Updated: Dec 13, 2021
One telltale sign of a toxic (romantic) relationship is when you notice a partner-child dynamic unfolding… This is also known as codependency.
I’ve been there, and I’m a therapist. I didn’t pop out of the womb a fully-fledged therapist, nor was I role modelled how to have healthy relationships growing up. FYI, therapists don’t have perfect relationships either (here’s a secret: perfection isn’t the goal).
For many years I fought to defend my inner child and justify its hurt (I have my moments where I still do). It’ll argue things like, “it’s not my fault I’m hurting; they did this to me”, wallowing in victimhood.
However, the hard truth is: we can’t change people. We can’t control them. We can’t force them to apologise, forgive, love or show up in the ways we wish. This was a hard pill for me to swallow.
And so, when we weren’t parented by our parents in the way we wanted them to, or our parents aren’t around anymore, we can find ourselves treating our partners as stand-in parental figures. We can even expect them to make up for or completely redeem where our parents fell short.
Signs of a parent-child dynamic in a partnership
Things to look out for:
One person takes leadership in all the problem solving; they brainstorm solutions to their partner’s problems and are generally the one to execute a solution on behalf of the other person;
There is an expectation that the other person will cover everything financially; that person isn’t willing to adapt and swap/share roles when circumstances change;
The motivation to perform adult duties doesn’t come from yourself, it comes from them reminding you, such as exercising, eating well, paying bills, looking for work;
There is a culture of permission-asking, such as in decision-making
Self-validation and self-soothing are rare, if not absent. When one partner is feeling ugly, alone, self-doubting, like a failure or is experiencing a difficult emotion, it is usually the partner (not oneself) that does the validating and comforting;
Facilitating the hard conversations usually falls on one partner, talking about feelings, the future and conflict.
One person does most of the domestic duties, like cooking and cleaning, with the key problematic factor being that both partners have not mutually consented to this division of labour.
They choose how you manage your time, friendships, money and more.
Who is the parent, who is the child?
Perhaps the role of ‘parent’ bounces between both partners, parenting each other in different ways.
There are many layers to what’s required in literal parenting. There’s…
Financial parenting: putting a roof over everyone’s heads and putting food on the table
Emotional parenting: calming and supporting children when they’re down.
Guidance parenting: teaching kids ethics, goal setting, community participation and skills on how to exist (and thrive) in this world.
Career counselling-like parenting: supporting them to do their homework, answering their questions/curiosities about certain jobs, funding their extra-curricular activities, taking them to learn more, i.e. at open days and information sessions
Health parenting: caring for a child when they’re unwell, being responsible for noticing symptoms and taking them to specialists when required
Domestic parenting: driving them places, cooking, cleaning up after them (age dependent)
Do you expect your partner to do near to 100% of any of the above? When roles are rigid, discussion is off the cards and skills/duties are siloed — your relationship will struggle to weather a storm.
Good parenting is doing our best to empower children to grow into independent adults. Good partnering is not the same. It is not the role of a partner to remind us what it means to be an adult. Sure, we all have our moments, but when the dynamic of relying on a partner to do most things for us becomes chronic, that’s definitely a cue to reflect.
When “being a team” becomes codependency
Trusting that our partner will support us in our darkest moments is key to a healthy relationship, yes. However, when does expecting their support become more like a parent-child relationship than a partnered one? When is the line crossed between being collaborative versus being codependent? These can be confronting reflections to sit with.
The answer won’t be straight forward (just as reading a blog post isn’t interchangeable with attending therapy). It will depend on how frequently the above dynamics show up in your relationship, which of course isn’t a complete list either.
We all have an inner child, which is expressed differently person to person. One of those expressions is expecting a partner to parent us. Picture a baby crying and a parent psychically knowing what it needs — to be fed, burped, hugged, put to bed…
As an adult, we can subconsciously expect our partner to read our mind and meet our needs without us ever having communicated them. Watch out for when you find yourself doing that. Sometimes, we mightn’t even know what our needs are (or have done the work to find out), and we still expect our partner to satisfy those mystery needs.
Stepping from parenting to partnership
Some ideas on how to become more of an adult partner
If you’re reading from the position of “parent”, gently encourage and empower your partner to do the following, otherwise they’re written in the perspective for the “child”:
Value your friendships more, putting energy and love into them too;
Unfollow people on social media that represent their relationship as perfect — follow more authentic people;
Starting small, practice making simple decisions more swiftly. Avoid thinking about them after you’ve made them by moving onto the next thing;
Schedule a reminder in your phone to exercise or do a particular domestic duty, sign up for group classes or download an app;
When you turn to your friends and partner for advice, rather than them giving you answers, request that they encourage you to come up with your own ideas, plans and solutions;
Learning healthy relationships
Remember, hardly anyone has been role modelled how to have healthy relationships. In fact,
most media celebrates toxic relationships because without drama, film and TV wouldn’t sell.
No wonder we’re confused. No wonder we desperately search for answers on how to have healthy relationships — reliable resources are hard to find.
A gentle reminder: reflecting on our past behaviours in relationships can be a deeply humiliating and shame-inducing experience. We might feel so confronted facing the truth of our past actions that we choose not to look at them at all… And so we postpone developing skills on how to have healthy relationships. Tread lightly when doing this work, it is best done with a professional that you trust.