Role Exit: Examples and Stages (Sociology)

Role Exit: Examples and Stages (Sociology)Reviewed By Chris Drew (PhD)

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

role exit example and definition, explained below

Role exit is the process by which an individual leaves behind a role that has been a significant part of their life.

Role exits can be of various kinds, such as occupational (career change), familial (divorce), ideological (leaving behind a cult), etc. They typically involve disengagement and disidentification.

Disengagement is the process of withdrawing from the normative expectations associated with a role. Disidentification means ceasing to think of oneself in the former role. The former leads to the latter, as people begin to think of themselves as apart from who they were previously. 

At the same time, exes are in the process of learning new sets of role prescriptions. The new identity still carries remnants of the previous role. An ex needs to incorporate this past history into their current identity to become a fully integrated & whole person. 

Definition of Role Exit

Helen Ebaugh defines role exit as:

“The process of disengagement from a role that is central to one’s self-identity and the re-establishment of an identity in a new role that takes into account one’s ex-role”. (1988).

Ebaugh began her work on role exit in the 1970s when she was studying ex-nuns for her doctoral dissertation. She discovered that there was a pattern of exiting among ex-nuns and later developed it into a general theory of role exit applicable to a variety of different roles.

Role exit as a widespread occurrence is only a recent phenomenon, says Ebaugh. Until a century ago, people were much less mobile in their role changes: they stayed in one marriage, pursued one occupation, and believed in the same religion they were raised in.

In our modern world, however, our lives are much less constant. Most of us experience at least one major shift in an area of our lives that we consider fundamental to who we are.

Role Exit Stages

The process of role exit, according to Ebaugh, involves the following stages:

  • First Doubts: The individual begins to realize that their role doesn’t meet their expectations, values, or goals (often experienced as role strain or inter-role conflict).
  • Seeking Alternatives: They actively search for other ways to meet their desires, gathering information & seeking support.
  • The Turning Point: In a crucial moment, they decide to exit the role. This is often triggered by a major event (say a job loss due to drinking).
  • Creating the Ex-Role: They disengage from the old role and begin to construct a new sense of identity based on the new role. 

