When you have an adult relationship, you probably expect to relate to each other as equals. However, when one partner takes on the majority of the responsibility, a parent-child relationship dynamic can develop. If this dynamic continues, it can decrease your relationship satisfaction and emotional well-being. Understanding the parent-child relationship dynamic can help you break the pattern and establish a more equal partnership.

The Parent-Child Dynamic

The parent-child relationship dynamic occurs when one person in a romantic relationship takes on the role of the parent, and their partner takes on the role of the child. There are a number of reasons why this dynamic could develop between a couple. However, this sets up a power dynamic that is unequal. This type of relationship dynamic can lead to resentment and discontent. The parent takes charge and makes the rules. This causes a type of codependency that might work until the child decides to rebel, or the parent becomes too resentful.

In this relationship dynamic, the person who takes on the role of the parent can vary depending on the situation. For example, the husband can take on the role of the parent and the wife the child with finances and the roles can reverse with the household chores. Both the parent and the child can end up resenting the other for being too bossy, or not helping out enough. This can lead to a breakdown in communication and intimacy. In this dynamic, the parent will ask the child to complete a task and follow up to see if it was done. The child often will not complete the task on purpose, and the dynamic continues.

The Parent-Partner Role

The partner that takes on the role of the parent is often a natural nurturer. They enjoy taking care of others and can show their love by doing this. However, they can also be somewhat controlling and believe that there is only one right way to complete a task. The parent partner can be more demanding, act superior, and even become a disciplinarian in their primary relationship. It is easy for them to view their partner as someone that needs to be taken care of because they are irresponsible, helpless, or incompetent. They have a hard time respecting their partner’s boundaries or trusting them to do the right thing. Someone in the parent role might have a more anxious attachment style and could have difficulty directly confronting irresponsible behavior and setting appropriate boundaries. Overtime, they can build up resentment toward their partner for not contributing as much to the relationship.

The Child-Partner Role

The partner that takes on the role of the child often takes on a more passive role. They might even enjoy being taken care of in the beginning of the relationship. Interests and hobbies outside of the partnership can take up a lot of their time and attention. They may feel disrespected by their partner and can begin to withdraw from the relationship. It is difficult for them to establish firm boundaries and they may resort to passive-aggressive behaviors to get their way. Someone in the child role could have a more avoidant attachment style and might withdraw from conflict and their partner. They could feel victimized by their partner, but could also rely on them and feel somewhat helpless in the relationship. The child partner can end up resenting the parent partner for their overinvolvement and can resent their advice and act out either overtly or covertly.

The Attraction

The parent-child dynamic can be comforting initially. For the child partner, it can be flattering to be given so much attention. While for the parent partner, they are able to nurture someone who seems appreciative. Both partners may have witnessed this type of interaction in their family of origin. Therefore, they may each believe that this dynamic is a normal way of relating. The partner that takes on the child role can feel cared for, while the one that takes on the parent role can feel needed. Parent partners can control their environment and spend a lot of energy on their relationship, and child partners can focus on their interests outside of their relationship. Problems develop overtime as the inequality in this dynamic becomes glaring and leads to resentment from both partners.

Changing The Dynamic

The parent-child dynamic in relationships can be toxic and can erode effective communication and intimacy. If you find that your relationship fits this pattern, it will be important to change the dynamic and create a more peer based relationship. This type of relationship requires both partners to equally contribute to the relationship and make decisions jointly. Both the parent partner and the child partner will need to communicate more overtly and establish effective boundaries to break the pattern. This requires give and take from each partner. The parent partner will need to relinquish some control and rely more on their partner. Likewise, the child partner will need to take on more responsibility and put more effort into the relationship.

What The Parent-Partner Can Do

The partner in the parenting role can allow their spouse to contribute in their own way. This requires the parent to stop being so controlling. You may have anxiety about things getting done or of everything falling apart, but building trust in your partner is essential. To do this, it’s important to back off and let your partner do things their way. Ask your partner for their input. Let them gain some control. Making a list of what needs to be done and jointly deciding who will do what is one way to establish more equality. It is helpful to be open to your partner’s ideas and input, even if it is quite different from your own. Being more overt about your needs can keep resentment from building and increase your emotional intimacy. When you can be more vulnerable with your partner, you can deepen your connection.

What The Child-Partner Can Do

The partner in the child role can take on a more active role in the relationship. Set firm boundaries around the way you expect to be treated. If your spouse is talking down to you or scolding you, let them know that it is not okay. Agree to tasks that you can complete, and follow through. Instead of engaging in passive-aggressive behaviors to get your way, you can be direct. Let your partner know that the relationship is important and you are there for them. Support your partner when they are struggling and listen to them. Come together as a team and make joint decisions about your relationship and running the household. 

If you notice the parent-child dynamic in your relationship, couples counseling can help. Once you understand the pattern, you can take steps to create a more equal partnership. This can help improve your intimacy and overall relationship satisfaction.