Sometimes the roles partners play in a marriage get out of whack. Sometimes a healthy partnership of “equals” disintegrates into one partner seeking absolute control at the expense of the “other’s” voice and place. In these kinds of relationships, it can feel as if one partner is the child and the other is the parent, and a parent-child relationship in marriage rarely leads to success.
When your spouse acts like a child, in a parent-child relationship, a partnership that survives by sharing responsibilities and power is replaced with a parent-child power vacuum.
The controlling partner (the parent) dictates expectations to the co-dependent partner (the child) who seems powerless and often just complies.
Obviously, the importance of the parent-child relationship, when it is actually a parent and a child, can be justified. However, acting like a child in a relationship most of the time leads to an unhealthy parent-child dynamic that can cause strife in a relationship.
Let us dive to the dynamics of parent-child marriage, and reflect on what constitutes in a parent-child relationship, how to stop acting like a child in a relationship, and how to stop parenting your spouse.
What constitutes a parent-child relationship in marriage?
Parent-child relational problems can be obvious or quite insidious. The obvious signs of someone taking the role of a parent in a parent-child marriage can involve:
- demeaning interactions
- financial control
- unrealistic expectations
- blatant disrespect for the other partner
Parent-child relationships in marriages almost always feature a one-way flow of information. The “child” partner may often be overly emotional; when this is the case the “parent” partner may sometimes physically but often verbally punish their partner for expressing disagreement or any thought whatsoever.
Some “child” partners embody the role through acting out, emotionally immature behavior, 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 in marriage 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?
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 have not received the parenting and care they probably craved as children.
Often, partners who assume the role of parents in their relationship are well-intentioned but, unfortunately, the results are rarely fruitful.
Partners may 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 intimacy that one feels in a marriage are often left underdeveloped with these kinds of relationships.
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 or therapy with a trained professional is always appropriate if a partnership has degraded into a parent-child dynamic.
A seasoned counselor may use a family system 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 in marriage 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 live separate lives – they are interdependent on one another in a ‘healthy’ way.
How to improve a parent-child relationship in marriage?
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 behavioral patterns and work towards mending them.
Therapy can play a big role in helping couples to focus on a healthy marriage. It can help them learn skills that are probably new to them. Communicating correctly, improving conflict resolution abilities, active listening and taking responsibility are a few of them.
Tips on how to stop parenting your partner
- 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.
- Be direct
Do not be passive-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.
- 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.
In 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 in marriage, 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.