Related Concept in Sociology: Role Strain vs Role Conflict

Examples of Role Exit

  1. Ex-nuns: For nuns, leaving the convent means letting go of a role that has fundamentally shaped their personal identity, social community, and religious/ideological values. Many nuns expressed that they felt a sense of disconnection between the ideals of their religion and the reality of their everyday life. This led to feelings of frustration, which eroded their commitment to religious life, although such a process may gradually develop over years. After leaving, ex-nuns often face a sense of disorientation and may struggle to find a new sense of purpose.
  2. Divorcees: The divorce rate increased by almost three times between the 1960s and 1980s, and today, almost 50% of all marriages in the United States end in divorce. Wallerstein & Blakeslee (1995) argue that divorce is a multi-stage process that begins with marital breakdown, where couples experience a growing sense of dissatisfaction. This is followed by a decision-making stage, where they consider the option of divorce. Finally, there is the aftermath, where the couple must deal with the emotional, financial, and social consequences. Arendell points out that social support from family & friends can really help individuals cope with the challenges of divorce.
  3. Ex-convicts: Being an ex-convict means dealing with a former status that is stigmatized and has long-term consequences. Many ex-convicts struggle to find employment because of their previous records. At the same time, not admitting to their previous identity can lead to them getting prosecuted for fraud. Scholars point out that social acceptance is crucial in helping ex-convicts reintegrate into society. Mazerolle highlights the importance of employment in providing financial stability and a sense of purpose, which can help ex-convicts build a new identity (2007).
  4. Widowhood: Widowhood is one ex-role that is highly institutionalized in society, having quite specific role expectations. For example, there are expectations as to how much time after a role exit an individual is allowed to adjust. So, a widow who wears black and is in mourning even five years after the death of her husband would be said to be behaving inappropriately; the other extreme would also be looked down upon. Cadwallader argues that self-compassion can help widows recognize the challenges associated with this role exit, providing a sense of acceptance & support (2017).
  5. Ex-athletes: An ex-athlete is an example of an occupational role exit. Former sportsmen face a high degree of role residual, meaning that the remnants of their previous role linger to a greater degree. This is because an athlete is a highly visible role in society. During their time, they are constantly praised, and even after retirement, the public keeps reminding them of their former glory. This makes it difficult to exit from the role in a complete fashion.
  6. Ex-prostitutes: An ex-prostitute is a role exit that is socially approved. It is seen as a form of rehabilitation, connotating positive role change, just as in the case of a drinker becoming an ex-drinker, etc. In these cases, society approves of the social change and tends to evaluate the individual more highly in their current status than their previous one (Ebaugh).
  7. Mothers without custody of children: Mothers not having custody of their children undergo a massive change in their familial role. Besides adjusting and adapting to their own role change, they also need to deal with those of the significant others associated with them. These include their children, their ex-husbands, and both their extended families (who often look down upon women giving up child custody). Ebaugh calls the mother a “high-intensity” role, as it involves a high degree of effort and integration between the self and the role. This is why exiting from such a role can be quite difficult.
  8. Ex-military men: For ex-military men, retirement can be challenging as it involves a loss of status, social identity, and a sense of purpose. The military institution is a central aspect of their socialization, and the role exit necessitates a “re-socialization” process. Scholars point out that social support is especially important for ex-military men, otherwise, they can face psychological distress and mental health problems.
  9. Sex-change: Sex change is perhaps the ultimate role exit, for it involves leaving behind the most fundamental physical qualities of one’s identity. Sex change is a rather new phenomenon and transsexuals must rely on doctors to execute the surgery (unlike many other role exits). A major readjustment for transsexuals involves dealing with the reactions of their loved ones, including parents, children, and other relatives.
  10. Ex-drinkers: An ex-drinker is another example of a socially approved role exit; however, the remnants of their previous role still remain and impact their lives. For example, ex-drinkers reveal that people often see them as morally depraved people, instead of understanding that addiction is a disease. Role exiting for drinkers begins with them realizing that a drinking problem exists (often associated with an event, say a car accident). They then face an “either-or” turning point, realizing that they can either take help or die from drinking. This is then followed by the actual exit process.

Challenges Faced During the Role Exit Process

As role exit involves leaving behind an important part of one’s life, it comes with numerous emotional, social, and practical difficulties.

One of the biggest challenges is the loss of identity. For a nun, leaving behind the convent means severing ties from almost all fundamental aspects of her life. Her professional & personal identity, social circle, and religious/ideological values all must undergo a change.

This can be disorienting and can make one lose their sense of purpose. Another challenge for exes is the image held by the society of their previous roles. This can range from minor judgments (ex-drinker being looked down upon) to systemic barriers (ex-cons not getting jobs). 

Finally, there are practical challenges involved with a role exit. For example, an ex-athlete may not have marketable skills, which can severely limit their employment opportunities. The lack of resources & support can further make it difficult for people to successfully exit a role and start a new one.


Role exit is the process of leaving behind a role that has been a fundamental part of one’s life.

It involves disengagement and disidentification with the previous role. At the same time, the individual learns new sets of role prescriptions. Since these roles are an important part of our lives, leaving them behind comes with various emotional, social, and practical difficulties.


Arendell, T. (1995). “From adolescence to adulthood: Change in the meaning of sibling relationships”. Journal of Marriage and the Family. London: Wiley-Blackwell.

Cadwallader, S. (2017). “Moving forward: Self-compassion, resilience, and posttraumatic growth in widows”. Journal of Loss and Trauma. New York: Taylor & Francis. 

Ebaugh, H. R. F. (1988). Becoming an ex: The process of role exit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mazerolle, L., Soole, D. W., & Rombouts, S. (2007). “Courts: A meta-analysis of effectiveness”. Journal of Experimental Criminology. Springer Science+Business Media.

Wallerstein, J. S., & Blakeslee, S. (1995). Second chances: Men, women, and children a decade after divorce. Los Angeles: Houghton Mifflin.

Sourabh Yadav is a freelance writer & filmmaker. He studied English literature at the University of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University. You can find his work on The Print, Live Wire, and YouTube.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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