8. Rigidity of Roles - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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8. Rigidity of Roles

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In both pseudo-mature roles mentioned, individuals develop highly valued behaviors that can be relatively if not exceedingly productive in many situations.  However, both the pseudo-mature roles and other typical harmful roles may lack the flexibility and fluidity that healthier individuals possess.  Rigidity of roles is another indicator for family-of-origin investigation.  Specifically, rigidity of roles persists for many individuals despite significant and harmful energy and pain needed to maintain them.  The hero or responsible and the nurturer roles are among other roles that can be beneficial to the individual and to the family (essortment.com, 2010).  The iconic family dysfunctional model is the alcoholic family system.  However, rigid roles often develop in other psychologically dysfunctional families as well.  The distracter role, specifically a comedic comment or behavior may distract the family from unbearable distress or imminent emotional or physical violence through humor.  An alternate distracter role is that of the mascot or cheerleader whose high energy or accomplishments allows the family to have some semblance of positivity to mute or distract from the otherwise enduring family unhappiness.  The scapegoat or rebel role in his or her defiant and trouble causing behavior gives the family an alternate target to blame for the family dysfunction, thus absolving out-of-control parents of responsibility they cannot tolerate.  The scapegoat or rebel is more likely to act out in school and in the family.  Eventually as he or she grows older, the scapegoat will openly challenge parental incompetence.  His or her behavior contrasts with the silent role where a child determines that he or she is essentially powerless to influence family dynamics.  He or she becomes the lost child in the family that demands little or no attention.  He or she expects little or nothing and gets it.

Each of these roles is beneficial for an individual and for a family or system when activated in the appropriate situation and time.  Being responsible, nurturing, breaking tension with humor or other energy, being silent or deferential, and even defiance to confront unhealthy processes can all be conducive at times to healthy individual and group processes.  Unfortunately, since these roles develop during childhood in response to highly stressful and traumatic family dynamics, the individual often does not have the insight, awareness, and hence the ability to discriminate what and what is not an appropriate situation and time.  Virtually any stressful situation that reflects similar experiences from the family-of-origin can trigger the habitual response, whether or not it mitigates or aggravates a problem.  The urgency of the family crises compelled the child to behavior that will persist to be ignited in adulthood unless the individual has successfully differentiated from the family-of-origin dynamics.  Such an individual with rigid role requirements cannot stop fixing, soothing, distracting, hiding, or rebelling even when the behavior becomes unnecessary or counter-productive.  In a family with less deterministic tendencies, each individual usually balances his or her personal tendencies or characteristics with gender and other cultural expectations to develop a relatively enduring personality.  More prescriptive cultural practices would tend towards more rigid behavior expectations.

"Rigidity in adherence to schemata is sometimes more pronounced when they are based in broad cultural belief systems that extend beyond schemata of the individual family of origin.  Thus, if a schema is modeled and reinforced within a family's cultural reference group (e.g., religion, ethnic culture), considering the possibility of modifying it may seem paramount to violating societal norms, core religious tenets, and so forth.  For example, certain cultures hold such strong views concerning male and female gender roles that they can be regarded as inviolable standards.  In intercultural marriages, this is an area that must be understood and accepted if the relationship is going to survive.  Therefore, partners' mutual sensitivity to cultural differences is extremely important, and yet it is not always an issue that is anticipated by young couples who fall in love.  After years of marriage, these differences can surface and create significant tension in the relationship" (Dattalio, 2006, page 371).  Greater cultural determinism or behavioral prescription is not in of itself dysfunctional.  However, when layered with inadequate parenting that leaves a child to fill in for the missing adult's functioning, there would result a much greater tendency for rigid roles.  Dattalio's warning to attend to cultural differences in intercultural marriages should be expanded by considering that any pairing of two individuals result in an intercultural relationship even when they seem demographically identical.  Aside from an incestuous pairing of two siblings, any two people come from two distinct families where role expectations can differ in critical ways.  It would be arguable that even the hypothetical incestuous pair would have unique experiences or roles from the same family.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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