By Anna McKenzie

If you’ve had a troubled relationship history, you may start to wonder if a good relationship is possible for you. You might think that there are no “good ones” out there anymore, or you may sink into self-doubt, wondering what is wrong with you. But running down the rabbit trail of blame and despair is unproductive, and it can be harmful to you — especially if you’re in recovery.

As you consider getting into another relationship, you may be asking the question, “What does a healthy, loving relationship even look like?” The truth is, you may not have seen or experienced one before. Many people have unhealthy relationship patterns because they learned them from what they saw modeled by the adults in their lives; they may have experienced attachment issues from an early age and those followed them into adulthood. Escaping an unhealthy pattern will require you to become more self-aware, so you can learn to spot the differences between what’s healthy and what’s not.

The Roles People Play

We all play certain roles in our relationships. Because none of us are perfect (or have perfect families), we all tend toward playing certain types of roles because we are seeking fulfillment we did not receive as children. Within a relationship, partners tend to play opposing roles to achieve balance.

For example, two very dependent people will struggle in a relationship because they both need a caregiver. In order for the relationship to survive, one person must become the caregiver. If not, the dependent partners will seek a caregiver outside of the relationship, and the relationship itself will break down.

Roles we tend to play in relationships:

  • Caregiver
  • Dependent
  • Persecutor
  • Rescuer
  • Victim
  • Enabler
  • Agitator
  • Pacifier
  • Parent
  • Child

Familiar roles are the ones we play the most. The tendency we have to play a familiar role usually comes from our family history, cultural context, and personal experiences. We may even assume that a familiar role is part of our identity, which makes it much harder to play any other role. If you have been victimized, it is familiar to you to play the role of victim (even if you do not wish to play that role). In playing the role of victim, you may attract a partner who is a rescuer — or a persecutor. When your identity is tied to a certain role, you will continue to play that role, even if it’s harmful to you or attracts harmful partners.

In unhealthy relationships, playing a role tied to your identity can lead to damaging cycles that are difficult to break out of. Your partner will continue to play the opposing role, seeking their own compensation for needs that were not met earlier in life. To change this pattern in a relationship, roles must be redefined. If a role is connected to a person’s ego, confidence, or self-esteem, changing roles can be very difficult.

The Problem with Identity-Based Roles in Relationships

The problem with playing a role in order to meet certain needs you’ve had from earlier in life is that your partner is only human. No matter how hard you try — or how hard they try — that person cannot provide the fulfillment you’re seeking. This is a difficult truth, but it is also very liberating.

When you are fighting to get your needs met in a way that is tied to your identity and your partner is doing the same, it can lead to:

  • Major conflicts that escalate and don’t resolve
  • Physical and emotional abuse
  • A need for control that manifests itself in bad habits or negative coping mechanisms
  • Bitterness and resentment
  • Over-attachment or complete detachment

When you understand that another person can’t give you the satisfaction you are desperately looking for, you can start to make changes within yourself that will not only help you find personal balance but attract partners who are balanced as well.


Letting Go of the Roles You Once Played

Individuals who can create and sustain healthy relationships have reached a point where they no longer need to play a certain role in order to feel good about themselves or their identity. Healthy relationships are marked by mutuality, meaning that those in the relationship give and take at an equal level, with complementary strengths that supplement the other’s weaknesses. Mutuality comes from having the same level of personal maturity.

When you are in a healthy relationship, you may continue to play roles sometimes. However, you will be independent from the need to play a certain role in order to feel satisfied, loved, or fulfilled. When you are secure in a healthy identity, your self-esteem remains intact even when you experience conflict or a lack of balance. You can take or leave a role more easily and regain relational balance with less effort.

Healthy Relationship Signs

Here are a few signs that you’re in a healthy relationship:

  • You and your partner demonstrate mutual care for each other. In a healthy relationship, partners mutually and genuinely care for each other without ulterior motives. They look out for the other’s interests, not just their own well-being.
  • You accept your partner’s differences instead of conforming to them or trying to change them. When you are not dependent on another person to meet a need they cannot possibly meet, you remove a major burden from yourself and that person. You are free to accept that person for who they truly are. You don’t feel the need to change in order to accommodate your partner — or to change your partner to accommodate your own needs.
  • You feel the freedom to leave but commit because you want to (not because you feel compelled to).In a consistently toxic relationship, you may not feel free to leave because you are still trying to get their needs met — or you fear the other person’s reaction. In a healthy relationship, you feel the freedom to leave, but committing is a choice you make willingly. You don’t feel compelled to stay; you actually want to.

How to Attract a Healthy Partner

In order to attract a healthy partner who has let go of their old roles, you must learn how to let go of your old roles. This may necessitate exploring the roles you’ve played in the past. Chances are, you had a good reason — but just like the coping mechanisms we create in childhood, old roles do not serve us in adulthood.

We need to find out what patterns of behavior are no longer helping us but are instead hindering us from having great relationships. 

You deserve to be in a relationship where you are respected and loved. In order to get into this kind of relationship, you must first respect and love yourself. You must learn how to respect and love others and treat them with compassion, not simply as people who can meet your needs, but as people who are valuable just because of who they are. There are no perfect people or perfect relationships — you will always be a work in progress. But you do not have to continue the pattern of damage and disappointment that you may have experienced in the past.

Treatment for Sex Addiction and Co-occurring Disorders at Gentle Path

At Gentle Path, we provide intensive treatment for men who are struggling with sex addiction co-occurring disorders, and emotional trauma. We treat every person with compassion and respect, equipping them to break free from destructive patterns and harmful coping mechanisms. With our multi-faceted, comprehensive program, we offer men the resources, therapies, and tools they need to recover from addiction and create healthy relationships. If you or a loved one is seeking treatment for these conditions, please get in touch with our team today. We would love to tell you more about our program and help you get started on the path to recovery.