Contemplating Divorce

Whether you should stay or go

When Parents Make Children Their Friend or Spouse

my mother, my mate

When my parents divorced, thirty years ago, my younger brother was the only one of the five kids who hadn't gone of to college yet. As the "only child" at home, my mother leaned on him heavily and, as so many lonely parents do, she turned him in to her surrogate husband.

My brother spent the next three decades of his life anticipating and meeting my mother's needs. He even went so far as to live next door to her so that he could be close enough to her if and when she called but have a sense of separation too. After all, he had a wife and daughter who needed him at home.

Making a child the stand in for the spouse you lost, be it through divorce or death, is not unusual. It happens all the time. 

From a Family Systems perspective, this dynamic makes perfect sense. When one member of the system leaves, another one will step up and take its place. This is nature's way of maintaining a sense of balance. The scientific term for this phenomenon is "homeostasis."

Additionally, nature hates a vacuum so when a space as large as a mother or father becomes vacant, something or someone will unconsciously and automatically want to fill it.

Those who are using their children to get their emotional needs met may believe that the new arrangement is a good one because they believe everyone benefits. They get their needs met and, as they see it, their children benefit because they get to feel useful and loved. The adults may not realize that there are many more negative impacts on children who are parentified than positive. 

Asking a child to play the role of an adult and it is a heavy burden for most children. In many cases, the troubles shared with children (who don't have the coping skills or life experience to know how to deal with them) leave the child feeling hopeless and helpless. Rather than augmenting a child's self-esteem, the constant feeling of futility can lead to lower self worth.

It's not only parents imposing this role on their children. Some children see what is needed (or at least what they think is needed) and offer to fill the spot. For every story I hear about a parent leaning too heavily on a child, I hear about a child who wants to be seen as "the man of the house now," or "dad's caretaker."

How the Surrogate Spouse Role Impacts a Child's Adult Relationships

This level of parent-child enmeshment fosters unhealthy codependence. The child who was trained so well to anticipate the needs of its parent will, without awareness or intervention, carry this trait on into his or her adult relationships.

A daughter who later becomes a wife may suppress her own needs and not speak her own truth in her marriage. This in turn leads her into toxic rages or might cause her to act out by having an affair.

Because she was trained not to ask for what she needed, it never occurred to her to do so. Meanwhile, she merely had to state what she needed and her husband would have responded positively.

A son may grow up with a pattern of setting himself up to be a doormat by doting on his partner who is only to happy to have a one-sided relationship.

Those with learned helpessness may become chronic underearners and those with an over inflated need to please may unconsciously turn into workaholics.

How to Avoid The Parentification Trap

Turning your eleven-year-old or, for that matter, your 17-year-old, into your mate, friend or equal is known as "parentifying" him. I can think of no circumstance where it is of any benefit to anyone in the long run.

It is unequivocally an indication that the adult in the family is not getting her needs met sufficiently. Understanding the signs of what some professionals refer to as Emotional Incest or Surrogate Spouse Syndrome can prevent life-long damage to the children who otherwise have no choice but to be there for their needy parent.

Here are a few signs that you may be leaning too heavily on your son or daughter:

1. You forego plans with friends or peers to attend events with and for your child;

2. You tell your child more about the marriage or divorce than you tell friends or peers;

3. You don't go to therapy or seek professional help despite intense emotions because you have your child to lean on;

4. You often tell your child how much they have helped you and that "you don't know what you'd do without them;"

5. Your child foregoes plans with friends or peers to attend events with and for you;

6. Your child asks questions about your marriage or divorce.

If you have any of these dynamics in your parent-child relationship, my recommendation is that you seek professional support as soon as possible to change it. You will get more adequate and appropriate help and your child will be able to have healthier, age-appropriate relationships.

Suggested Reading:  

-Silently Seduced: When Parents Make their Children Partners, Understanding Covert Incest, by Kenneth M. Adams, Ph.D., Health Communications, Deerfield Beach, FL (1991)
-The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to do When a Parent's Love Rules Your Life, by Dr. Patricia Love           - When He's Married to Mom: How to Help Mother-Enmeshed Men Open Their Hearts to True Love and Commitment, Kenneth Adams and Alexander Morgan

Susan Pease Gadoua, L.C.S.W., is the author of Contemplating Divorce and Stronger Day by Day.

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