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Do You Have a Parent-Child Marriage?

It might explain some of the conflict in your relationship.

Key points

  • Over time, some heterosexual relationships start to look more like the relationship between a parent and child.
  • Some women feel like the only adult in the marriage, and they yearn for a more mature partnership.
  • Some men start to feel like the relationship has become a rigged game, that nothing they do is ever enough.
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Tim is a young man in his late twenties who is in his first serious relationship with Nancy. Ever since Nancy moved in, it seems to Tim 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. 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 he takes a shower, what gets washed with what and at what temperature, and so on. Over time, what started out feeling like not much to ask for begins to feel increasingly burdensome and resentful. Each time Tim 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, that no matter how hard he tries he will never get it right, never be able to please Nancy.

Over time, some heterosexual relationships begin to take on characteristics more reflective of the relationship between a parent and child than a partnership between two adults. The pattern is common enough for therapists to have named it “the parent-child relationship.” In heterosexual relationships, it is most often the woman who ends up in the role of the adult, taking responsibility for everything, and the man in the role of the passive aggressive, acting-out child.

Some men joke with each other about how they live as bachelors, how they are beholden to no one, free to do whatever they want whenever they want. Underneath the bragging, there is a recognition that some men don’t know much about how to make a home for themselves or raise a family. For many men, not much was expected of them as a child in either area, so they didn’t get much experience doing the work or even noticing what needs doing and taking responsibility for getting it done. While men joke about wanting to live the bachelor life it feels good to live someplace that feels more like the home they grew up in, to have a reliable social life that is taken care of for them, and to have someone help 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 partners; being willing to follow a few instructions seems like a small price to pay for the critically important approval they seek from them.

When it goes well, as it often does in the beginning of a relationship, this is a great example of how couples can help each other learn and become more fully themselves, to live more completely into the full potential of who they are. However, what starts as a mutually beneficial implicit agreement can deteriorate into a series of unspoken power struggles. The pattern is dissatisfying to both partners, but the dissatisfaction is most likely to surface first with the woman. Many women recognize that they have a lot more experience and expertise in relationships than their male 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 might actually want the same thing, they are less likely to be defensive and reactive to the coaching and prodding they are receiving, and things usually go well. On the other hand, when men miss the larger point, when they have such a paucity of positive early attachment experiences 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 that happens, men start to feel like the relationship has become a rigged game; no matter how much they try to help, they can never get it right. These men often feel that their partners are constantly evaluating them and are angry at them all the time.

When a woman does not get the emotional responsiveness she is looking for from her partner, playing the role of his mother is an increasingly unsatisfying trade. Whether she works outside the home or not, in many families it is the woman who is in charge of the home and the family. She is the one who organizes, makes the plans, and delegates responsibility for everything connected to the children, the running of the household, and all social relationships. Women get varying degrees of help when they ask for it. Some partners are quite compliant and eager to please, but women’s frustration is that the responsibility for everything falls to them. They know damn well that their partner is competent and effective at work, so why the hell does he not see that the floor needs cleaning or even know where the mop is? As things deteriorate, these women increasingly see their partners as incompetent and believe that if they don’t take care of things, or closely supervise their partners, the work either won’t get done or won’t get done correctly.

When things go badly in this way, the downward cycle gets worse and worse. As women feel increasingly alone, they express their frustrations in one of two ways. Some women escalate their demands as a way of expressing their resentment, which inevitably leads to more conflict and increased emotional distance in the couple. If she cannot get the closeness she wants, at least she can make his life as miserable as hers, and maybe get the garbage taken out without always having to nag about it as well. Although this strategy is rarely effective, sometimes the emotional distance in a relationship can be so severe that a negative connection can feel better than no connection at all. The second strategy women use is to withdraw, either as a way of punishing their partner for not stepping up, or as the result of giving up hope that they will ever find a way to get what they want from their partner.

Men may express their dissatisfactions in one of three ways. Some men get increasingly angry with what feels unfair to them, leading to an increase in conflict. Other men are more passive aggressive, forgetting to do things they agreed to do, or doing them so ineptly that their wives are bound to be frustrated enough to just do it themselves, which also leads to conflict. When men come to believe that the situation is hopeless, that they will never be able to please their partners or bring the criticism to an end, the third way that men express their dissatisfaction is to begin to withdraw in a variety of ways. When this happens, their partner gets even less of what she wants, which leads to escalating demands and criticism on her part, and further withdrawal on his part, and they’re off to the races.

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 an unconscious collusion between two people. They are equally responsible and equally stuck. 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.

This article is excerpted from Hidden in Plain Sight: How Men's Fears of Women Shape Their Intimate Relationships." (Weiss, 2021).

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