How "Parentizing" Can Undermine Our Relationship
Casting a partner or ourself as a parent creates discord in a relationship.
Posted May 14, 2019
Every intimate relationship involves the coming together of two individuals, each with a unique personality impacted by the cumulative influence of their nature and nurture. When forming such a bond, we are guided by an internalized script, a kind of blueprint that helps us to define expectations of others, the world in general, and ourselves.
This script may become powerfully revealed by how we define love and the assumptions we make about a partner based on this definition. The fact that our definitions may greatly contrast with each other forms a challenge for even the most loving of couples. Each of us may associate love with a broad range of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. We may experience harmony and happiness when these definitions are in synch or tension, conflict, and isolation when they are not.
Gary Chapman, for example, describes five “love languages”, stating that we tend to express love in the following ways: words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service and physical touch (Chapman, 2010). He suggests that many of the conflicts couples experience are due to not understanding a partner’s love language. And that developing awareness of how a partner experiences love will help move the couple to improved intimacy.
More specifically, however, we might also bring to our relationships differing expectations of the degree to which our partner should help us to create internal stability, positive self-esteem, and emotional regulation. This may be especially true with regard to coping with uncomfortable emotions, such as anger, anxiety, sadness, and depressed feelings. And certainly, it is reasonable to expect that a loving partner be available to provide us comfort when we are suffering
However, not only differences in expectations but also the degree to which they are rigidly maintained can powerfully undermine our relationship in a variety of ways. For example, any tendency to “parentize”, cast a partner or oneself as a parent, may fuel misunderstanding, anger, anxiety, and overall conflict.
What it means to “parentize” a partner
It is natural that we often bring into our adult relationships expectations that are overly influenced by our early longings for a certain kind of parenting. These expectations may derive from unresolved issues of our early relationships with parents, siblings or others who may have played a pivotal role in our caretaking during those formative years. By contrast, we may be so rigidly attached to the positive parenting we had that it becomes difficult to let it go. We may be conflicted about mourning the passing of our place as a child in our family of origin.
As such, it makes perfect sense that–with and without full awareness–we may emotionally experience this new relationship as an opportunity to satisfy needs and longings regarding those earlier relationships. Or, we may seek to have our current relationship completely mirror what we experienced as a child. It is as if our emotional mind concludes, “I’m in a loving relationship. Maybe I could get from this relationship what I missed out on in my earlier relationship” or “I so loved the way I grew up and want this relationship to be exactly like it”. Our emotional mind may make global conclusions like this one–even when we know that it may not make sense.
Parentizing our partner may entail expecting him or her to be responsible for helping calm our suffering–including our fear, anxiety, anger or sadness. While it may initially sound like these are totally realistic expectations of a loving relationship, they are problematic when rigidly maintained. They are not a substitute for taking responsibly to seek ways to alleviate our own suffering. Without taking such responsibility, we intensify our dependency, recreating the dependency as we had as a child.
There is a huge difference between healthy dependency in a loving relationship and the dependency of a child on a parent. And there is a huge difference between the desire to incorporate some aspects of our family of origin into our current relationship and an expectation that it completely replicate it.
Freud coined the term “repetition compulsion” with regard to one way this might play out in our adult relationships (Freud, 1990). He suggested that when we have unresolved issues regarding our early relationships we might unconsciously seek someone with whom we can help correct for those experiences. As such we might find ourselves attracted to someone who, like one of our parents, may be emotionally unavailable to provide us what we need. We may unwittingly choose this person with the erroneous belief that if we can win him or her over to meet our specific needs, it will somehow make up for what we didn’t get–and ultimately diminish, if not completely undo the suffering related to those experiences.
Unfortunately, no matter how loving a partner is, such love cannot fully make up for the hurt or pain that that younger child experienced. A partner can certainly be validating and help support the healing of some of the pain stemming from earlier years, but that child needed it at that unique time in his or her development. No matter how loving a partner is, the suffering associated with that past must be separately addressed and sufficiently mourned. It becomes especially challenging to fully accept a partner’s love when this is not addressed. Similarly, we may seek unconditional love from a partner–a degree of love that a child needs in his earliest years but which may be unrealistic to expect as an adult.
Parentizing may similarly be enacted when we have sensitivities to a partner’s behaviors that are overly influenced by those early relationships. For example, we might extremely sensitive to a partner’s loud voice, if we felt threatened by a parent who raised his or her voice. And likewise, we may be quick to feel controlled–even when a partner is not controlling–if we had a parent who was overbearing.
What it means to parentize yourself
We may parentize ourselves when we follow a script that suggests we are completely responsible for a partner’s emotional well-being, especially with regard to alleviating his pain. Years ago I heard a radio interview with a therapist. A woman, who was a social worker, called in with a question about her responsibility in her relationship. Specifically, she asked the guest, a marriage counselor, how responsible she should be for helping her boyfriend overcome his alcohol addiction. The show’s guest appropriately responded that she should not try to be a social worker with her boyfriend and that she instead support his seeking help from someone else.
