We all have roles to play in our relationships and over time they can become fixed. Good guy or bad guy, we get used to acting our part and also the way that it’s received. For this reason, change can be a difficult move to make. When one person assumes the role of child and the other adult, the strain of trying to keep things balanced will begin to wear on the partnership. If one of you is uncomfortable with the extra or lack of responsibility, it’s vital to acknowledge this early and begin to address it.
Identifying parent-child dynamics
Distinguishing parent-child dynamics from husband-wife or boyfriend-girlfriend can initially be very difficult, especially if the imbalance has grown gradually over months or years. The main clue to look out for and to be aware of is how, as a couple, you handle issues of responsibility and control.
It isn’t necessarily about who makes the most money or who makes most of the decisions, it can be more subtle than this. It may be that one person is more passive or unsure of their actions or opinions, forcing the other to speak or act on their behalf. It could also be that one party is slower at tasks than the other, so over time has become resigned to always having things taken out of their hands. What began as a quest for efficiency from the adult partner actually becomes one of control, when the child partner was not perceived as quick or good enough. Once something like this happens, it’s quite clear that a shift has occurred.
Finding the cause
A good place to begin, if this is not the sort of relationship you’re happy with, is to find out the cause of your partner taking on the role of child. Firstly, work out if it’s true of all situations, in and outside of your relationship, or confined to specific ones. Does the behaviour centre around a particular subject, such as refusing to help with housework, manage finances or emotional challenges?
One important question to ask yourself is whether the situation was ever any different, or if actually it has always presented in this way. Are you trying to change something that in hindsight has never been any different?
Are you both unhappy with your roles?
Different people are happy playing different roles in life and some are content with the adult-child dynamic because it serves their needs. It’s possible for both men and women to want to be looked after, nurtured and have very little responsibility in their lives. For it to work out however, you as their partner need to be comfortable with this and accept it as the role you’re playing. You have a choice to stay or leave, and if discussions or compromises are not working, then you must make the choice and live with it.
If you’re the adult
If this is a role you don’t want to take on, then it’s important to communicate to your partner why it’s a problem and what you feel must be done to address it. Sometimes, the fault cannot be placed entirely on the other person. When there is conflict, never assume that you as the acting adult are automatically in the right. Think about whether you’re someone who has control issues, is a perfectionist, or who finds it difficult to be flexible or open to another person’s behaviour or thinking.
Identify what needs to change in your role, in order to help either shift the dynamics completely, or make their unsustainability even more apparent to you both. It may be something as simple as refraining from clearing up after your partner. Children, even big ones, tend to notice when the adult or caregiver in their relationship suddenly goes missing or stops doing their usual tasks. If your words aren’t being heard, the best bet is to stop the behaviour you’re uncomfortable with and if this goes unnoticed, reassess your overall compatibility.
If you’re the child
If you are an adult, either content or simply accepting of your role as child in a relationship, the first thing you need to ask yourself is why? If you’re told often by your partner that your behaviour is childish, then it’s time to question yourself honestly about whether you think this is true.
Take it from us, parenting an adult-child in a relationship can be utterly exhausting and is the fast train to losing respect for someone. The best thing you can do is look at what’s expected of you and work out why you’re not delivering it. Are the requests too much for you, is there self-work you need to do, or is it an issue of simply not being accepted for who you are and the way you do things? Step up as an adult, investigate it and come up with your own opinion. Then decide on your own course of action.