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Adam Blatner, M.D.

First posted August 3, 2005, re-posted 10/05/2011
    (An earlier version of this article was published in 1985, in the 1st and 2nd spiral-bound editions of my personally published (at that time) general text, Foundations of Psychodrama. However, it wasn't included in the later 3rd or 4th editions published in 1988 and then 2000 by Springer Publishing Company. Here I offer it again as a supplement to the chapters on role theory in Foundations.) (Revised slightly and re-posted, August 2, 2002)   The other part of this earlier chapter, "Looking at Relationships," is also published elsewhere on this website as Our Social Being-ness.)
In another paper, "Our Social Being-ness," I wrote about how human beings are embedded in networks of relationships at many levels. Within many of these relationships, there are not just one, but several interacting roles. A husband may share the roles of sexual lover and co-home-maintenance, co-parent and co-financial support, and many other roles. Thus, many roles are complex, especially those which involve our major relationships and jobs. And when even minor ones become problematic, it's usually because there are some conflicts regarding different role components. Part of creative problem-solving, then, involves naming these sub-roles and role components, and, if necessary, continuing the analysis to focus on the sub-components of the components, how they are defined, what are the implicit expectations, etc.

The term for breaking down something into its parts is "analysis," and it doesn't have to mean psychoanalysis. Roles can be analyzed too, and because the role concept is so easily understood, it makes for a far handier and more practical approach to psychology.

Analyzing a Complex Role Relationship: A Marital Problem as an Example

John and Jane have been married twenty-five years, and they are now in middle age. They've been feeling some tension between them, but they haven't been clear what the issues are. Instead of allowing themselves to degenerate into bickering about things that they would ordinarily overlook, or to avoid the problem in a variety of non-constructive ways ranging from escape into addiction to psychosomatic illness, they choose to face the situation head on. They sit down together and with paper and pen, diagram their relationship, listing the roles, something like this: Fig. 1:

Then they review which roles seem to be going well and which roles seem to have become problematical. Those which deserve further attention are then analyzed by breaking them down into their components. For instance, the role of sharing household tasks contains such implicit or explicit themes as: who decides who does what; how is it decided; what is the actual division of duties; what are the standards for the performance of each task; and so forth. The issues are complex and reflect a number of personal variables such as interests, temperament, and cultural background. Each situation must be diagramed to reflect that unique relationship. One of the reasons this approach works is that it helps the participants get away from their tendency to talk or argue in generalities and instead focus on concrete examples.

In the marriage we are describing, for example, let us suppose that the most relevant recent issue for John and Jane has been in the area of money matters. If that role component could be magnified, almost as if we were using a "role microscope," the aspect of money matters is also affected by a number of variables. Each of these could be named and discussed.

Yet even this may not suffice to give a clear enough picture of what is going wrong, and whichever role component seems to be a point of friction needs to be broken down even further, so those elements can be defined clearly. Thus, in analyzing the issues regarding money matters in this hypothetical marriage, let us say Jane is uncomfortable with the way John spends money. Analysis of the components reveals that she comes from a background of being quite poor as a child; but their present economic class is shifting from a lower-middle income into a significantly higher tax bracket; and John's temperament is such that he spends more freely than his wife is comfortable with. In addition they have some special difficulties regarding their style of communications. These issues could be diagramed further to reveal the various sub-components of these roles (Left, Fig.2):

And in turn, each of these sub-components have sub-sub-components, or variables or factors that affect how these sub-components are expressed  Even these elements can be analyzed further. In the example of this marriage, a discussion of the sub-component relating to their communication patterns reveals that Jane is relatively nonassertive, because she lacks confidence (partly based on the fact that she never graduated high school); also she has accepted the cultural cliche of being somewhat unquestioning about finances as her definition of the role of a proper wife; the fact that John is also several years Jane's senior tends to reinforce her tendency to passively defer to him. Still, she is uncomfortable about how much money is being spent and it's beginning to come out in indirect ways; and she's not altogether conscious of this as a distinct issue.

Another problem in the marriage is that John has had some symptoms which suggest that he might need a medical check-up , and in fact he's expressed his concern about his health. When Jane picks up on this, though, John then denies there's a problem and instead of giving his wife the detailed reassurances she needs, he teases and offers glib responses. Her response is to feel he's making fun of her and she begins angrily nagging him. Again, they aren't clear about these issues and John has not understood why Jane has become so touchy (Right, Fig 3:):

The Dance of Relationships

Of course, all these role relationship categories and other variables are in constant flux, as is very roughly diagramed in the picture (Figure 4, Left). Part of the art of living creatively is to appreciate some of these variables, perhaps learn how to comment on them with the other person in the relationship, work out new, more effective arrangements. All this is only possible if you know the types of variables involved. There is immense variablility in which categories are more relevant in which sub-role relationship. Some may be worked out well, others still unresolved. For most people, these subtleties remain unconscious. Identifying them, naming them, allows you to begin to work with them more consciously.


Each component and sub-component of the roles in most relationships can be methodically analyzed, and this approach introduces a structure and obvious rationale to the often seemingly ambiguous process of trying to figure out what causing a sense of friction. It has the advantage of demystifying the process. Role analysis also can be used for diagnosing problems at work or in organizations; for clarifying issues in families, such as the re-distribution of roles when one of the people go to work or retire; or in classrooms, to understand the dynamics of relationships in social studies, anthropology, or family studies.

 It should also be noted that these diagrams change with the general situation, such as when a marriage shifts from everyday styles of living together to having the husband's employer and his wife over to dinner. Illness or some other major event can also lead to significant changes in the way roles are performed, and it's helpful to make these conscious and explicit, so that re-negotiations can help prevent the build-up of feelings of resentment or confusion.


Blatner, A. (1985). Looking at relationships (Chapter 11), in Foundations of Psychodrama (2nd ed.). San Marcos, TX: Author.

Blatner, A. (2000). Foundations of Psychodrama: History, Theory & Practice (4th ed.). New York: Springer.

Hale, Ann E. (1975). The role diagram expanded. Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama, 28, 77-104.

Hale, A.E. (1981). Conducting Clinical Sociometric Explorations: A Manual for Psychodramatists and Sociometrists. Roanoke, VA: Author.