I see a lot of clients for marital/relationship counseling, and one of the most common and frustrating factors that people struggle with when they come to see me is something that I call the Parent/Child Dynamic. This happens when one partner has taken on the role of the Parent, or Director, in the relationship, and the other partner is stuck in the role of the Child, or Adolescent. In these relationships, one person is basically in charge of knowing what needs to be done, and they end up having to ask, direct, or otherwise nag their partner to complete responsibilities that need to be handled. This is an unhealthy relationship pattern for many reasons, but it’s not the fault of one partner of the other.
Honestly, the way I see this dynamic play out most often occurs with a woman in the role of Parent, and a man in the role of Child/Adolescent. However, this is by no means the only way it happens. I’m going to use the example of a woman in the Parent role to illustrate my points here, but be aware that these roles can occur in any relationship with either partner taking on these two roles. In this situation, the woman/Parent is constantly having to tell her partner what chores need to be done, what bills need to be paid, what child-care responsibilities need to be attended to, what planned events or activities need to be prepared for, what needs to be purchased at the store, what pet care duties need to be fulfilled, and on and on and on. Often, I hear from the partner in the Child/Adolescent role “I don’t mind doing whatever she needs, she just needs to ask me”. It sounds like cooperation, but it’s really a form of relinquishing duty. In this example, the woman is in charge of knowing everything that needs to be taken care of, and is in charge of making sure everything gets completed on time and as needed. The man essentially can say he is helping and cooperating, but he takes no part in being pro-active about responsibilities. This dynamic is damaging to relationships because the relationship is not functioning as a partnership, but as a Parent/Child relationship.
For the person in the parent role, it’s exhausting. You didn’t sign up to parent your partner, you wanted someone who would share responsibilities, support you in both tangible and intangible ways, and be, well, your Partner. For the person in the adolescent role, it’s equally frustrating. After all, you didn’t sign up to be treated like a child, nagged about your duties, and punished verbally or emotionally when you didn’t do your chores. It’s infantilizing, and for men, also emasculating. In most cases, you both came into this relationship looking for a partner, and when it starts to feel like you’re in a Parent/Child relationship, it’s going to start to feel less like a partnership and more like a drag. No one wants to be treated like a child, and no one wants to have to nag their partner like a parent. Even worse, sometimes the person in the adolescent role will become resentful about being treated like a child, and will begin “acting out”, by saying they will complete certain tasks and then “forgetting”, or just saying they will do it later and then dragging it out until their partner starts nagging them again, causing more frustration, resentment, and even arguments.
The solution here requires both partners to make some changes. First, you need to have an open discussion with each other if you feel that this is the kind of dynamic that is developing in your relationship. You need to both recognize the role that you have been playing and discuss what you really want your partnership to look like. If you have been in the adolescent role, recognize that it is not your partner’s job to tell you what needs to be done around the house, remind you of the responsibilities that you agreed to, and direct all functions of the household duties. You’re an adult, so act like it. Don’t want to be nagged about taking out the trash or helping with dishes or children? Then start being more pro-active about what needs to be done so your partner doesn’t have to “assign” you chores to do. In some circumstances you can both agree about what needs to be done and assign who is responsible for doing it. However, in my opinion, this is not ideal. Chore lists are for teenagers, not adults. If you don’t want to be treated like a teenager, then act like an adult. It’s fine to have some general roles if you both prefer to do certain tasks. For example, one person may be primarily responsible for mowing the lawn or cooking dinner. These divisions may occur naturally based on what each partner prefers to do or is more capable of doing well. That’s not a problem. But all partnerships require some give and take, and if you notice something needs to be done, just do it. There’s no point in keeping score.
If you have been in the parent role, you may be in for some frustration as you try to make these changes. It will be hard to refrain from engaging in your role as director and assigner of duties if you have been used to doing this, because if the pattern continues, you will see things that need to be done and either end up doing them yourself, or feeling secretly insane inside as you wonder when and if your partner is going to step up and do what needs to be done. This will take some adjusting because while you are used to knowing what needs to be done, and when and how to do it, you will need to allow some space for your previously adolescent partner to step into their new adult role. Give it some time, because one of the most important parts of fixing this problem is that you refrain from asking multiple times for something to be done, or reminding your partner of the things they said they would do. If you get frustrated and start asking multiple times or reminding your partner over and over about something they said they would do, the pattern starts to get further engrained. Sometimes, unpleasant things may happen, like the trash piles up or a bill incurs a late fee. I know, I know, this shouldn’t happen. But you are trying to break unhealthy patterns, and you must give your partner some space to feel the consequences of their own inaction rather than you pointing it out to them all the time. People will not grow up and take responsibility if you always fix everything for them, nor if you criticize how they do everything. If your partner feels like they can never do anything right, they will likely just stop trying.
These changes are not going to happen if you do not talk openly and frankly about what the problem is beforehand. For example, if you have, in the past, tried to passively stay silent while the lawn went un-mowed or the dishes piled up, “testing” your partner to see how long it would take them to notice and step up to the work that needs to be done, then continuing that pattern is not going to help. You have to figure out how to walk the line between direct communication about what you both need and expect from your partnership, and being the director and supervisor of everything. This means that you may need to let go of some of the things you want to control. The towels may not be folded the way you like them and you might run out of toilet paper. Partnership is a growth process. As individuals, we all have to make adjustments when we choose to become a partner to someone else. If you want that partnership to develop in a healthy way, you need to recognize that it is not your partner’s responsibility to conform to what you want them to be. You both need to make adjustments to find the dynamic that works for you both. But don’t allow an unhealthy dynamic to fester and grow in your relationship. You both need to be part of the solution, so recognizing and talking about the Parent/Child dynamic and how it is damaging your partnership is a good place to start changing.