Are you and your spouse equal partners in your relationship? Or has one of you become more of a parent to the other?
When a couple starts to fall into a parent-child dynamic, codependency, rather than a balanced, cooperative relationship starts to emerge. Essentially, this means that the overall patterns of communication and behavior push one partner (either the male or the female) into a parent or a child position within the relationship.
Let’s look at this closely:
What a Parent-Child Relationship with Your Spouse May Look Like
Consider the financial decision-making in your relationship. Does one of you make all of the monetary decisions in your house? If so, you may have created a situation in which the other spouse must ask or consult with the decision-maker when it comes to spending, saving, and various purchases.
Of course, this may not be so bad in general. However, this pattern of interaction can significantly upset the balance of your relationship in these key ways:
- Codependency and the parent-child dynamic become more and more evident as the partner who must request funds asks for unreasonable things (thus, exhibiting more child-like behavior).
- The authoritative behavior of the decision-making partner becomes evident. He or she may eventually take a “that’s my decision and it’s final” position (thus, demonstrating parental or even contemptuous behavior).
Another example of parent-child behavior in your relationship happens frequently when a spouse acts out. Much like a rebellious teenager, he or she may act unacceptably, choosing to:
- disappear suddenly
- refuse to be reachable by phone
- explode emotionally when challenged
- behave irritably toward their spouse
- asks for permission then react poorly when the answer is no
All in all, the parent-child dynamic is solidified when the responsible spouse’s time is consumed with worries, attempts to check-in, and efforts to correct or clean up after their spouse becomes the norm.
In this case, you can see that this codependent relationship is built on the idea of a responsible parent and a rebellious teenager rather than the earlier responsible parent and helpless child example noted above. Regardless, neither situation lays the groundwork for mutual contentment and balanced life together.
Why You Shouldn’t Promote a Parent-Child Relationship with Your Spouse
Of course, the aforementioned examples are extreme cases. Those parent-child relationships have clearly gone too far. Yet, there are many milder versions of this dynamic in many relationships.
Still, you may not be convinced that this type of spousal relationship is such a big deal. You may ask, “ what’s so wrong with it?” Let’s consider the possible long-term problems:
- Relationship dissatisfaction: In truth, a parent-child dynamic may not be a significant issue until it defines who you are in your relationship. In time, you may feel confined and discontent if you find yourself unwilling to play the part of a child or parent anymore.
- Lack of attraction: Some partners discover that their child-parent relationship creates a lack of desire and passion between them. This makes sense. After all, there are few people who want to foster an attraction to their mom, dad, or child.
- Relationship breakdown: When you continue living out this type of power imbalance in your relationship system it has the potential to destroy the entire system. If no effort is made to achieve balance, the parent-child dynamic will likely come between you. The result? Soon you may both be dealing with piles of resentments and unmet needs.
Moreover, eventually, this could lead to fights and emotional resistance. You may experience growing contempt towards each other, and escalating periods of acting out that can take a variety of forms, not the least of which is infidelity.
How to Avoid a Parent-Child relationship with your Spouse
Clearly, the problems outweigh the benefits when there is such a power imbalance in your most intimate relationship. If you recognize this dynamic, it may be time to rectify the problem soon.
So, what can you do about the thought processes and behavior that have landed you here? Consider the following strategies for pulling out of this vicious cycle:
1. Strive for Balance and Understand that Many Relationships have a Backstory.
What are the variables that influence what you can do about changing your current circumstances? For example, are any of the following part of your personal or relationship history?
- substance abuse
- the aftermath of infidelity
- lost loved ones
- persistent anxiety
Note that these are special situations that may seriously affect your interactions as a couple. It’s natural to feel more vulnerable or more like a caretaker depending on your role in each circumstance. Even so, you always want to strive to be your partner’s equal and for them to do the same.
For instance, let’s say you worry about your husband’s history of alcohol abuse every time he comes home late. How do you handle that? For better or for worse, you will have intentionally decide how to react and what that means to the balance of your relationship.
Will you continue to ask him where he was? Will you go through his texts, examine his GPS, and pepper him with anxious questions? Will your interactions continually get bogged down in resentment and emotional tirades? If you choose that pattern of interactions, you are likely to sink further and further into the parental role.
So. What’s a more productive and balanced solution?
First and foremost, you can let your partner know how you feel every time this happens. Communicate. Tell him what you need from him. Explain what would be helpful or put your mind at ease.
If your partner does not agree, dismisses your request, or outright refuses to meet your needs, be prepared to make a clear decision about their unwillingness to change.
As an equal partner, you should feel free to let your partner know how feeling like a parent is driving a wedge between you. Explain, honestly, that you may have to make hard choices regarding your relationship if things don’t change.
Interestingly, when women in similar positions stop being their partner’s mother-figures find that, after years of this behavior, their husbands suddenly become open to change.
Why? Because she’s done! She’s leaving.
Don’t let your situation devolve so completely. Don’t get so imbalanced and unhealthy as a couple that one spouse feels burned out and can’t imagine staying together. Parenting their partner no longer appeals.
Do what you can to take action before you lose your connection altogether.
2. Pay Close Attention and don’t let the Parent-Child Dynamic Define your Roles.
Now, perhaps things are not quite so far gone, yet you see glimpses of this cycle.
It is important that you stay alert and mindful of your interactions.
Do not allow this pattern to define who you are or what roles you play in your relationship. Often, we hear a partner joke that he or she has two kids and one of them is their spouse. This is no laughing matter. More often than not, in the long run, this is no fun for anyone.
To head off hurt feelings, resentment, and disrespect, pay attention to how you communicate. Do your best to honor each other’s contributions to your relationship. This should not involve any sort of patronizing or humiliating exchanges.
To illustrate, let’s say you are the more financially responsible partner. Generally, there’s no problem here unless you see your role as a reason for superior behavior. Understand that your gift for financial matters does not negate the likely reality that your partner is competent and responsible in other areas of your relationship.
In other words, please don’t equate your partner’s appeals or requests with stupidity or child-like behavior. Don’t behave as though their questions are stupid or beneath you.
If you believe your partner is requesting something you can’t afford, stay away from comments like “you don’t know anything about what we have when was the last time you looked at a bank account”. Such belittling language or unilateral commentary like “and that’s my final decision” have no place in an equal partnership. It’s hurtful, humiliating, and damaging to your relationship.
What’s are better solutions?
- Try stating “my concern with this is… let’s talk more so I can better understand where you’re coming from.” This communicates respect.
- Say, “I’m not sure we can afford it, but let’s look at the statements together to see if it’s possible.” It demonstrates a willingness to cooperate.
- Ask, “you know what? I think we should share more about how we handle finances – do you want to know more?” It indicates a desire for more balance in your shared life and finances.
I can’t tell you how many budding frustrations and simmering resentments you can prevent with a gracious, cooperative attitude!
I do hope that this explanation of the parent-child dynamic makes sense to you. It is my sincerest wish that you feel equipped to notice and discuss this pattern in your own relationship. Most of all, I definitely hope you have a clear idea of how to avoid such a relationship imbalance moving forward.
Working together as equals, you can, no doubt, take steps to develop a fulfilling and lasting relationship.
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