What is Role Incompatibility?

September 30, 2015

AAP-Blog-Incompatible

In a recent industry news blog post, we described how younger folks often curtail their heavy drinking tendencies when they get married. The working theory behind this is Role Incompatibility. But what is role incompatibility and how does it affect the treatment process?

Role incompatibility is the theory that when a person enters a new role (such as being married) their former habits often do not mesh with their new life. Because they want to be good at their new role, they tend to eliminate, or at least improve, the destructive and incompatible behavior of the past.

The results of role incompatibility on substance abusers can prove very positive. However, there are several challenges in implementing such a theory as part of a treatment plan.

  1. Addiction is not straightforward. Indeed, addicts continue using, despite significant personal harm and harm to those around them. Addicts often lose money, family and friends before they ever seek treatment. At this point, when an addict has hit rock bottom, how can role incompatibility help? There don’t seem to be too many roles a counselor can create to counter this behavior without a successful course of traditional addiction treatment
  2. For the new role to be truly effective, there must be a great desire to enter this role – it cannot simply be fabricated. In the case of marriage, it is virtually impossible to push a high functioning addict (or someone abusing substances) to get married. Even if they were willing, there is another party involved
  3. How long does the theory of role incompatibility last? Again, using the marriage example, what happens when the novelty of marriage and the honeymoon period wears off? Is the role change permanent or will the heavy drinker return to their former habits? Worse yet, what if stressors such as a poor married life or work troubles creep in. Will they cause the individual to revert?

Clearly, there is something to be said for the effectiveness of role incompatibility as it relates to recovery from substance abuse. However, there is no easy way to fabricate such a change during the treatment process. Ultimately, the counselor will move the addict in a positive direction, promoting healthy behaviors over destructive ones. The goal being that an activity, relationship or experience brings the addict to a clear realization that substance abuse and addiction only hinders their lives and that there is far more to live for.

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