When One Spouse Feels Like the Parent and the Other Feels Like the Child

When One Spouse Feels Like the Parent
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How It Affects Sexual Desire

In just about every couple I help, there is a father/daughter or mother/child pattern that has manifested.  In other words, much of the time, one of the spouses feels more like a parent; a person who has to manage, restrict or compensate for the other person.  I hear these people say statements such as-

“I feel like I have another child”

“I think of everyone and he (or she) only thinks of him (or herself.”

“Why do I have to always be the responsible one?”

The other partner often feels like a child; a person who has to answer to the other person, is often fearful of the other person’s anger or judgment and will work hard to either be compliant (good child) or oppositional (rebellious child).  I hear these people say statements such as-

“I knew I was going to be in trouble because I forgot to call and tell him (or her) I was going to be late.”

“She was nagging me all day.”

“I am always walking around on eggshells around my partner.”

“I refuse to be controlled by him (or her).

Couples slip into these roles very unconsciously and automatically.   Let’s look more closely at a few of the above statements.  The statements that I listed that people often in the “parent” role say usually have to do with a sense of feeling overburdened and overwhelmed.  There is resentment about the “unfairness” that the other partner gets to play or be selfish whereas the partner in the “parent” role has to make all the sacrifices.  The statements of partners in the “child” role usually have to do with feeling controlled, restricted or in some sort of danger by an “angry authority figure.”

These are all projections and not true reflections of each other.  The person in the parent role projects onto the other partner a sense of incompetence or untrustworthiness.  This actually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more one acts like the parent the more it actually evokes the child.  (and vice versa)  The problem here is that history may point to the reasonableness of that projection.  However, being stuck in that projection pretty much guarantees that this unhealthy dynamic will remain.  The person in the child role is projecting onto the other that this person is more powerful than he or she really is.  For example, rather than seeing the other person as just having a feeling (such as disappointment when you forgot to call and tell the spouse that you will be late), you see that person as bigger than he or she really is and make that person into something he or she is not.  I often bring up the story of “The Wizard of Oz.”  At first, you see this big, powerful “being” on a screen that looks fierce and threatening but when Dorothy’s dog, Toto, pulls back the curtain, there is an ordinary and somewhat insecure man.

One problem with this dynamic then is that each person is limiting each other as they continue to react to their automatic perception and projections.  The other problem is that this parent/child pattern can diminish the sexual desire of one or both partners.  Experiencing your partner as an authority figure can be a huge turnoff as well as experiencing your partner as a child.  I have seen some infidelity as unconscious ways to experience something other than the “parent” or “child” persona with another new person.

The good news is that there are much better ways to experience yourself and the partner as two healthy adults.  In my sessions with couples, here are some of  the things I do to shift from a parent/child pattern to a healthier adult/adult pattern (which in turn can restore a vibrant sex life).

  1. I help couples learn how to communicate in ways that lead to re-perceiving each other as equal adults.
  2. I help partners in the parent role practice healthy vulnerability.  (Being in the parent role can be an unconscious defense against being more vulnerable).
  3. I help partners in the child role take more initiative and see the partner as “needing “ them in some way as opposed to trying to control them.

Shifting parent/child patterns to adult/adult patterns are one of the things that I do early on in my work with couples.  I have seen partners who have had low sexual desire experience renewed sexual interest in their partner.  As couples become aware of these blind spots, they have new tools and new choices that can seemingly miraculously uplift the energy between the couple.

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