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Feeling that you need to parent your partner can be frustrating, tiring and lead to a sense of inequality in your relationship. But if you’re the partner at the other end of this dynamic perhaps you feel resentful and controlled, resulting in behaviour that may appear dismissive or uncooperative. It’s not difficult to see how this kind of relationship pattern leads to arguments and dissatisfaction. And when parent-child roles become entrenched, resolving conflict feels impossible and your positions are further reinforced.

At the beginning of this relationship, you may have been drawn to your parent-like partner for their steadiness, nurturing personality and caring qualities. Or your child-like partner may have seemed fun, spontaneous and free. Your differences may have felt like signs of compatibility and you might have been convinced you could meet each other’s needs. But as this relationship settles and matures, parent-like partners will often be labelled as domineering, inflexible and controlling in contrast to child-like partners who’ll be thought of as sulky, unreliable or ambivalent. At it’s worst this pattern can manifest as co-dependency, which has considerable implications for mental health and well being.

Let’s consider what might be driving and maintaining this pattern between you.

If you mostly take the child role, you may have learnt that praise and reward is earned by pleasing the parent, offering good behaviour or striving for achievement. Perhaps you had a critical parent who proved impossible to please no matter how hard you tried or a parent whose responses to your efforts were variable depending upon how busy they were or if they took the time to notice you. You may have learned to fear punishment or reprimand, and developed strategies to make sure you kept out of trouble, including withdrawing to your room or refusing to engage. Maybe lack of cooperation or disobedience was your way of getting attention – acting against your parent’s wishes was your way of asserting your sense of who you are. You may even, at times, have been destructive.

On the other hand, if you take the role of parent, you may have had large amounts of responsibility thrust upon you in early life or have watched your own parents play out this pattern with one parent consistently achieving the best results. Perhaps you have a need to maintain control driven by fear of consequence or lack of security. You may have come to enjoy the power experienced via the approval or disapproval of others, and that you can manage huge amounts of valuable emotional currency by offering or withholding reward according to how well your requirements are being met.

When the parent-child pattern becomes a problem, couples can find it difficult to resolve even basic issues around matters like finances, housework, child rearing and decision making. There can also be a huge impact on intimacy, especially when sex is used as a mechanism for punishment or reward.

The first step in breaking the cycle is to recognise that something unhealthy is going on between you. Taking time to consider your own part in the process is important, rather than over focusing on what you think your partner is doing wrong. It’s also important to realise that the issue is about how you’re relating, which means that it exists because you each accept your role – therefore change is dependent upon you making a shift together and consciously doing things differently in future.

It can help to talk about how the pattern was played out in past scenarios and what you could have said or done differently for a better outcome. It can also be useful to call ‘time out’ on arguments and talk calmly about how you think you’re each behaving rather than trying to resolve the specifics. When you notice you have shifted into role, pull yourself up and ask yourself what the adult would do in this situation rather than being tempted to continue down the slippery slope of parent-child. You may even start to notice how the pattern is triggered and consider together how you could avoid repetition in the future.

Adult interactions are about listening and responding, negotiating, compromising and accepting each other’s viewpoint. If you’re both taking an adult position in your relationship there are less likely to be negative emotional reactions and there will be far less drama. This is an important aspect of relationship equality and a step towards the freedom that you both need to be able to express yourselves without the risk of hurt feelings, rejection or disappointment.

Rhian Kivits