Role Models in Relationships: help or hinderance?

“Role models are highly important for us psychologically, helping to guide us through life during our development, to make important decisions that affect the outcome of our lives, and to help us find happiness in later life”. Mark Thomas, The Importance of Role Models (2015)

Role models are like a long shadow quietly following behind you on a hot summer afternoon, silent but steadily with you wherever go. They are relevant in our intimate relationships as they can subtly inform many of our ideas and perceptions towards our partners, and as such they warrant some closer scrutiny.  As discussed in the previous article in this series about role models, they represent an example that we learn from, often admire and can thus imitate in our adult relationships. This gives role models a lot more sway then people often consciously realise, which can then go on to help or hinder current or new relationships, be it with a partner, friend or family member.

A friend of mine recently relayed a story which illustrated the shrewd presence of role models well. One Sunday morning, lying in bed, she had a smug grin on her face, hearing her partner turning on the kettle, she waited for coffee and breakfast in bed. This dreamy scenario quickly faded away, as she then saw the cheeky bugger sitting in the sun outside, drinking his own cup of coffee with the paper. Saying to me, how dare he have the audacity to not bring me coffee in bed when he is already making his own. Other than the obvious difference between the ways men and women often think, this situation pointed towards role models. Here was a situation where she was genuinely disappointed and shrugging his shoulders he simply said, I thought you would make coffee when you got up. It illustrates how far apart partners’ conceptualisation of ‘the right thing’ to do can be. These patterns of thinking often lead the way back to the examples we model ourselves on, imitate and what we expect.

In some instances, role models create strong and needed guidelines, and in others, can lead us astray, and create unattainable expectations. The mother of all evil is not money, but rather the elusive idea of expectations. With no expectations one cannot be disappointed, but this is not to say that one should have no standards. Quite the contrary, what we learn versus who we want to become and play out in our present day lives, becomes a balancing act between acknowledging the healthy models of behaviour instilled in us and letting go of irrelevant and negative images and experiences.  Research has shown that one of the reasons why role models are so important is that in order to do something ourselves, we need to first believe that it can be done and secondly, that we can do it (Darling, 2012). And this is where role models can have an enchanted power to propel us forward as they show us both.

Role models help us in the formation of relationships, because they give us a learnt behaviour to follow. In some ways they can provide a map for us to follow. For example, one can think that because I saw my father treat my mother with respect and care, I now expect and model my partner in a similar manner. In this way it is positive and can teach us the positive boundaries and ways we would like to be treated. If taken too far however, this can build up fairy tales which result in expecting to get breakfast in bed on a silver tray. This is not to say, that one should not be spoilt and adored by your partner, but you must be open to different ways of experiencing and expressing affection, learning each other’s language of love.

Other than creating unfair expectations, role models can hinder relationships if built on negative examples that we then learn to imitate. Fortunately, when looking closely at what your own memories, experiences and role models were, you can choose what you would like to grow in your present life, and what elements need to be thrown out, with the cold coffee. Having bad role models does not mean that one is stuck in a negative relationship pattern, and it can often rather be an inspiration for tremendous personal growth and development.

By putting role models on the table for discussion, be honest and ask yourself what you have learnt from your own role models, and what parts of that are positive or negative today. Take it apart, and then build it back together, using life experiences, honesty and the inspiration for healthy, fulfilled relationships, to create a role model that encourages you to be the best you, and so allows your partner to be the best version of them too, be that with a Sunday morning latte in bed or not.



I Could Do That: Why Role Models Matter. Darling, N. 2012. Psychology Today.