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How Others Need Us

Roles in Relationships

written by Robert Taibbi February 13, 2020
How Others Need Us

One measure of our lives is not how we see ourselves but how others see us. More specifically, how others need us, and the roles we play in the relationships that we create. We can think of these roles spanning a continuum from the greatest amount of power and control to the weakest. Here are some of the common ones:

White Knight

You to the rescue. Here is where others look to you to hold them up, bail them out, take over when they are overwhelmed, and make things right.

What drives this:

You may take on this role because it is part of your values — the helping of others — but there also may be the allure of being needed.

Downside:

The relationship is unbalanced. The danger is that you get burned out, that you don’t feel appreciated, or that they eventually outgrow you, leaving you alone and looking for someone else to save.

The Go-to Dependable Helper

You’re the guy everyone always hits up to be on that church committee, to run the bake sale for the PTA, to be the assistant coach for the kids’ soccer team.

What drives this:

Unlike the white knights, you’re not saving anyone, but like them, helping may be part of your values and feeling needing may draw you in. You also may have a difficult time saying no and setting boundaries, and you may not like having anyone be upset with you.

Downside:

Burnout, and periodic resentment because you’re doing the heavy lifting when others are not, or because everyone seems to take you for granted.

Answer Man (or Woman): The Decision-maker

Others turn to you for your knowledge, your leadership, your ability to be the final word on big decisions.

What drives this:

There are several variations. In the most positive version, others respect you and see you as a sage because of your experience and/or age. Or others come to you because they see you as a drill sergeant who is in control and runs a tight ship, and they are afraid to make independent decisions. Or in a milder version, they are not afraid, but through your attitude and direction, you have trained others to be dependent on you.

Downside:

You get control at the cost of having to be responsible for and often essentially do it all. Like the others, you can get burned out, resentful, or upset when others leave because they are tired of your control and/or outgrow you.

Confidant

You’re easy to talk to and to open up to, and people share their secrets and troubles with you. You don’t offer wisdom as much as honest and healing listening.

What drives this:

Empathy comes with your personality. Like the others, your values include helping others. You appreciate the intimacy.

Downside:

Like white knights, relationships can be unbalanced, and intimacy may be one-sided. You give, but maybe you don’t get or at least don’t get much.

Balanced Intimacy

Here there is give and take, helping and being helped are relatively balanced, and intimacy is two-sided.

What drives this:

A desire for balance, an ability to be sensitive to others but able to set boundaries; there is not the strong need to be in charge, be in control, be important.

Downsides:

None.

Not Needed

Now we reach the other end of the spectrum: People don’t seem to need you.

What drives this:

People don’t see you as reliable, or they believe that you are too preoccupied with your own issues or needy. Or you seem to put up emotional walls and set firm boundaries, creating a sense of self-sufficiency and detachment that keeps others from approaching you.

Downside:

You too are in unbalanced relationships in which you take but don’t give much back, which causes resentment and burnout in others, while your dependency on others makes you fearful of their pulling away. And if you adopt the self-sufficiency stance you may avoid the burnout or resentment of the other roles, but at the cost of isolation and a lack of true intimacy.

Can you be in more than one role?

Of course. You are, for example, undoubtedly the decision-maker for your children, especially when they are young. You may step in and be the white knight when there is a crisis with a sibling or parent. You may be the one in charge in a company filled with inexperienced employees. But what we’re looking at is larger patterns. When you look back over your past and current relationships, what are their roles that you seem to continuously fall into? Are the downsides outweighing the upsides? Is it time for a change?

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