Saturday, March 15, 2008

All the world's a stage

This is the text of my That's Men column published in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 11th March 2008. A collection of That's Men columns will be published by Veritas this summer.

Have you ever spotted a young man and woman walking along of an evening and realised that they were on their first date? Assuming you were right, how could you have known that?

it is because they were playing a role you recognised. They were well scrubbed up. Although they were talking to each other and perhaps even joking there was a slight formality and unease about them. Each was on parade, under scrutiny by the other.

If such a couple goes on to get married, they often begin to play different roles. One may take on the role of being feckless, or domineering for instance. The other may nag or be compliant. One may be playful and the other may be serious. One may drink too much and the other may play the part of caretaker.

Neither necessarily enjoys his or her role and neither necessarily realises what is going on.

Then perhaps something fundamental changes. One goes off on a personal development course, or maybe just off the rails, and begins to play a completely different role. Maybe the compliant person becomes assertive. Maybe the nagging person quits giving out and leaves the other to get on with it. Maybe the drinker gives up the booze and becomes a health freak.

Changes like this can shake up a relationship no end - sometimes terminally.

The roles we play with each other are described by a theory called Transactional Analysis. According to this theory each of us, right now, is probably playing one of three roles: parent, adult or child.

You are behaving like a parent when you give out or lay down the law or act in a nurturing and loving way. You are behaving like an adult when you are logical, and reasonable. And you are behaving like a child when you are mischievous or playful or sulky or whiney.

If you and your partner are sitting there giving out about the bus service or Bertie or the HSE you are having a parent to parent conversation.

If one is talking down to the other, accusing them of being irresponsible, of wasting money, of never keeping the house tidy, then you are having a parent to child conversation.

So given are we to role-playing that if you are being treated like a child, there is a good chance you will behave like one – so you might respond to your bossy partner by storming off or whinging or whining or sulking. Similarly, if one partner actually wants to behave like a child, the other may very well take on the role of parent.

How would you stop this game playing? The advice from the Transactional Analysis people is to drop the complementary role.

So when you are being talked down to by someone in parent mode you could respond, not like a child, but like an adult talking to an adult. "If you have something to say to me I would be grateful if you would address me like an adult,” could be an adult response to someone in full parent mode. And when they say, as they will, “I’ll talk to you like an adult when you start behaving like one,” you could walk very calmly out of the room saying something like, “I’m behaving like an adult right now and when you’re ready to do the same, let me know.” By the way, if you’re in a relationship in which it’s dangerous to act like an adult, you might be in the wrong relationship.

But couples also get locked into parent to parent communications with each other and that can be stultifying, especially if the kids have grown up.

Their main topic of conversation is still the children who may be off on the other side of the planet. Worse, the “children” or one of them may be in the living-room on a permanent basis, having taken out a 99-year lease on the family sofa. The parents may grumble about this but actually the son or daughter who refuses to leave may be helping them, the parents, to continue their parenting role. If they want something better for themselves they need to step out of that role.

In that case, one of the partners might need to start acting like a child by coming up with fun things to do or just by refusing to take life quite as seriously as before.

They might even consider dating each other again. They might consider getting scrubbed up and walking out like they did on that first date. If reviving your winning performances works for ageing rock stars, it can work for you.

No comments: