Before you were married, you were two responsible individuals. You kept your own calendars, made your own food and had to deal with the consequences of hitting snooze 20 times before getting to work late.
Somewhere after your “I Dos” you fell into a pattern that you probably never intended to. One of you plays the role of the parent and the other is jokingly called your “oldest child.”
You know what I’m talking about.
You’re constantly cleaning up after them, doing their laundry, making all the important plans and getting you where you need to be on time. If you didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done. Or so you think. There are a lot of reasons you believe this way, but we’ll go into those more in depth in a bit.
While it may be more likely for a wife to step into this “mothering” role, the behavior is not restricted to gender. It’s also not restricted to marriages that have children.
Whether you were taught this parent-child dynamic by your own parents or have learned it from the entertainment you consume, treating your spouse like one of your children is an unhealthy habit.
Marriages that have this dynamic show a lack of respect for their spouse, are prone to problems in the bedroom and lead to resentment from both spouses. And that’s not all.
But before we talk about what its effects are, let’s dive into why it happens in the first place.
No two marriages look alike. You are both individuals raised in different families with different traditions and experiences. Both of you came to your marriage with learned behaviors, healthy or not!
You’re doing what your parents modeled for you
The main reason that spouses fall into a parent-child dynamic is that they are just repeating what their parents modeled for them.
One of the easiest things to do in life is to continue the status quo.
So if you were brought up in a home that had a mother who did everything for her children and didn’t expect them to take responsibility for daily tasks, then the easiest thing to do is to expect your spouse to do the same for you. Not because you’re trying to take advantage on purpose, but because that’s what you believe to be the way things are supposed to be.
Maybe you had a mother who constantly complained that her husband was just a big kid that never learned to take care of himself or a father who believed that the best place for a woman was in the kitchen…you will fight these same stereotypes and beliefs in your own marriage.
You need control
You believe that your way is the best way and having it done is not as important as having it done your way.
In this scenario, you’re parenting your spouse because you would rather load the dishwasher, put the kid to bed, fill-in-the-blank the way that YOU think it should be done. You ultimately don’t trust that your spouse will do it to your standards.
You might also not trust that your spouse will complete the task they have to do. Maybe they’ve let the dishes sit on the counter longer than you like, they served dinner later than you scheduled or they want to finish their own task before starting on the one you gave them.
Ultimately you think that you need to be in control of their lives to have things happen in the way you want.
You haven’t discussed your roles
You might feel like a babysitter instead of a partner. You might feel uncomfortably burdened by the imbalance of household responsibilities. This is most likely due to the lack of communicating role expectations in your marriage.
Like I said before, every individual comes from a different background. That means what you believe about the roles of husbands or wives might be totally different than your spouse. If you haven’t discussed what those beliefs are, you might be just falling into the status quo of what you were modeled.
If one of you wanted to stay home with the children and the other believes that both spouses should be contributing financially to the family, then that might be a spot of contention.
All three of these scenarios can lead to seemingly benign but ultimately destructive behaviors.
While the examples could go on and on, I want to identify a few common behaviors that can help you identify if you are treating your partner more like a child than like a spouse.
Constant nagging and correcting
But nothing would get done right? If you find yourself constantly nagging and correcting your partner, treating them as if they can't do anything right, it may be a sign that you are parenting them rather than treating them as a partner in your marriage.
Nagging can create tension and frustration in a relationship and can make your partner feel inadequate or incompetent. Correcting asserts your dominance over their life and actions.
While you may think that it’s helping you get things done, it causes a lot more harm than the results you’re hoping for.
Taking over responsibilities
If you constantly take over responsibilities or tasks without giving your spouse a chance to step up and contribute, it can create a dynamic where you are controlling the situation and not allowing your partner to take ownership of their responsibilities.
Do you keep their calendar and remind them to do things instead of letting them experience the consequences of forgetting?
Or do you step in to control situations if you see them doing something in a different way than you would? For example, you’ve asked your spouse to take out the stinky trash and they say they will as soon as they’re finished with “fill-in-the-blank.” Do you leave it for them to complete or do you just do it yourself?
Making decisions for your partner
If you’re making decisions on behalf of your partner without actively seeking their input or considering their preferences, it could be a sign that you are parenting your partner.
This can involve making decisions about their personal life, professional life or other aspects without involving them in the decision-making process or respecting their autonomy and agency.
If you’re experiencing any of these situations. Your partnership has become unbalanced and you may already be noticing some of these consequences.
Parenting your partner is something that plenty of marriages have dealt with. Even though it’s common, it doesn’t mean it won’t have lasting effects on your relationship.
Lack of respect
When you parent your partner, it can lead to a lack of respect in the relationship. Treating your partner like a child by constantly nagging, correcting, or belittling their contributions can be demeaning and disrespectful. Men might feel emasculated.
