Dismantling the Parent-Child Relationship in Marriage

 Parent child dynamics in marriage

Sometime the roles partners play in a marriage get out of whack. Sometimes a healthy partnership of “equals” disintegrates into a passion play that has one partner seeking absolute control at the expense of the “other’s” voice and place. This is often called a parent-child marriage.

In this relationship dynamic, a partner/partner sharing of responsibilities and power is replaced with a parent-child power vacuum. The controlling partner (the parent) dictates expectations to the co-dependent (the child) who seems powerless and often just complies.

What constitutes a parent-child relationship?

Parent-child relationship problems can be obvious or quite insidious. The obvious signs of a parent child-marriage include demeaning interactions, financial control, unrealistic expectations, blatant disrespect for the other partner, and inflexibility. Parent-child relationships almost always feature a one way flow of information. The “child” may often be emotionally – but perhaps physically – punished for expressing disagreement or any thought whatsoever. Some “children” embody the role through acting out, emotional adolescence, poor decision making and the like. Individuals recovering from a parent-child relationship often describe their time in the midst of the relationship as akin to “walking on eggshells.”

Why does this happen?

A parent-child relationship is, simply put, inequality between spouses. How do partners get into this dysfunctional pattern?  In order for the relationship to thrive, both partners need to respect, support and act in a flexible manner with one another. Both need to know that neither is ‘parent’ or ‘child’ towards the other.  So why do couples assume these roles?

  • The parent role: Some partners find that the ‘parent’ role offers a sense of meaning and purpose to them. Some others may take it up because they want to be ‘rescuers’ or caretakers of their partners. Such individuals mostly do so since they themselves have not received the parenting and care they probably craved for as children.  Often, partners who assume the role of parents in their relationship are well intentioned but, unfortunately, the results are never fruitful.
  • The child role: Partners may also assume the child role out of emotional immaturity. Such partners tend to ignore their weaknesses and let the other rule over them. Emotional expression and sensitivity that one feels in a marriage is often left underdeveloped. The real parents of such partners probably undervalued relationships and encouraged irresponsibility and emotional unawareness, which is what is eventually carried into their marriages.

What can be done?

Marriage advice is always appropriate if a partnership has degraded into a parent-child dynamic. A seasoned counselor may use a family systems or cognitive behavioral approach to explore the systems, rhythms, and stressors that led to the uneasiness and eventual imbalance in power.

The counselor will often equip the partners with tools designed to bring insight into the relationship, and hopefully some lasting change and healing. As is the case with all cumbersome marital issues, the diffusing of an unhealthy parent-child relationship requires honesty, forgiveness, and a willingness to make long-term changes. This can be extremely painful, but is absolutely necessary.

What constitutes a ‘healthy’ marriage?

A marriage is a partnership between two adults who love and respect each other. It requires both partners to be emotionally mature, compromise, sacrifice, forgive and be honest with one another. Those in a healthy marriage accept each other’s personality, individuality and lead balanced lives, where they nurture their marriage and also look after themselves individually. They are neither consumed with each other to the point of possessiveness nor do they lived separate lives – they are interdependent on one another in a ‘healthy’ way.

How do those in ‘parent-child’ marriages improve their relationship?

Ironically, unhealthy parent-child relationship dynamics in a marriage can be nixed before they begin. But, it does take effort and time. Couples in such relationships have to identify and acknowledge such destructive behavioural patterns and work towards them. Therapy can play a big role in helping couples to focus on a healthy marriage. It can help them learn new skills that are probably new to them. Communicating correctly, improving conflict resolution abilities, active listening and taking responsibility are to mention a few of them.

Tips on how to stop parenting your partner

  1. Know your part: Instead of blaming your partner, acknowledge your part in creating such a relationship. Is it your habit to naturally take on all the responsibility? Do you lash out, scold and punish when you get frustrated or angry? Acknowledge this and then work on changing your approach to solve it.
  2. Be direct: Do not be passively aggressive. If you want your spouse to do something, then be direct (and polite) with them. Do not make sarcastic comments about it either. Just make the request; if they choose to ignore you, then have an adult conversation about it and tell them directly that all responsibilities must be shared.
  3. Decide who does what: Make a list of daily, weekly and monthly responsibilities, and then decide mutually who does what. Strengthen your partnership by deciding how roles such as housekeeping, parenting or financial planning will be handled. Give certain tasks to your spouse and let them be responsible for it. Communicate often with them to share your thoughts on what you think is working well or needs more attention.

Final thoughts

At the end, premarital counseling with reputable and seasoned counselors can help identify issues and power struggles before one partner shares an “I do” with the other. With early identification of issues, a counselor can equip the partners to address the worrisome issues, or may even advise the couple to end the relationship for the wellbeing of all involved. If you find yourself in a parent-child relationship, seek help. There are tools and skills that a professional marriage counselor can equip you with to overcome this problem. A little willingness and the right knowledge can help out greatly to save and improve the marriage.