Marriage can be one of life’s most fulfilling relationships. Or not. Why do so many couples struggle to have a rewarding relationship? One common situation that creates problems in marriages is when the partners are playing "parent" and "child" roles rather than acting as coequal adults. I see this a lot.
Here's a typical example: Bob complains that his wife, Sue, is nagging, overbearing and controlling. He says, "She won't leave me alone doc. She's always on me about something I've got to do and micromanaging me the entire time." Meanwhile Sue says, "Of course I do! If I didn't push, nothing would get done around here. Bob's just not responsible." Strike any chords?
Essentially, Sue is playing the role of “parent” spouse to Bob's “child” spouse. Just as a parent naturally is in charge of a small child, Sue is trying to be in control of Bob. Similar to how children react to overbearing parents, Bob has reacted by becoming defensive, avoidant, and passive-aggressive. In this parent-child dynamic both partners are seeking to control the other. This invariably results in an unhappy relationship.
Why does this happen? How do partners fall into these dysfunctional patterns? Some find that the parent role provides a sense of meaning and purpose. Others feel compelled to "rescue" or become a caretaker for their partner wanting to replace the parenting they themselves didn’t receive as a child. Most people who assume the parent position are well intentioned but, sadly, the results are not favorable.
Individuals may assume the child role as a result of emotional immaturity. I find this to be especially common among those intellectually gifted. In general, people tend to cultivate their strengths while neglecting their weaknesses; so emotional expression and sensitivity can remain underdeveloped. Their real parents may have unwittingly encouraged this by over-rewarding academic success and undervaluing relationships in childhood. The resulting child-like irresponsibility and emotional unawareness are then carried into marriage.
Basically a parent-child marriage is defined by the inequality of the partners. In order for a relationship to thrive, partners must be just that - partners! Both must work at sharing equally in the burdens and success of the relationship. Typically both spouses must change to be respectful, supportive, and flexible in their relationship with one another. Neither is a "parent" or "child" to the other. Instead both are adults.
Being an emotionally mature adult requires compromise, sacrifice, forgiveness and honesty. Adult partners accept each other's individuality, and lead balanced lives, as individuals and as a couple. In other words, healthy couples are neither consumed in each other’s world nor totally separate, but rather have both connectedness and independence; they are interdependent.
So how do you get there? It takes work. Most of my clients have to unlearn some harmful behavioral patterns and grow in their emotional intelligence. Therapy or counseling is partly about helping clients to focus - focusing on a healthy marriage and on the present instead of the past or future. It's also, in large part, about learning new skills. Improving conflict resolution skills - being assertive, validating feelings, active listening and taking responsibility for oneself - is often at the heart of how I help couples come together.
Marriage can be one of life’s most fulfilling relationships. Or not. It's up to you. Take responsibility for yourself. Learn and grow. Become an emotionally mature adult and watch your marriage blossom.
Author Dr. Tony Ferretti is a licensed psychologist specializing in helping clients to recognize the addictive nature of power, control, and success. In his new book, Change Your Life, Not Your Wife: Marriage Saving Advice For Success-Driven People, Dr. Ferretti brings insights from his unique clinical experience to the general public. A gifted communicator, Dr. Ferretti has been a guest on Dr. Phil and numerous talk radio shows nationwide. He's also hosted his own show, Talk to Tony, a popular weekly call-in radio series on psychological topics.