Parent-child dynamics in couple relationships
11 October 2023
Do you ever feel like your partner is treating you like a child, or perhaps the opposite, that they’re seeming a little childish and you feel a little bit like a parent? This is a common feeling in many relationships and it’s not a particularly healthy dynamic.
After all, who really wants their love relationship to sometimes resemble a parent-child dynamic?
One way of looking at human relations is to recognise that individuals often relate to each other from a ‘child part’ or a ‘parent part’. In couple relationships this way of relating can be unconscious, so we’re caught up in an unhealthy dynamic but without realising it.
I first came across the idea of bonding patterns in Embracing each other, a book by Hal and Sidra Stone. They specialise in a therapeutic approach that sees people as made up of different parts and that it is important for us to know when we are ‘in’ a particular part. For example, we may be taken over by our perfectionist, our pleaser or our inner critic.
In terms of couple dynamics the parent and child parts are often being evoked, in an unconscious way. The original bonding pattern is that of an infant with its primary caregiver, usually the mother. We take this original, nurturing relationship into our adult relationships without consciously being aware.
The negative bonding pattern usually makes itself felt when we feel hurt by our partner - perhaps it’s when we’re not listened to, when we’re criticised or feel judged, or when we feel jealous or insecure in the relationship.
A different way of describing this is that our internal ‘vulnerable child’ feels unsafe in the relationship.
When our internal vulnerable child feels unsafe we tend to, internally, quickly go to our internal parent part because when we are in our parent part we feel less vulnerable and more powerful. Given that most of us hate feeling vulnerable, it makes sense to try and escape that feeling in our relationship and instead identify with a powerful part of ourselves. What this looks like is often that we become critical of our partner or we withdraw emotionally by going silent or physically separating ourself from them.
Our internal parent
In going to our internal parent part we unconsciously send our partner into their vulnerable child part - they feel criticised, rejected or abandoned. In response they may do something that will help take them to their parent part and, in turn, send us back to feeling our vulnerable child.
An example might be John is frustrated at the lack of sex in his relationship and becomes critical of Mary for being with-holding. In this case, while the visible issue is John’s desire for more sex it is really about his vulnerable child feeling unloved.
Instead of expressing his vulnerable feelings John becomes a ‘critical parent’ and Mary feels like a child who has got it wrong. She responds by going quiet and distancing herself from John, which now leaves him feeling like a needy child, while she has reclaimed a feeling of power as the ‘abandoning parent’
It’s important to remember that this kind of dynamic can happen very quickly, sometimes in a matter of seconds, without either partner really recognising what is going on.
This kind of dynamic can continue longer, with each partner feeling hurt and misunderstood but covering those feelings over by identifying with their powerful parental parts.
This kind of negative bonding pattern can create a lot of suffering in relationships, with each partner feeling bruised and misunderstood.
At the heart of these kinds of problem is that the needs of each partner’s vulnerable child are not recognised or acknowledged. Generally, we think that when be become adults we should be rational individuals who no longer have ‘childish’ needs. The problem with this way of thinking is that, as adults, we are still liable to feel rejected, unvalued and neglected at times by our partner.
Pushing away vulnerable feelings
We may push these feelings away and tell ourselves not to be childish, but the feelings themselves don’t just evaporate if we tell them to and need to be acknowledged in some way. If we are too identified with our parent part, the part of us that feels powerful, we risk excluding the more vulnerable, softer feelings that are an essential component in relationships.
Of course, what would be equally unhelpful in this kind of situation would be to go to the other extreme and over identify with the vulnerable child part of ourselves. People who do this tend to have a victim mentality and see everything as an attempt to do them down and make them feel small.
We need to have access to both our powerful/parent part and our vulnerable child part in our relationship. Having access to the vulnerable child part allows us to communicate our feelings of vulnerability, sadness or fear. But having access to our parent part allows us to be direct in getting our needs met and expressing ourselves, and to avoid being trapped in a victim role.
Hal and Sidra Stone argue that we must try to become empowered, rather than simply vulnerable or powerful. “Being empowered means being related both to the vulnerable and the power sides and being able to communicate with both of these selves present.”
To do this we need to try and develop an awareness of how we are behaving, to learn how something can leave us feeling vulnerable and how we, almost automatically, switch to becoming angry/ critical or withdrawing from our partner.
This recognition of our vulnerability, and how we quickly hide it, takes practice. It’s probably not something we are able to recognise in the heat of an argument, at least initially. More realistic is to try and recognise what happened afterwards, when tempers are cooled.
In time we can become more aware of these patterns and what the triggers are. That won’t stop them from happening but it may help us to reduce their power and to begin to recognise, in the moment, when they are taking hold.