciprocal, or return gesture, of the role that is being presented to us. I prefer to call them relationship roles as the term reciprocal roles makes them sound more complicated than they are.

For example, if I came up to you with my hand outstretched, as if to shake your hand in greeting, the expected reciprocal, return role would be for you to shake my hand back. If you did not do this, and instead kept your arms tightly crossed, I would feel quite awkward. It would feel as if you were rejecting me. This would be like moving from an initial expected template of “greeting-to-greeted” to a new template of “rejecting-to-rejected”. In CAT, we might draw out these roles like this:

CAT diagram showing reciprocal (or relationship) roles linked to Alsion Jenaway's blog on this topic

This might not bother me too much if my expectations of people were generally positive. I might just think you were a bit odd and did not like shaking hands. I would think about changing my usual way of greeting you if I met you again.

However, I might have grown up with a lot of rejection in my life, and learned to expect people would behave that way towards me. Then I might have a really strong reaction to you refusing to shake my hand. I might think “here we go again, I am going to be rejected as usual”. This might then guide my future responses towards you. I might turn away and avoid you.  Or I might reject you right back. We will both be caught up in the roles of “rejecting-to-rejected”, with my template getting stronger than ever.

When meeting another new person, I would feel anxious about shaking hands,and fearful that the same thing will happen to me. I would expect to be rejected yet again. I might change my behaviour because of this and people may start to see me as shy or stand-offish.

Exploring roles in therapy

My experience of relationships becomes my internal expectation of how a relationship will be, and this then guides the way I react to people. These loops of thoughts, feelings and behaviour are repeated many times each day. They can easily become established as vicious cycles. However if we are able to pause for a moment and reflect on them, it is possible to see them as a way that we have learnt to behave, rather than who we truly are.

In CAT therapy, the therapist is interested in exploring together with you what your ‘default’ templates are. The relationship you have with the therapist starts to develop the moment you make contact with each other. This too can reveal some of these templates or expectations.

As a therapist I might be picking up early on that a particular client apologises a lot, that they want me to take the lead and guide the conversation. They might say that they are “happy to come anytime that suits me”. I will already be wondering if they have learnt to be passive or please the other person in relationships. I will be thinking perhaps they have grown up in relationships where that was expected of them. Did a dominant person rule the whole household and other family members were expected just to obey? Or were they bullied at school? Did they try to avoid being bullied again by always giving in and keeping the other person happy?

Trying to meet the other person’s needs in a relationship makes perfect sense when you are growing up and do not have much power to build healthy relationships on your terms. However, if you keep doing that as an adult, you may find yourself in relationships that do not work for you in the longer term. You may end up feeling just as dominated and bullied as you did as a child. It might be hard to feel you can have a voice. Perhaps you don’t even know what you want as you are so used to submitting to what the other people want. So these relationship roles may work in the short term but can have negative effects and work against you in the long run.

Part of CAT therapy is to try to draw out the relationship roles that come most naturally to you so that you can think about what consequences they have and how helpful they are in the long run. You may come to therapy already knowing about some of your roles. Others may become more clear as you explore the story of your life so far with the therapist.

Lastly, the therapist may share with you their own experience of being in a relationship with you. This can feel very unusual and sometimes a bit uncomfortable. However it can be a powerful piece of information that you are not likely to get from your real world relationships, or at least not in a calm way that can be thought about.

Drawing out these roles in a CAT diagram or map can make it easier to see them as they happen in the real world and in the therapy room. Seeing the patterns more clearly makes it possible to start exploring and experimenting with ways to change them.

Before returing, Dr Alison Jenaway was a Consultant Psychiatrist in Psychotherapy in the Liaison Psychiatry Service in Cambridge. She is a CAT therapist and supervisor and has been using CAT for around 20 years.  She is a past Chair of the national Association for Cognitive Analytic Therapy

Relationship Roles by Alison Jenaway for ACAT
CC BY-SA 4.0