Written by Kelle Salle
Most of us have come across the quote ‘relationships aren’t easy, but they’re worth it’ at some point. In this social media age, it’s easy to think that they are easy, but most times we’re only seeing the good moments. Relationships take a lot of time and effort from both parties in order to work and the work doesn’t stop once the honeymoon period is over. As things progress, reality will start to kick in and you might notice things you’ve never paid attention to before.
Although relationships are 100:100 (not 50:50 like we’ve been led to believe), one partner might find themselves taking on the majority of the responsibility and if boundaries aren’t put in place, this can create a parent-child dynamic. If you are in a relationship with a parent-child dynamic and you feel triggered right now, don’t worry or panic. Once you’re able to identify the behaviours that have created this dynamic, you’ll be able to change them and create a more equal relationship.
We’ve asked Psychotherapist and Award-Winning Content Creator Tasha Bailey to share some insight on how to be supportive of your partner without parenting them.
Why do people parent their partners?
Before we begin, I want to say that it’s not unusual to fall into a pattern of parenting your partner. Our relationship with our parents has a direct influence on the way we approach romantic relationships because our first ever experience of love and attachment came from them. Our parents teach us how to love and be loved, so we might find ourselves unconsciously responding to our romantic partner the same way that they related to us. This is especially the case if we’ve had relational trauma.
What is relational trauma and how can it impact our relationship?
Relational trauma occurs when a child doesn’t feel safe and loved within the family unit. When we have attachment difficulties with our parents in childhood, it can lead us to develop a pattern of rescuing or parenting others. This often happens when we weren’t able to rely on our parents to meet our needs as children, and maybe we had to be a parenting figure to our own guardian.
How does relational trauma show up in relationships?
Relational trauma can also show up in our relationships when we project our childhood needs onto our partner. When this happens, we look after our partner in ways that we wish we could have been looked after as a child. Lastly, our partner might be finding it difficult to take responsibility over their own lives. They may struggle with looking after themselves physically and emotionally, and so we step in to take responsibility for whatever they are unable to.
How does parenting your partner impact your relationship?
Parenting your partner creates an imbalance in the relationship. Rather than feeling like two adults of equal footing, it becomes a relationship of parent and child. This can impact the capacity for autonomy, collaboration, intimacy, sexual attraction and interdependence. For example, in a relationship where a couple who are replicating a parent-child dynamic, one person will be weighed down with a lot of the responsibility of holding the relationship with no opportunity for this to be reciprocated.
To support your partner without parenting them, here are a few things I recommend:
Don’t correct or criticise their choices
Correcting or criticising your partner’s choices can be both shaming and invalidating. When we tell people what decisions they should be making, we project the idea that we are right and they are wrong. This is infantilising and doesn’t allow our partner to make up their own mind or learn from their mistakes.
Talk about any issues you may have with your partner
Conflict is normal in every relationship. Avoiding conflict can be toxic for a long-term relationship – the frustrations will only pile up internally. This can then impact our perspective of a situation since we are carrying the unfinished business of what hasn’t been already said. Co-create a culture where you reflect and air out your issues in the present.
Boundaries help us to love others whilst also loving ourselves. Instead of compromising our needs or invalidating theirs, we learn that we can hold both in a considered way. It’s important that we have space to ourselves so we can keep in touch with who we are as a separate individual.
Don’t make assumptions
It’s important not to assume that your partner always wants you to help or fix things when they share their problems. Offer a listening ear and then ask them whether they would like to hear practical advice from you or whether they would like reassurance or to be nurtured.