Social media is full of jokes and advice about relationship dynamics after kids. For example, the algorithms have fed me more than one video of moms complaining that their most difficult child is the one their mother-in-law birthed (AKA their spouse). While most of these videos are for laughs, it’s worth exploring whether it can be detrimental to relationships when one person starts to treat their partner as a child, too.
It’s easy to see how partnerships can start to slip into this dynamic. After kids, parenting becomes the priority and taking care of our relationship moves down the to-do list. So to learn more about how to get out of the pattern of parenting partners, we looked outside of social media and turned to some experts; two associates of Manhattan Wellness, a celebrated psychotherapy practice in New York. Jennifer Silvershein Teplin, founder and clinical director, and Elizabeth Marks, associate therapist, shared how and why to quit parenting a partner.
What does ‘parenting a partner’ look like?
While all relationships are different and each has their own unique dynamic of responsibilities, without effective and frequent communication, roles and responsibilities can gradually become imbalanced. From Marks’ experience, she’s seen this uneven balance occur when one person in the relationship completes significantly more basic tasks and holds the responsibility of meeting the others’ needs. One partner taking on a parenting role can look like all of the household tasks falling on that person’s shoulders.
The imbalance can happen for a number of reasons, as Teplin pointed out;
- Sometimes one partner may prefer to be ‘in control’ and will therefore take on more tasks and complete them in a way they believe is ‘right.’
- If one person has perfectionist tendencies, the other may shy away from completing tasks if they are led to feel like whatever they do is wrong or incorrect.
- Sometimes one partner enjoys being taken care or is unaware of everything their partner does for them and the household. She called this the ‘invisible work‘ one partner does that is unrecognized and unappreciated by the other.
The effects of parenting a partner
“To parent someone is to guide, support and nurture,” said Marks. “When you enter a relationship certain aspects of these actions exist, but between two equals—not a parent and child.”
In a parent/child dynamic, the ‘child’s’ needs will take priority over the needs of the ‘parent.’ Teplin shared that, at first, this feeling of being needed in the ‘caretaker’ roll can feel very good. When this happens consistently, however, and the ‘honeymoon phase’ of the relationship comes to a close, the constant giving and not receiving can feel burdensome. As life gets more complicated by adding in actual children, things like a mortgage and so on, the burden grows and often transforms into resentment, Teplin explained.
Not only does a parent/child dynamic in a relationship cause a burden on the individual in the ‘caregiver’ role, it can also have significant effects on the person being supported. Teplin explained when this individual constantly has someone else doing things for them, it can lead to them feeling like they aren’t capable of completing tasks. This can translate into feeling disempowered, and lead them to continue to relinquish responsibilities.
Perhaps the most harmful effects of parenting a partner are seen in the emotional and romantic aspects of the relationship. “Romantic relationships differ from platonic or familial because of passion, connection, intimacy and partnership,” said Marks. “When parenting is taking place within a romantic space it’s easy to become less attracted to your partner, feel resentful, and oftentimes frustrated with the role.”
Should we ever parent our partner?
So is there ever is a time and a place for parenting a partner? Marks and Teplin agreed that, while there are certainly times we need to show increased emotional and physical support for our partners, this should always be in a partnership role, not parental.
Teplin offered a solution, “If you feel like you’re falling into the ‘parenting pattern’ ask yourself what supporting rather than doing/telling would look like and focus on empowering your partner to work in tandem with you.”
Marks touched on the importance of remembering that our partners are our equals, not our children. During their times of need, we can offer support, advice, and a listening ear without parenting them by telling them what do or instantly going into ‘fix it’ mode. This shows that we are here for them to lean on, but that we also believe they are capable of making the best decisions for themselves.
How to quit parenting a partner
It’s for the benefit of our relationship to reserve parenting for the children only, and treat our partners like the adults they are, and act like the partner we hope to have. According to Marks and Teplin, communication is at the center. Each provided practical ways of communicating with our partners so that we may create a partnership dynamic that is mutually beneficial and enjoyable.
Notice your unspoken expectations—then talk about solutions together
Teplin explained that when we start to feel burdened by the tasks on our plate, it is our job to talk with our partners about what we’re experiencing. In order to do this, we must be conscious of our own feelings and be open to sharing them to create longterm solutions. She explained, “Becoming more mindful and aware of the behaviors and unspoken expectations will enable you to rework agreements with your partner and ensure both of your needs are being met.”
Marks explained it similarly—we first need to be mindful of the patterns we are falling into that make us unhappy, and then bring them up to our partner. When we are not satisfied with the current expectations of ourselves and our partners, we need to be open to discussing a solution.
Schedule regular check-ins
Marks recommended doing regular check-ins with partners. When we plan check-ins, we open the door to discussion on how to be better partners and avoid falling back into our patterns.
What it boils down to, she explained, is communicating our needs and being receptive to the needs of our partner when they choose to share. “What makes you feel loved, respected and wanted from your partner is going to shift but the role of ‘partner’ and equal should always remain,” said Marks. She explained that by speaking our needs, voicing when a problem arises, and leading by example with respect and understanding will allow us to be equals instead of falling into a parenting pattern with our partners.