Why do relationships become dysfunctional? There are a myriad of possible answers. Here is a notable one: The tendency for the male partner to become the child in the relationship, while his female partner becomes the mother. People react to this topic as if it is a common phenomenon that most people are aware of. Yet many couples continue to fall into this trap and few people understand how it might occur. A colleague of mine adds that it is common sense yet people aren't conscious of it when it happens in their relationship.
The mother-child dynamic can happen in a multitude of ways. First, let's look at role models. Research has demonstrated that there are general differences in the way fathers and mothers care for a child. Mothers take on the day-to-day caregiving activities and responsibilities: Doctor appointments, extra curricular activities, checking the homework. Fathers are, however, associated with play. In fact, many fathers even turn responsibilities into play. For me, getting my son to school in the mornings becomes a race against the clock. Children learn that men are associated with play and women with responsibility.
A second aspect, though it may be fading in this generation, is that men are taught to suppress certain emotions. Crying, for example, is unmanly. Young men must keep their feelings in check and deal with them in some undetermined, unexpressed, internal fashion. This internalizing will then result in a magical fix. Internalizing may work for some feelings, but in regard to relationships it can be detrimental.
The man matures and now enters a relationship. While in the courting stage his playfulness and childlike charm is attractive and endearing. As the relationship progresses there may be signs and attempts to curtail some of that playful behavior. Once he is married there is often a shift for the man to become more responsible and "grown-up."
For many married men, the wife may start to become a mother figure. She may encourage less play (hanging out with friends, heavy drinking, etcetera) and behaving in a more grown-up fashion. Here is the male take on this sea change: "Before we got married she had fun, too. She and I would go to a club together, she would drink and we would dance. Now she wants no part of it." This mothering behavior often becomes even more pronounced when children enter the relationship.
Another aspect that affects the relationship: the tendency for men to feel slighted when a child comes along. Most men would have difficulty admitting this, but it's a hard fact to deny. This combination of feeling slighted and suppressing feelings is a recipe for a relationship disaster. Many men will never voice their feelings, instead they look to fill their void from attention elsewhere. Much of this might be unconscious with both partners unaware of what is happening.
There is no point in blaming either party, but both men and women need to understand that these learned roles are negatively impacting their relationship.
Recognizing the root of these behaviors is not enough. People do not have to accept these roles, and can become aware of them and alter them before the relationship is damaged. Men may be inclined to be more playful, and women to be more motherly, but with knowledge of the roots of these motivations, partners can have improved understanding, compassion, and dialogue.