Relationship Clarity, One Role at a Time

Originally posted as a guest blog on Tamarisk Saunders-Davies site

I was so excited when Tamarisk invited me to guest blog on my favorite topic, relationships. However, when she suggested this phrase as a potential topic:

“Relationships succeed or fail one conversation at a time”

I felt pressure. Not only because I wanted to bring something new to the table, but also because it’s intense to think of conversations as having that much power. Moreover, the phrase brings up the memory of Dan.

Dan and my one-year friendship ended seemingly because of one phone conversation in which I raised my voice and he hung up on me. I never heard from Dan again.

Ever have one of those? I felt heartbroken about it, pouring over the details of every word of that last fight, looking for the answers to what went wrong.

But nothing really clicked until I discovered that our roles as platonic friends had become all jumbled together with other roles that we had not consciously or carefully selected. Roles like therapist (we loved to analyze and challenge each other), potential mate (a large age difference kept us from really exploring this but not from trying it on) and sibling (our beloved therapists were friends).
This lack of clarity opened the door to all sorts of projections, distortions, overcharged interactions and ultimately our demise.

My experience with Dan made me think twice before getting heated in conversation again, but I knew that simply holding my tongue or lowering my volume would not prevent relationship meltdowns in the future.

There is a lot of solid advice out there about good communication, but you may have noticed that these guidelines can fly out the window when one is emotionally triggered. In addition, raised voices, criticism and all the no-no’s of healthy conversation can actually be effective ways of communicating in certain roles. For example, when my girlfriend criticized my dress, it hurt my feelings. But when a photographer recently criticized my outfit, I was relieved. She was doing her job and helping me to look my best for that particular shoot.

Raised, angry voices don’t usually work in friendships, but can be extremely effective for sports coaches. Since roles really determine the types of conversations you can have, I want to encourage you to get crystal clear on your roles in your relationships, because no matter how good your communication skills are, when roles get confused, crazy comes to play.

Think about how this is true in your lives. What happens when your boss acts more like your friend than your boss? Do you know or have you ever been part of a couple who acts less like equal partners and more like a parent and child?

The other day, I overheard a mother and her 16-year-old daughter fighting in a dressing room over the same outfit. Crrrrazy! When mothers act like siblings, conversations will surely lead to relationship failure.

How can you avoid role confusion, and the ensuing conversations that will slowly kill a relationship?

1. Establish What The Relationship Is About. Have you ever sat down and really thought about the purpose of each of your close relationships? And have you ever dared to engage in a conversation with a loved one about what your relationship is really based on, what functions it serves?

Brenda and Rob were chronic fighters and all their friends loathed it, which finally became embarrassing enough for them to seek help. Without a clear understanding of what their marriage was for, they filled the void with fights. They had to reestablish the purpose of their marriage, which was initially about giving and receiving love. They got very specific about what that actually meant, and after three months, they are going out with their friends again, who are relieved and inspired by their changes.

2. When Things Get Wiggy, Update! When you know and remember what your relationship is for, it is easier to heed the signals when things go astray. Because a course has been established, you can more clearly feel when things are off track. When this happens, it may be time to re-evaluate. People grow. Roles shift.

24-year-old Anna was constantly irritated by frequent conversations with her mother, in which her mother’s inquisitiveness felt invasive and infantilizing. Anna realized that after leaving home, she and her mother had not established a new relationship, and neither knew how to act or what the relationship was about anymore. Anna decided that being connected to her mother was very important to her, and felt her task as an adult was to stay in touch. Although she did not share these insights with her mother, she began to schedule times to talk briefly but attentively with her mother, and initiated conversations that interrupted her mother’s rapid fire questioning. They now get along very well, and over a course of a few years have become good friends.

3. Keep Things Sane with Outrageous Clarity: Does getting role clarity mean you can’t be in more than one role with one person? No. You just have to be super duper clear and upfront about what the roles are, which roles come first, and when.

If you’re a consultant and decide to help your lover with his business project, it is wise to establish the new role beforehand and make sure you are not trespassing with your expertise into sensitive areas. You also will want to decide when to turn off being the advisor and the business talk, lest you continue operating from a power imbalance that leads to fighting long after the official business is through.

Want to make your relationships succeed? Get clear on your roles first. The conversations will follow suit.

And whether you are clear, confused or in the crazy zone, Love Yourself No Matter What.

5 responses to “Relationship Clarity, One Role at a Time”

  1. Wendy says:

    Thanks for this insightful article. What you’re saying speaks to developing sensitivity towards ourselves and one another. There are such subtle ways of communicating ones needs and wants in a relationship. It’s easy to misunderstand and get derailed. I always appreciate the honesty you show in sharing examples from your life.

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Thanks Wendy! I so appreciate your reading and commenting. I find that if I am really clear on the role the person plays in my life, communicating needs and wants becomes much easier. When I am not clear, everything feels more muddled and risky.

  2. Blair,

    I am struck and inspired by your post. I also feel, that this really needs to be discussed and dissected in depth, not only in my own personal situations and roles but to continue to grow to #bealeader.

    There is so much I would like to ask, but your post really opened a flood of questions and thoughts and it will take a bit to sort them out… Thank you for this. (I’m glad you cringed!)

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Hi Amber,
      Thanks for reading and for your honest response. I love to talk about roles and relationships so at any point if you want to dialogue, do let me know! Looking forward to getting to know you more through #bealeader.

  3. Alli Polin says:

    Blair,

    Such a great post! “When roles get confused, crazy comes to play” OMG – so true! Also true that when one person either senses a shift in the relationship or is trying to shift power in a relationship things go awry. The best thing is to get really clear – and really explicit. Your examples are a great illustration of what’s going on beyond the words.

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