Molnos, A. (1998): A psychotherapist's harvest

ROLE REVERSAL

In a strict sense role reversal means inverting the roles of people who are in a reciprocal role relationship (e.g. parent/child, teacher/pupil, therapist/patient). Many mothers who had been themselves deprived children unconsciously reverse the roles with their infant so that the latter becomes his mother's attachment figure and caregiver. The resulting inverted relationship ensures that the problem is perpetuated over the generations.

A patient might treat the therapist in the same way as he was treated by his parents, for instance, with scornful contempt or hostile threats. Another might overidealise the therapist out of fear that anything less, let alone, criticism of her would provoke her anger like his parents would get angry at any hint of dissatisfaction. A variant of this behaviour is when the patient tries to reverse the roles with the therapist, as it happened with his mother (Bowlby, 1988, p. 144). The reversal can be blatant or subtle. For instance, the patient might ask the therapist inappropriately: "How are you today?" "How do you feel about that?" The attempt at role reversal is less obvious and more sophisticated when there is some realistic base for concern for the therapist and the patient says to her: "You look tired today". As role reversal by its essence prevents working in a therapeutic way, it has to be treated as a sign of resistance and confronted before dealing with anything else.

The expression "role reversal" has another meaning as well. It also indicates a device by which participant in a therapeutic role play exchange their roles in order to explore them from different angles.

See also index: ATTACHMENT THEORY, DEFENCES, MOTHER, RELATIONSHIPS, RESISTANCE