It can erode the mutual respect that is essential for a healthy partnership.
It's important to value and acknowledge your partner's contributions, opinions, and decisions, and treat them with the respect and dignity that they deserve as your chosen partner.
Risk to your intimacy
When you treat your partner like a child, it can be difficult for them to see you as a sexual being, and it can affect the emotional and physical intimacy in your relationship.
Husbands have difficult times seeing their wives as sexual beings when they’re not being respected as a responsible adult. In turn, wives don’t feel like fostering sexual intimacy with a husband she has to constantly scold.
Disinterest and apathy
If your partner appears apathetic or disinterested in decision-making or taking initiative, it may be a result of you being in the habit of second-guessing and overriding their decisions.
When you consistently take control and make decisions for your partner, they may feel like their opinions and choices don't matter, leading to a loss of motivation or apathy. They may lose motivation to actively participate in your marriage or take ownership of their responsibilities.
Lack of respect, lack of sexual intimacy and apathy experienced over time will cause a wide divide between the two of you. These are not scenarios that you want to play around with.
If you’re recognizing any of these signs or behaviors in your marriage, it’s time to take action!
It’s not easy to change habits you’ve fallen into, but being willing to assess your contribution to the problem is a great place to start!
The first step to stop parenting your partner is to become aware of your own behaviors and patterns. Reflect on your actions and attitudes towards your partner and assess if you are exhibiting parental behaviors.
If you’re the spouse in the parenting position, why are you doing it? Do you need control? Is it what your parents modeled? Don’t stop digging until you find the answer.
If you’re the spouse being parented, take a hard look at your own behavior. Have you become apathetic and just allowed your spouse to take on more and more? Do you have expectations about your spouse’s role?
Pay attention to your language, tone, and actions towards your partner, and be honest with yourself about your actions.
Foster open communication in your marriage
It can be difficult to admit when you’re wrong. It can be even more difficult to start bringing things up after a period of lacking in the communication department.
You have to start with choosing to be a safe place for both of you to express your thoughts, feelings, and concerns without fear of judgment or criticism. Avoid interrupting or dismissing their opinions and be attentive and empathetic when they are speaking.
When expressing your thoughts and feelings, use "I" statements instead of "You" statements. For example, say "I feel" instead of "You always" or "You never." This conveys your own perspective without sounding accusatory or confrontational, which can help prevent defensiveness and promote open dialogue.
Allow your partner to express their emotions and encourage them to be honest…even if it hurts.
If you focus on your goal to overcome this issue and be a better spouse for your marriage, then it’ll be a little easier to hear and work through hard truths.
Define roles and assign and share household responsibilities
Whether you ascribe to traditional roles or value an equal partnership, it’s important to discuss what both of you want for your marriage.
We believe that it’s both spouses' responsibilities to take care of the home regardless of work status. You both live there, you both have a stake in making it a livable place for your family.
Delegate tasks and responsibilities in a collaborative manner, giving your spouse the opportunity to contribute and take on responsibilities according to their abilities and interests.
This takes the guesswork out of who does what and when. You can always help each other out during particularly busy weeks or during times of sickness or recovery, but in general you each have designated responsibilities.
Find ways to treat your marriage as a partnership
Partnership helps to ensure that both spouses feel supported, respected, and valued even in our busy lives! When you are committed to working together and helping each other, it can create a stronger foundation for your relationship and lead to greater understanding and harmony.
You have a responsibility to support each other, work together towards common goals, and make compromises when necessary. Ultimately, partnership in a marriage is important because it allows you to foster a connection that can help you to feel secure in your relationship indefinitely. You just have to be willing to do the work to remain one!
STOP calling them your oldest child
I know that most people say this jokingly. But joking or not, it’s disrespectful.
If you’re trying to change your behavior and mend your relationship, continued name calling will be counter-productive to your efforts. When you’re building back trust and respect in a relationship, there isn’t room for jokes like these.
Nurture your friendship and intimacy
Treat each other like the friends, partners and lovers that they are. You chose your spouse as your partner and helper for the rest of your lives.
Have a regular date night! We also wrote a post laying out the practical ways you can make time for your marriage if you want a few more ideas.
Get in a habit of gratitude
Say thank you, even in mundane tasks. Gratitude helps you build up respect and love for your spouse.
It's important to work together as a team in marriage, with both partners contributing and taking responsibility for their actions. By practicing self-awareness, open communication, fostering independence and responsibility and promoting mutual respect, you can stop parenting your partner and build a healthier and more fulfilling partnership.
We’ve created the 7 Habits of a Healthy Marriage to help you get back on track when you realize you’ve slid into unhealthy habits. This free guide lays out practical steps to take your marriage to the next level!