While certain qualities of love and compassion might be very similar to how we might parent a child, being a parent to a partner can be demeaning and devaluing and robs them of their individuality and the respect they deserve. It can be enabling of weaknesses and may reflect co-dependency, a relationship in which we might experience our worth and meaning as determined by viewing a partner as a more dependent child.
I’ve worked with many individuals troubled by anxiety, anger, guilt and even shame that they are unable to “fix” or help a partner remove his emotional suffering. These feelings often underlie the tensions and conflicts in relationships.
The negative impact of parentizing
Parentizing a partner often involves maintaining rigidly held expectations that are sure to arouse disappointment accompanied by frustration, sadness, and anger. And unfortunately, a lack of their satisfaction my only confirm, yet again, a feeling of not being lovable. The impact of such interaction undermines a romantic relationship and fosters increased isolation.
A client I worked with some years ago revealed this type of expectation in an anecdote he shared. It reflects the negative impact of parentizing, even though it might appear to be at a milder level. He reported giving his wife his mother’s recipe for meatloaf. It was with great nostalgia that he looked forward to revisiting an intensely happy childhood memory. It’s not too surprising that he was quite disappointed when she served it. In fact, he adamantly questioned whether she had followed all of the recipe’s guidelines.
Unfortunately, he failed to realize that many factors combined to form his fond memory. His mother had prepared the meatloaf–a behavior that was consistent with her expressing love through her cooking. This experience was imbued with a range of very positive qualities he associated with his mother. Further, the odors of his home, specifically the kitchen, may also have contributed to his overall joyful experience. And, unfortunately, a shift in some of the sensitivities of his taste buds may also have contributed to the difference between his childhood memory and his adult experience.
Parentizing a partner may also include taking for granted that a partner will, and should, know our needs without having to articulate them. So while we may at times react with irritation when a partner says she fully knows what we think or feel, we may take for granted that she should know what we desire.
Healthy caring versus parentizing
It is certainly understandable to expect a partner to be loving and compassionate–to be supportive and validating, whether expressed in words or actions. Certainly, some expressions of love might very much resemble parental caring–as for example, when we bring home chicken soup for our partner who is experiencing a cold or being there to help her deal with her stress. However, parentizing a partner inevitably undermines respect, a sense of equality and ultimately the romantic aspect of the relationship. This dilemma was revealed by conflicts expressed by a couple I worked with several years ago.
Specifically, Carrie reported calling her husband, Bruce, at his office several times throughout the morning. He reluctantly answered each time but became increasingly irritated as he was in the middle of an important meeting. Carrie indicated that she called him for help regarding her computer.
She experienced an emotional slight in regard to his irritation and subsequently experienced frustration, disappointment, and anger. He argued that there was no real urgency for her calling and that he would get back to her at a later time.
Further sharing by Carrie revealed that her mother, who suffered from depression, was extremely self-absorbed and unavailable throughout her childhood. Carrie suffered greatly because of this. Unwittingly, her husband always being available to help her was very much experienced as a test of his true love. It was an example of unresolved issues that led to her parentize him. In fact, she stated “of course”, when questioned if immediately responding to her should take priority over any meeting he had to attend. Furthermore, without hesitation, Carrie stated that she maintained this expectation even if being distracted in the meeting might have a negative impact on his role and–indirectly–on their financial well-being.
They often experienced arguments with his complaint that she was at times “too needy” and she responding that he didn’t sufficiently care about her feelings. The fact that Bruce, in part, saw himself as a parent in the relationship, only further contributed to their conflict.
What also distinguishes between healthy caring and unhealthy parentizing is the degree to which we may feel compelled, intensely driven to experience a partner as a parent–or to take on the role of a parent in such a relationship. Certainly, either due to emotional or physical challenges, there are times when we may need genuine caretaking that may resemble the caretaking of a parent. However, it’s important to make the distinction that one may be a caretaker but not a parent.
A healthy relationship demands being fully present with a partner, presence that recognizes and experiences the uniqueness of a partner. Such presence allows for a connection with this unique individual with whom we have chosen to share our life. Any form of parentizing–of a partner or our self–diminishes the degree of our full presence with our partner.
We might invariably compare a current relationship with those of our past, but expecting it to make up for or replicate that past is a formula that undermines real presence. Recognizing when we parentize a partner can be a beneficial prompt for self-compassionately finding ways to heal our earlier pain. Only by addressing our own unresolved issues can we be more fully present in our interactions with a loving partner and with ourselves. Only by doing so can we experience real freedom in relating that is not burdened by an internalized script that promotes parentizing.
Chapman, G. (Reprint edition, 2015). The 5 Love Languages: The Secrets to Love That Lasts. Chicago, IL: Northfield Publishing.
Freud, S. (The Standard edition, 1990). Beyond The Pleasure Principal. New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton.