When marriage feels like a parent child relationship

How often do you nag your partner? Do you ever have to request the basics, as though they are a child? Perhaps you yourself see your partner as an overbearing parent, constantly on your case and telling you how to behave?

This is not uncommon. I see it a lot in my practise and transactional analysis can help us to explain and explore it.

What is transactional analysis?

Transaction analysis (TA) is a well known psychoanalytical theory developed in the 1950s and still plays a fundamental part in therapy today. The theory suggests that, in all interactions, we are motivated by unconscious parts of our personality known as ego states. There are 3 primary ego states. These are:

Parent: Behaviour and activities that replicates the behaviours, thoughts and feelings of parental figures from childhood.  This ego state often works on autopilot and can manifest in two forms, nurturing and caring, and also critical and controlling.

Child: This is an emotional ego state whereby you react and feel in a similar way to when you were a child. For example, you might react negatively to a loud noise if you learned in childhood that loud noises were threatening. Much like the parent state, it can manifest in two forms: The excited Free Child or as the helpless Adapted Child.

Adult: An adult ego state is a focus on the here and now – it is a state where we can process information logically and rationally from a variety of sources. Reaching an adult state is desirable for having healthy interactions with others.

When I hear partners in couple therapy describe challenging situations, it is often the case that transactional analysis can help us explore the unconscious motivations behind behaviours. For the sake of this article, we’ll focus on romantic relationships whereby one person is frequently in ‘parent’ role and the other is in ‘child’.

When equal partners are not equal

In any healthy romantic relationship it is expected that the balance of power is more or less equal – that both parties have roles and responsibilities, and a mutual level of respect between one another.

Often, this is not the case, and we can get stuck into some destructive habits.

Let’s look at a real life example:

Samantha and Chris have been together for a couple of years. They are raising 2 children from Samantha’s previous marriage. Chris loves snowboarding, windsurfing and paddle boarding in his spare time and spends a great deal of time focused on these activities. Samantha finds herself having to do quite a lot of ‘boring adult’ activities such as preparing kids lunch boxes, doing laundry and organising calendars. She often resents Chris’s lack of responsibility, and envies his freedom. She doesn’t feel Chris takes his role as Step Dad as seriously as she’d like, but also doesn’t feel she can burden him with children that aren’t biologically his. Instead of having a dialogue about this, she nags, criticises and complains, causing Chris to want to spend more time away from the house and with people who have fun with him, rather than people who nag him.

In this scenario, we can see a disbalance. Samantha is seen as ‘dull’ by Chris, but he also burdens her with the ‘boring’ adult responsibilities while he enjoys carefree outdoor pursuits. Samantha sees Chris as a child in a Peter Pan state of never quite growing up, yet also feels jealousy about this.

In therapy, when both partners come into their adult state, they can more clearly explore the feelings associated with this, and set out some boundaries that allows both parties to have fun and be responsible with more equality.

Growing up can be tough

There’s a common assumption that we grow up as soon as we come of an adult age. I disagree. Growing up is something we do throughout our lives. It’s a process and not a linear one either. If you ever find yourself ‘acting out’, it could be that you are having a child response to something. For example, one of my clients, when faced with constructive challenge, quite literally runs away or kicks out the person challenging her. Her child-self cannot handle the mirror being reflected back at her, and reacts in a child-like, fear-fuelled way. This gives her a sense of control and power, all while enabling her to mask her true self and never grow. Does this sound familiar? Perhaps you do something similar? Therapy can help…

Getting the support you need

I offer you acute couples counselling, couples therapy and individual psychotherapy based on your preferences, either online, at your place, or at my clinics in Østerbro or Svendborg.

We can also go for a walk.

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Book a free 15 minute conversation, which is all you need to begin your journey. We will talk about where you are now, where you want to be, and how I can help you get there.