- Authoritarian parenting refers to a rigid, controlling, and punishing style of parenting.
- Individuals in a marriage can display many of the same characteristics to the relationship's detriment.
When it comes to interpersonal dynamics, one typically associates the term "authoritarian" with a particular style of parenting. In particular, the literature describes the authoritarian parenting style as rigid, controlling, and punishing in its orientation (Sanvictores and Mendez, 2022). Authoritarian parents want and demand obedience from their children, with extreme expectations about how the child should be. In instances when the child does not behave as required, the parent punishes them in myriad ways. Perhaps most importantly, what gets lost in the authoritarian parenting style is a focus on emotional nurturing.
Similar dysfunctional characteristics can be played out in a romantic relationship or marriage. As a psychologist who has worked with many couples, I can share anecdotal experiences with many couples who have struggled. Inevitably, one of the questions I find myself asking a couple is what each member believes the primary purpose of a relationship is. Independent of the issue of procreation, a primary purpose of a relationship should be providing a source of comfort and support, as opposed to frequent frustration or conflict.
The problem for scores of couples is that these negative and pervasive feelings often exist and persist because some foundational needs the members of the relationship have continue to go unmet. A spouse with an authoritarian style typically induces long-term feelings of frustration and resentment, with their spouse often feeling controlled and even suffocated.
Fixed, rigid beliefs and expectations
One of the hallmarks of authoritarian parenting is a belief system that is fixed and rigid as it relates to how the child should be. While authoritarian parents can have specific, exact ideas about how the child should behave, dress, and perform in school and at home, a spouse can have similarly fixed ideas about how their partner should be. The partners of spouses with an authoritarian style may feel that they are expected to play a specific role that was designed, rather than being given the freedom to be, grow, and change in the ways many adults do over the lifespan.
The authoritarian spouse has learned a way of coping in life and relationships, in particular, that is unhealthy. The authoritarian spouse dreads uncertainty and unpredictability, and makes extreme efforts to instill a sense of order and control in their environment. People sometimes make the mistake of attributing a controlling style with malice, although in many cases, controlling behavior actually stems from fear and insecurity. In some relationships, the authoritarian spouse may be afraid that a partner will stop loving them or even leave them if they do not direct and manage the other sufficiently. Because human nature inclines one to avoid being controlled or trapped, the authoritarian spouse ultimately pushes the other away emotionally by setting such fixed standards.
Aside from cases of outright abuse, an authoritarian spouse doesn't have the same opportunities for possible punishments with a partner that a parent has with a child. For instance, the authoritarian spouse will be hard-pressed to send their spouse to their room after acting out or withholding phone privileges for perceived violations. But make no mistake that authoritarian spouses have cultivated their own ways of punishing their partners to keep them “in line.” Punishments in relationships could include being “frozen out” and given the silent treatment, withholding physical affection or sexual contact, canceling important plans, causing a dramatic argument, manipulating finances or withholding disposable cash, and others. The partners of authoritarian spouses often feel that they walk on proverbial eggshells, never truly free to be honest about their feelings, let alone express angry ones that hold the authoritarian spouse accountable.
How to deal with an authoritarian style in a relationship
Because no relationship is perfect or without challenges, no one should react in an alarmist, panicked way to problems unless actual abuse is occurring. The key in relationships is to learn how to identify clearly and simply what the problem is and what needs to change in order to improve the relationship.
First, clearly ask yourself what behaviors need to change; writing this down in a paragraph or two can be helpful. When you’re ready, ask your spouse if there is a time in the next week when you could talk about something that’s bothering you. Next, have the conversation. Share a few suggestions you'd be open to trying to improve things, and also ask if your spouse has any suggestions of their own.
Taking action toward achieving the goal of improving your relationship can make a major, positive difference. Talking to a mental health professional in couples therapy is often a good option. You might also consider finding a good self-help book you can each read and talk about afterward; talking to a professional at your religious organization; or watching self-help videos with your spouse about solving marital problems.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Sanvictores T, Mendez MD. Types of Parenting Styles and Effects On Children. [Updated 2022 Sep 18]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK568743/