NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Behaving Like a Parent to Your Spouse Could Be Ruining Your Relationship

All healthy relationships have loving qualities to them where each person provides nurturance and emotional support to the other (see my article: Nurturing Your Relationship).

Within the context of a relationship that has many aspects to it, including passion, friendship, shared values and so on, a loving, nurturing quality is one of many qualities that are found in healthy stable relationships.  But when the predominant quality is for one spouse to take on mostly a parental role, certain problems often develop that have a negative impact on the relationship.

Behaving Like a Parent to Your Spouse Could Be Ruining Your Relationship

This is true whether it's the woman who takes on a predominantly maternal role to her husband, a husband who takes on a paternal role, and in gay relationships where one partner takes on a predominantly parental role.

Often, couples get into this dynamic without even realizing it.  It's often not a conscious choice.

A relationship might not start out this way, but the dynamic can develop over time because of the earlier unmet emotional needs of one or both people in the relationship.

Let's takes a look at a composite vignette, with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality, to see how relationships are often affected by this dynamic:

Nina and Sam
When Nina and Sam first met, there was a strong sexual attraction between them and they shared many of the same interests and values.

After three years, they got married and moved to NYC where they both had successful careers.

Before they got married, Nina was aware that Sam had a difficult childhood with a mother who was emotionally abusive.  Sam's father left the family when Sam was an infant, so Sam never met him.  Each of his siblings had different fathers and none of them were involved in their children's lives.  As the oldest, Sam often took care of his younger siblings when his mother got drunk several times a week.

During the early years of their relationship, Nina admired Sam for his independence and self reliance, especially when he was younger.  She was amazed at how he was able to take care of himself as a young boy and even put himself through college.

What neither Nina nor Sam realized, at first, was that Sam had a lot of unmet childhood emotional needs.  These unmet emotional needs weren't obvious to either of them because Sam managed to suppress them for a long time starting at an early age.  As a young child, it would have been too painful for him to feel how neglected and abused he was, so these emotional needs were unconsciously suppressed.

These emotional needs were so well suppressed that adult relatives, teachers and other people who knew Sam as a child and young adult thought of him as being a very independent person who managed to succeed despite his family history.

Like most defensive strategies, suppressing his emotional needs as a child served to allow him to function without having the awareness of these needs.  An awareness of his needs would have overwhelmed him.

But, after Nina and Sam got married, these unconscious needs, which were still split off from Sam's conscious awareness, began to surface in their relationship.

Without realizing it, over time, Nina began to take on a predominantly mothering role in their relationship and, within two years of being married, they were no longer having sex.

It began gradually with Sam wanting Nina to spend less time with her friends and more time with him.

At first, when Sam couldn't convince Nina to stay home with him and they went out with friends, Sam would develop headaches that would cut short their dinner plans with friends.

Feeling sympathetic towards Sam because of the pain that he was in, Nina would agree to cut short their dinner plans and go home with Sam.  Over time, Sam began to develop headaches a few hours before their plans with friends, so Nina would cancel their plans.

Behaving Like a Parent to Your Spouse Could Be RuiningYour Relationship

Whenever he had these headaches, Sam would lie down and put his head on Nina's lap and ask her to rub his head.  Being a naturally nurturing person, Nina would do whatever she could to soothe Sam until he felt better.

During those times, she thought of Sam as her "little boy" and she would hold him in her arms and talk "baby talk" to him.

Over time, with subtle prompting from Sam, Nina began taking over certain responsibilities, like setting up Sam's doctor and dentists appointments and dealing with Sam's mother, who could still be difficult at times.

After Sam's doctor ruled out any physical causes for his headaches, his doctor suggested that the headaches might be psychosomatic and encouraged Sam to go to therapy.  But Sam felt this was nonsense.  At that point, he didn't see that he only had these headaches when he wanted attention from Nina.

Growing up as an only child, Nina wanted to have a little brother or sister that she could take care of when she was a young child.  But her parents, who were otherwise kind and loving people, didn't want any other children.  Her mother believed that girls shouldn't be given dolls because, in her mind, it created a stereotype of girls only wanting to be mothers, so Nina wasn't allowed to have dolls.

When Nina asked for a dog, her parents rejected this idea because they felt it would be too much work.

Neither parent understood that their daughter had a need to nurture someone or something, so they ignored these needs.

The result was that, without realizing it, Nina would often choose men who were emotionally dependent upon her.

After a while, these relationships fell apart because Nina found their emotional demands to be too much.

