I recently read an article in Chatelaine’s which strongly resonated with my experience. As a young married woman, I started out by “parenting” my partner. I ran the household and my partner acquiesced. My mother had treated my dad that way and that’s how his mother had treated his dad so neither of us questioned this pattern. We were pre-programed by our original families.
In every relationship there is bound to be some conflict, it comes with the territory. However, there are subtle, destructive behaviours that can sabotage any relationship. Instead of being built on mutual respect between equal partners, many relationships begin and get stuck in this parent-child dynamic.
When there is a perceived imbalance of power by either partner, the ground is fertile for one partner to become parental. Although women have been given the role of caregivers in our western culture and often create this dynamic in their romantic relationships unconsciously and based on the modelled dynamic in their families, men can fall into the same trap. Having witnessed it growing up, they accept it as normal and it may be “normal” but it is far from healthy for the relationship or for either partner’s sense of self.
In a relationship where one partner plays the parent role and the other that of the child, there is decreased marital satisfaction, frustration, anger, and resentment for both partners. If you frequently find yourself nagging or scolding your partner or you have heard yourself say “I am raising three children” when only two of them are actual children, you have fallen into the parenting trap.
It’s never too late to change this dysfunctional pattern. The first thing is to acknowledge your part in the dynamic. Blaming your partner is useless. When you take responsibility for everything, your partner will likely feel like it’s all under control, the way you want it, and he or she can’t do it “right” anyways. If you lash out, scold, or punish your partner, you are behaving as a parent and your partner is more likely to behave as a child.
Take the time to sit down and discuss with your partner the household and family responsibilities and negotiate who is going to be responsible for what. Write it down so there are no loopholes such as memory loss or excuses. Set time frames and outline consequences for both partners and for every responsibility.
Being assertive is a way of equalizing power in a relationship. If you are not assertive (open, respectful, and direct), and you play the “parent” role, you end up being aggressive or passive-aggressive and the “child” is left with being passive out of fear.
Being assertive is more effective than hinting, expecting that your partner “should” know what you want, or seething inside when the other person does not behave as you would prefer.
The “child” in the relationship is not likely to take over responsibilities until the “parent” lets them go. When you ask for help with a task, you are indicating that this is your responsibility and the other person is helping you. If you want your partner to take responsibility for something, like the laundry, vacuuming, or making the children’s appointments; then it needs to be clearly discussed, agreed upon, and then you need to let go of that responsibility. Once your partner has taken on a task, they get to do it their way. Agreements can be made to determine by when the tasks are to be completed every day, week, or month and what everyone agrees will happen if tasks are not completed.
Relationships are healthier when both partners feel like equals and agreements are clearly outlined.