Role models in Relationships: Who and what are role models?

A role model is a figure ‘looked to by others as an example to be imitated’; an inspirational ideal. This can certainly have positive impact, however, depending on who we role model, it can also have negative outcomes. In this series, we will explore the concept of role models in relationships.

Let’s first look at why they are important. Role models form an important part of our character development, emotional patterns and expectations, and so play significant roles in our adult relationships. They are often a starting point for our ideals, although, this can lead to idealistic expectations and heightened demands that are not necessarily attainable. Taking a closer look at our role models can help us see the flaws in our perceptions and viewpoints that have been modelled in unhealthy and inappropriate patterns. Later in the series, we will look at ways to adapt to a more realistic measuring stick.

According to Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (McLeod, 2011), people learn behaviours from the environment around them through a process of observational learning. Role models then come from influential people in our environment, from our ‘besties’ to our childhood heroes, your father or your grandmother, people we admire become part of what we see as a role model in our future and current relationships. Even fictional characters from books and movies can play a part. This is one of the dangers in the media’s common portrayal of stereotypical male heroes or weak feminine princesses. It can be risky in the building up of an ideal, Mr. Darcy may not arrive in the rain with a carriage to rescue you. In society we are frequently exposed to negative models and in contrast, standards of perfect men and woman with fairy-tale endings. These are obviously not an accurate image of the struggles that are part of real human relationships, as anyone who has been in one knows. Role models should be created on real foundations such as trustworthiness, honesty, kindness and humour.

Males and females, as with just about everything else, have different processes in the creation of role models in relationships and ideals they want. Traditionally, men modelled themselves on the ideal of an all-powerful leader and hero that needs to be strong under all conditions, with “boys don’t cry” ringing in the background. This can be very damaging to our relationships as can result in modelling one’s behaviour on being emotionally inaccessible, but healthy relationships need open and honest communication and emotional connection to grow.

Women, alternatively, can have the image of the domesticated female imprinted on them from societal and historical ideals, the blushing rose, beautiful but subdued. This in turn encourages the all –powerful male ideal, while undermining the empowered and independent woman. But what happens when the female is the main bread winner? Research has shown that conflict can arise in this situation as males can feel emasculated, based on the idea of leader and provider, and the woman can feel resentful, for pulling the extra weight. Fortunately today, as gender roles become more liberated and we are encouraged in our individuality, rather than antiquated ideas from centuries past, this is becoming less prevalent. However, this does demonstrate the subtle nature of role-models and how they can cause the undoing of otherwise solid partnerships.

The good news about role models, both positive and negative ones, is that they are not set in stone. Rather they are adjustable. Examining your own history and understanding who you look up to and why, can provide a space for personal development and growth. Each of us has the freedom to work towards developing well-balanced and new patterns of functioning in relationships.

Role models are a powerful force that are often unseen, but frequently can be an image or pattern that we imitate in intimate relationships. By examining and engaging with what we admire and model our relationships on, we are empowered to create our own, not past ones imprinted on us, but rather one carefully constructed to reflect more mature, adult values, morals and ideals.



McLeod, S.A. (2011). Bandura – Social Learning Theory. Retrieved from

Hepper, E. G. & Carnelley, K.b. (2012). Attachment and romantic relationships: The role of models of self and other. In M. Paludi (Ed), The psychology of love (Vol. 1, pp. 133-154). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.