Conflict between a couple can often feel convoluted and layered in ways that are hard to make sense of. But there is one dynamic that may be a bit easier to wrap our heads around. Very often, couples get into trouble when one person takes the role of a parent, and the other the role of a child. Breaking down this dynamic can shed light on how it may be infiltrating our relationship and diminishing our love, respect, and attraction to our partner. Here, we will explore what parental and childish behavior looks like between a couple and what we can do to change it.
Many of us can relate to scenarios in which one partner is being parental; that is, being instructive, superior, or even disciplinary in their style of relating. They may offer a lot of advice or assistance based on a general inclination to take care of or direct the other person. They may frequently overstep boundaries and do too much for their partner, often seeing the other person critically, as helpless or irresponsible. A parental partner may have a tendency to be corrective, telling the other person what he or she “should” do or “should have” done. In response, their partner is often frustrated, offended, or defiant.
Conversely, the partner in a more childish role may cry, fall apart, or use passive-aggressive strategies to get their way. They often feel victimized by their partner. They may even feel helpless or reliant on their partner. They may behave in ways that are incompetent or irresponsible, provoking their partner and inciting the other person to step in and take over. When confronted, the childish person may feel easily hurt or sulk, which is more likely to elicit a parental reaction from their resentful partner.
It’s easy to see how either person caught up in one side of this dynamic would trigger the other, creating a painful repetitive cycle. Like most couple conflicts, it’s hard to place blame, because both people have valid complaints about the other. The best thing to do in this case is to catch on to the pattern itself and recognize the ways we perpetuate the cycle by playing out our half of it. To do this, we should look at the specific behaviors associated with the parent-child dynamic, as well as the behavior we should strive for to enjoy an equal relationship.
Childish or submissive vs. the parental or dominant.
The most basic tendency in this pattern is for the parental person to feel the need to control the other and for the person in a more childish mode to feel dominated. The goal, of course, should be equality, with each person valuing the other’s autonomy, individuality, and independence.
Passive and dependent vs. driven and compulsive.
A person in a childish role will often be more passive and dependent, looking to be directed by others or to be taken care of by their partner. A parental partner may be more likely to push themselves and others to achieve what they “should.” This is often done in a driven and critical way that can feel controlling. The aim of both individuals, rather, should be to be proactive and self-assertive in their own lives and goals, thinking ahead and going after what they want.
Defensive and angry vs. rigid and righteous.
A parental partner can be closed off to other points of view, defensive, or even punishing when they receive feedback. They may counterattack self-righteously in relation to suggestions or criticism. When a partner is in a childish mode, they may tend to fall apart and become self-hating or sulky when they’re given feedback. It’s helpful for both people to try to remain non-defensive and open toward each other. In an adult-mode, both people are curious and willing to explore input from their partner, and both welcome constructive criticism that can help them grow individually and in their relationship.
Irrational vs. overly rational/moralistic.
A person in a child mode is often ruled by emotion, which then leads them to lose track of what’s really going on or what’s in their best interest. A person in parent mode can go too far the other way, focusing excessively on being “rational” at the expense of feeling. They can become cynical and critical or moralistic, which further frustrates the partner who’s feeling more emotionally triggered. There’s a balance for both people, who can strive to be both rational and in touch with feeling. Ideally, adults experience their emotions, but their actions are based on their moral compass and their goals. This holds true for their own behavior as well as for their actions toward their partner.
Inability to formulate and/or pursue goals versus rigid formulation of goals.
A person in child mode can find it difficult to focus or to uncover what they want and how to go about getting it. They can operate like a “ship without a rudder,” struggling to find their way. A parental person may approach pursuits more rigidly or without joy, turning wants and goals into “shoulds” and “musts.” Each person — and the relationship itself — is much better off when both parties stay in touch with their unique wants, both formulating and implementing goals by taking the appropriate actions to achieve their desires.
Covert negative power vs. domineering.
Someone assuming a parental role can often be bossy. Sometimes they may even become abusive of power, intimidating others through anger or aggression. A person who feels like a child in the situation may attempt to manipulate others by playing the victim. This person can control others through weakness and may fall apart in an effort to get what he or she wants. Both of these patterns are destructive. Instead of asserting power over the other, each person should strive to have personal power, in which they both take full control over every part of their existence and change any behavior or traits that they dislike. If they develop a sense of personal power, both people will feel stronger in themselves and know they can affect their own lives.
When couples start to realize that they are engaging in these patterns, they have a tendency to blame their partner, or they think ending the relationship is the best solution. However, if we just externalize the problem or give up trying to make our relationship better, we never change the underlying problem of our own defenses. And in future relationships, we will tend to quickly recreate the same dynamics. However, to break this cycle in a current relationship or prevent it from repeating in a future relationship, we can understand that we come by these behaviors honestly, and that we can change the damaging cycles by changing ourselves.
We need to start with compassion for ourselves. Our tendency to act childish or parental arose from defenses we formed to adapt and survive in our early lives. These adaptations may have served us well in childhood, but they are hurting and limiting us in our adult relationships. When we engage in parental or childish behavior, we are perpetuating an unhealthy dynamic. However, catching on to the ways we engage in these patterns and actively challenging them can truly transform our relationship. It may cause us anxiety to be more vulnerable, to give up the defenses of our past and show up as open adults with our partner, but by doing this, we create our best chance of achieving the real love and closeness we say we want.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone here.