Are you parenting your partner?

Monre Jameson

Monre Jameson

08 March 2019
In our relationships, we often act as our parents did, we revert to our inner-child, or we present our natural adult. When we do this wrong, we either wait for a miracle or a catastrophe. This article explores the games we play and asks the question, "Do you parent your partner?".
Are you parenting your partner?

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If you do a quick search for the top ten reasons for partnership breakups, then the lack of communication always reaches the top three.

However, it is not the lack of communication that causes breakups as it is the way that we communicate. Furthermore, the way we communicate goes far deeper than we think, almost like peeling onion layers where what we say only touches the surface. It is how we say it that changes everything.

In the next couple of lines, I will discuss the personas, or ego states that we adopt in the conversations we have with our partners.

I will cover three aspects:

  • Explain the three types of ego-states we use to communicate with, namely the Parent, the Adult, and the Child.
  • Explore how these three ego states interact in our day-to-day conversations and arguments.
  • Lastly, I will prompt you to think about how these ego-states unfold in your relationship with your partner or others.

In our conversations and thoughts, we sometimes act like a parent, a child, or an adult. We adopt variants of these states depending on the nature of the interactions we have. We act as a parent; we present our adult, or we revert to our inner-child. These ego-states form part of Transactional Analysis, or TA; a theory that focuses on how humans interact and the games that we play in our communication.

Note that this article excludes the dynamics of actual parent/child relationships although most to all of these principles typically apply, regardless of age.

When we start acting from the parent-state, we bring forth behaviour that we've adopted from our parents or parent-like people in our past. We mimic their behaviour, the good and the bad, and use it when relatable scenarios come up. There are two predominant parent-states namely the nurturing parent and the controlling parent. As an example, a nurturing parent would feel somewhat responsible for their partner, almost like the need to help, support, and care for them. The controlling parent on the other hand projects feelings of judgment, control and a general sense of being right. Generally, the parent-state believes that they're okay, and their partner's not.

Secondly, and in an almost complete antithesis, the child-state co-exists with a parent. It is the learned behaviour from when we were young that we as adults bring back to life; often in the presence of a parent. There are three types of child-states which we typically adopt. They are the free child, the agreeable child, and the rebellious child. The free child is a natural child state, and it's the only child-state that co-exists with another free child. It typically occurs when, for instance, both partners have a good laugh around the bbq, or both are being comically jovial. The free child could indeed be free, especially when there is no parent-state around.

Next, we get the agreeable child, which is a behaviour that responds well to a parent state, meaning it agrees with both the nurturing and control of the parent. A good example is where one partner would tell the other partner to pick up the dirty clothes lying on the floor, and they respond in agreement. In this example, we have a controlling parent speaking to an agreeable child.

The third child-state is rebellious of nature, meaning it rebels against the nurture and control of the parent. In our dirty-clothes example, the child-state will respond with something in the line of, "Why do I have to do it? It's not bothering me". In this instance, we have the same controlling parent-state but speaking to a rebellious child-state. Generally, the child-state believes that they're not okay, but they're partners are.

So, on the one hand, we have a nurturing and controlling parent, and on the other hand, we have a free, agreeable, and rebellious child.

So what about the adult?

The adult-state is about the here and now. It's a state free from parent-child contamination, coming from a place of curiosity, feeling neutral and a sense of pragmatic indifference. As the parent invites child behaviour in their partners and a child invites parent behaviour in their partners, the adult-state invites a mutual adult interaction. One partner may see clothes lying on the floor and become aware of the cultural differences that exist within the relationship. The adult will realise that pushing or projecting their desire to have no clothes on the floor is not a solution, will force their values onto the other partner and will probably create either an adaptive or rebellious child. The adult will realise that this incoherence is a point of concern in their relationship that will need discussion and agreement, irrelevant of whether the clothes gets picked up, or not. The adult-state believes that both partners are equally okay, or not okay.

Both parent and child-states are emotional by nature, and since we're emotionally coded, we cannot eliminate ego-states from our relationships. They're the drivers of our arguments, our caring and support, in sexual intercourse, in fun times, and many more relationship interplays. In a healthy relationship, however, there are equal amounts of parenting and childlikeness from both partners surfacing at various stages of communication. It's a finely tuned equilibrium where, when the states are off-balance the ego-states will either naturally restore, or it won't, where in that case, the relationship is in for a disaster.

One partner may feel a greater need to take responsibility for the relationship, saying that the other partner is not responsible, or that they do not bring their part. One partner may feel like they always have to manage or pick up after the other partner, referring to them as one of the kids or having a no-care attitude. When these feelings become the norm, the ego-states in the relationship is off-balance, and although potentially sustainable, it will bring feelings of unfairness and superiority.

Maybe one partner feels that the other partner always manages them, that they "run the house" and give instructions and tasks for execution. The partner may feel less-capable, smaller than, or a sense of insignificance. Often the partner that "runs-the-house" gives an opportunity for the other partner to not having to take responsibility.

Typically, the child-state does not take responsibility, and for a parent-child relationship, the parent will always be tasked with being the responsible one.

Ironically, parent-child relationships could last indefinitely. It happens when one partner naturally stays comfortable in their child-state, often born out of the need to be parented. The other partner may also have a desire to oscillate between caring for and controlling their partner, which the child-state would happily accept.

Transactional Analysis Therapy aims to identify where and how ego-states interact throughout the relationship. It's about becoming aware of which interactions are toxic, destructive and could cause permanent relationship damage. It's also important to know how to step outside of an ego-state that doesn't serve the relationship. TA also explores symptoms in a relationship that could indicate destructive behaviour. These symptoms range from repetitive and unresolved arguments, slamming doors, explosive discussions, partners stonewalling each other, passive aggression, and words that humiliate, break down and belittle.

So as communication is in the top three reasons for relationship breakups, we cannot help but think that even in our best attempts to communicate, we will not find resolution unless we understand and regain control over the parent-child games we play.

The invitation here is to, as the first step, not attempt stepping into an adult-state but rather ask what aspects of acting as a parent or reverting to a child is so enticing that it keeps coming back for more.