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Mommy, May I?

Examining the parent-child marriage

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Tom is a young man in his late 20s who is in his first serious relationship with Nancy. Ever since Nancy moved in, it seems to Tom that their relationship has changed a lot, and not to his liking. It almost feels like Nancy has taken over his apartment, like she has a hidden playbook somewhere that he can’t get access to, and that playbook is filled with the details of how things are supposed to be done: the right way to load and unload the dishwasher, how to clean the tub after you take a shower, what gets washed with what and at what temperature, etc. All of these things seem a little silly to Tom; after all, he managed just fine on his own for years. Still, it is nice to step into a clean tub when you shower or see the unwrinkled clothes that you folded and put away in the drawer. Tom is also surprised at how good it feels to have something concrete to do that is so pleasing to Nancy. However, over time, what started out feeling like not much to ask for begins to feel increasingly burdensome and resentful. Each time Tom starts to feel like he’s got it — he’s mastered the playbook and knows what’s expected of him — damn it if she doesn’t come up with another rule that, somehow, he was supposed to already know about. Sometimes it almost seems like a rigged game, like no matter how hard he tries, he’ll never get it right, never be able to please Nancy. Curiously, the one thing that almost never occurs to Tom is to tell Nancy that he feels pressured to not disappoint her, and that he has some ideas of his own about how to run their shared home.

You may have noticed how much the dynamics in Tom and Nancy’s relationship resemble those between a parent and a child, with one partner being the adult who takes responsibility for everything, and the other partner playing the role of the passive-aggressive, acting-out child. This pattern is so common that couples’ therapists refer to it as a “parent-child marriage.” In heterosexual relationships, it is most often the man who ends up in the role of the child. Men joke with each other about how they live as bachelors: that there’s nothing but beer and pizza in their refrigerator, what a mess their apartments are, and how they are beholding to no one, free to do whatever they want whenever they want, etc. Underneath the bragging, there is a recognition that a lot of men don’t know much about how to make a home for themselves or raise a family. While men joke about wanting to live the bachelor life and resenting having a woman trying to socialize them, on some level they appreciate the changes that a woman brings into their life. It feels good to live someplace that feels more like the home they grew up in, to have a more regular life that they can count on and relax into, to have a reliable social life that is taken care of for them and to have some guidance to soothe their anxiety about not knowing what to wear or how to act in more grownup social situations. Underneath the joking and resentment, men are often grateful for a little benign guidance. Men also understand that making a home and raising a family are often very important to their wives/partners, and being willing to follow a few instructions seems like a small price to pay for the critically important approval they seek from their wives/partners.

When it goes well, as it often does at the beginning of a relationship, this is a great example of how couples can help each other to learn and become more fully themselves, to live into the potential of who they are. However, what starts as a mutually beneficial, implicit agreement can deteriorate into a series of unspoken power struggles. The dissatisfaction most often starts with the woman. Many women recognize that they have a lot more experience and expertise in relationships than most of their potential male partners. Women joke about men not being a good fit off the rack and needing alteration, or about needing to train potential partners. On the surface, most of the guidance and coaching they offer to their partners is about how to behave, but what women are really looking for is not a partner who is better trained, but a partner who is better at connection, better at intimacy.

Here’s the critical turning point. When men understand what their partner is really looking for, and recognize that they really want the same thing, then men are likely to be less defensive and less reactive to the coaching and prodding, and things usually go very well. On the other hand, when men miss the larger point, when they have such a paucity of positive early attachment experiences themselves that they don’t recognize, or are not drawn to, the closeness their partners are offering, then all of the formerly benign guidance and coaching begins to chafe and seem more and more like criticism and control.

When things go bad in this way, the downward cycle get worse and worse. Each member of these couples is absolutely convinced that they are the ones who have it worse, and that the other is much better off, but this is a mess that they made together. The parent-child relationship is unconscious collusion between two people. They are equally responsible and equally stuck. Interestingly, it is quite common to find these same dynamics in same-sex relationships, which suggests that this is more about power and gender socialization in our culture than any inherent difference between men and women.

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