We often see stories about the most common reason marriages end – they usually cite arguments over money, sex, household chores, or parenting but there’s another overarching reason that’s very prevalent of which you may not be aware. It’s the parent-child marriage.
Joining me for this episode of Conversations About Divorce is psychologist Dr. Tony Ferretti. Listen in to discover:
- what is a parent-child marriage
- how parent-child behaviors end marriages
- why breaking the parent-child dynamic makes for a better relationship
Frequently, it’s the female who takes on the parent role because males tend to be under-developed emotionally. As the parent, the wife tells the husband what he should or shouldn’t do, micro-manages him or tells him the best way to do tasks. The husband in response assumes a child role and may react in ways we commonly associate with children such as leaving the wife to make decisions, not expressing true preferences or being defiant whether that’s openly or secretively.
This type of parent-child interaction is situational which means that one spouse isn’t always the parent and the other the child. Roles can flip so maybe it’s the wife who is the parent when it comes to managing the household but she becomes a child when it comes to money.
We don’t make conscious decisions to assume these roles. Most often these behaviors can be traced back to our family of origin. How did you see your parents relate to each other? How did you see your parents resolve conflict? We may assume a parenting role and the behaviors we associate with it with respect to money because that is how we saw our fathers behave. We may also assume that role because we saw one of our parents respond in a childlike way and we have made the conscious decision not to be like them. So our behaviors are mimicking or compensating for our parents’ behaviors but we may be doing this subconsciously and not even aware of our patterns until we are in a crisis.
You can also fall into a pattern of relating by default. In my own marriage, I was the primary breadwinner and I also handled all the financial decisions and money management. So I was the parent. This is not what I had wanted – I had wanted more of a partnership with shared decision-making. In the early years I had tried to encourage money discussions but I don’t remember my ex being interested. Mostly, I remember him being resentful about my being the breadwinner. He never followed through and I gave up trying. He didn’t step up and I accepted the parent role.
Doing nothing, keeping quiet, going along with things are passive aggressive moves and are signs of the defiant child. Another way to identify child behaviors is to consider your child’s behaviors as a toddler.
In many marriages this pattern of behavior continues for the duration of the marriage. I remember walking into the kitchen of my grandparents’ house one Saturday afternoon when I was in my mid-twenties. They were in their eighties. My grandmother was in the kitchen crying. My grandfather was yelling at her from the living room. I had never heard him yell before and was shocked. I put my arm around my grandmother’s shoulders and told her not to take it to heart, that he was shouting because of the stroke he’d suffered and that he really didn’t mean what he was saying. She looked at me and said, “My dear, he’s been like this all his life.”
For many of us though, there’s a crisis: a financial hardship, an addiction, unemployment, parenting struggles, an affair and we’re not able to resolve the conflict. Sometimes the crisis is self-inflicted. The parent becomes tired and resentful of being the responsible one, they begin to detach emotionally and disengage from their partner. From there they make self-destructive choices giving their partner a reason to end the marriage. The child may rebel, like a teenager, not wanting to follow the parent’s rules any longer.
The crisis often triggers marriage counselling though by then dynamics may be so ingrained that they can’t be changed fast enough to save the relationship. Think about it … if these are patterns we learned in childhood and have been practicing for decades, why do we think that three sessions with a counselor will produce dramatic and lasting change?
The behavior pattern we need to learn is an adult response which is more about asking your partner how you can work together to resolve this. Dr. Ferretti says it means having the capacity to forgive the wrong your partner has committed, acknowledging the emotional pain you’ve caused each other, not lashing out at them and inviting them for a two-way open discussion. It means recognizing that you and your spouse are a team.
One of the keys to shifting to an adult response is recognizing that you cannot control how others respond to you. Recognizing this means you’ll be giving the other person less reason to respond inappropriately and you may be helping your relationship evolve.
Learning about the parent-child marriage now may be too late to save your marriage but it could help you to better understand why your marriage ended. But don’t stop there. The best way to avoid making the same choices again is to get healthy and to start learning to respond in an adult way and that applies with whomever you’re communicating: your ex, your coworkers, your kids, your family members, your new partner.
The first step on that journey is to be aware of your behavior. Another possibly less intimidating way to increase your awareness is to start trying to spot these behaviors in your favorite TV shows.
Dr. Tony Ferretti is a licensed psychologist specializing in helping professionally successful clients achieve work-life balance and manage interpersonal problems and conflicts. Dr. Ferretti has made numerous media appearances including the Dr. Phil Show and hosted his own weekly radio show, Talk to Tony for nearly two years. His exciting new book, “The Love Fight: How Achievers & Connectors Can Build a Marriage That Lasts capsulizes Dr. Ferretti’s unique practice and clinical experience. Visit his website at DrTonyFerretti.com and follow him on Facebook.