Every relationship is different, including when it comes to power dynamics. Even when a couple strives for an equal partnership—and, in some cases, genuinely believes they have one—the reality is that they may be falling into certain unhealthy patterns of behavior.
One example is when one partner ends up “parenting” the other. At first, this parent-child dynamic may seem to work: The “parent” in the relationship may enjoy having a purpose and feeling as though they’re needed, while the “child” may appreciate the attention, and not having to take the lead on things.
But, unsurprisingly, this arrangement isn’t ideal in the long-term. Here’s what to do if you realize that you’re “parenting” your partner.
How to change the parent-child dynamic in a relationship
There are many reasons why you might end up in the “parent” role in a romantic relationship, beyond the basic assumption that your partner is immature, or hasn’t yet “learned” to be an adult.
Maybe this is what your parents’ marriage looked like, or you grew up being told that once you meet a potential husband or wife, you’ll have to “train” them. Or perhaps you’ve dealt with anxiety, trauma, and/or uncertainty throughout your life, and are unknowingly trying to shape your partner into who you need them to be in order for you to feel safe and stable.
Whatever the reason, once you identify that this is happening in your relationship, it’s probably time to address it. Here are some ways to start:
Figure out what you want
If you haven’t given it serious thought since your relationship began, take the time to figure out if this is a relationship you’d like to continue, or whether it’s best to go your separate ways. In an article for Psychology Today, therapist Yvonne Castañeda suggests asking yourself two simple questions about your partner: “Do I really love them?” and “What, exactly, do I love?”
Doing this might help you realize that you and your partner have a strong set of shared values and beliefs, and putting the work into your relationship is worth it. Or, you might come to the opposite conclusion. Either way, you’ll have a better idea of what you want.
As hard as it may be, it’s time to take a step back and give your partner more opportunities to contribute and take the lead in the relationship. Ask them for input on how they’d do something, rather than simply doing it yourself. Make decisions together, and share responsibility for the outcomes—including for seemingly low-stakes things, like household chores.
Though this may cause some anxiety for you at first, the hope is that your partner will come through, and it’ll be a step towards building more trust in them.
Turn the focus to yourself
If you’ve decided to continue the relationship, it may be time to do some work on yourself, rather than focusing solely on improving or raising your partner. For example, you might want to talk to a therapist to help you identify your typical relationship patterns, and how you can challenge the beliefs that prompt this behavior.
Also, instead of correcting things your partner does, you can try being more overt when communicating your needs. According to Keir Brady, a licensed marriage and family therapist, this can prevent resentment from building and deepen your connection with your partner.