But when she met Sam, she thought she had finally met a man who was loving and kind and who also knew how to take care of himself.  She didn't know, at that point, that he was unconsciously suppressing these needs and they would surface later on.

As their sex life began to dwindle, Nina tried to talk to Sam about what they could do to rekindle the passion that they once had.

She felt hurt and rejected because she was the one who usually tried to initiate sex between them and Sam wasn't interested.

He tried to assure Nina that he still loved her, but he just wasn't feeling sexual (see my article:  Sexual Incompatibility in RelationshipsHave You and Your Spouse Stopped Having Sex? and Telltale Signs That You and Your Spouse Are Growing Apart).

Behaving Like a Parent to Your Spouse Could Be Ruining Your Relationship

But when Sam began feeling a powerful sexual attraction to a woman at work who was flirting with him and he realized that he was fantasizing about having sex with this woman, he realized that the problem wasn't that he wasn't feeling sexual at all--the problem was that he wasn't feeling sexual with Nina.

Soon he was having lunch with this other woman and confiding in her about his marital problems (see my article: Are You Having an Emotional Affair?).

But when she told him that she reserved a room for them at a nearby hotel and he realized that he was tempted to go, he knew he had to stop socializing with her.

Not understanding what was happening in his relationship, he told Nina about his sexual attraction towards his female coworker.  He told her that he had no intention of getting involved with this other woman, but it made him realize that something was amiss between the two of them.

Nina felt hurt, but she blamed herself for gaining a few extra pounds and for not making more of an effort to look attractive for Sam, so she began going to the gym and working with a trainer, buying new lingerie to look more sexually attractive, and being more sexually playful with him.

But none of this rekindled Sam's sexual desire for Nina.

Not willing to live as "roommates," Nina suggested that they go to couples counseling to try to save their relationship.

With the help of couples therapy, they could see how this parent-child dynamic affected their relationship (see my article:  The Importance of Talking About Sex Problems in Your Psychotherapy Sessions).

Sam realized that Nina had become a "mother" to him and that it was understandable that he wouldn't want to have sex with his "mother."

Nina was able to see how, once again, she chose a man who had strong dependency needs, even though they weren't as obvious at first.  She was also able to see how her need to be "mothering" developed because of her own background.

Both of them saw how their individual psychologies came together to create their current problem.

But having insight into their problems wasn't the same as changing them.  They each needed to work in their own individual therapy to work through their early unresolved problems.

They each chose EMDR therapists who helped each of them to resolve their childhood problems and the underlying unmet needs (see my article:  Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

As they each worked in their individual therapy, they also worked in couples counseling to change their relationship dynamic so that Nina was no longer in the "mother" role and Sam was no longer in the "child" role.  They began to relate as two adults, and they eventually regained their sexual intimacy.

This wasn't easy because their individual problems as well as their problems as a couple were complicated and longstanding, but they both wanted to salvage their marriage so they persevered.

There are many reasons why people get into mother-child roles in their relationships.  As I mentioned earlier, these dynamics are often unconscious and relate to unmet childhood emotional needs.

I want to emphasize, once again, that all relationships have nurturing qualities to them as part of the relationship where, over time, the nurturing is reciprocal. The problem usually arises when this is the predominant quality and it is one sided.

Often, this dynamic surfaces after the couple has been together for a while.  During the first year or two, the sexual chemistry that is part of all early relationships can mask some of these problems.  Once the sexual chemistry naturally dwindles somewhat and the relationship becomes more emotionally intimate over time, these dynamics are more apparent.

When both people in a relationship are willing to change this type of dynamic and begin to see how each of their histories have contributed to it, it's important that they get beyond just understanding it in an intellectual way.

Experiential therapies, like EMDR, help clients to process unresolved problems in a way that helps them to understand as well as make an affective shift in their dynamic (see my articles:  How EMDR Works - Part 1 and Part 2).

Getting Help in Therapy
If you recognize the dynamics described in this article as being similar to what's happening in your relationship, you can get help from a licensed mental health professional who works with unconscious process, understands relationship dynamics and who does experiential therapy, as opposed to just talk therapy.

Without help, most relationships that have a predominant mother-child relationship tend to lose many of the other qualities that each person enjoyed in the relationship.

Don't wait until the sexual and romantic aspects of your relationship completely fizzle out.

Many couples wait until it's too late to try to save their relationship.

By getting help now, you can salvage your relationship before it's too late.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.