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The Parent / Child Dynamic in Your Intimate Relationship

You likely have either participated in or witnessed a couple in which one person takes on a parent role and other person takes on a child role with regard to the partnership.  This kind of dynamic creates toxic resentment, and if not shifted, will block any chance of creating a fulfilling relationship.

If you are in the parent role with your partner, you likely find yourself making most of the decisions, managing personal things for you partner like their diet, medications, exercise, schedule, and giving directives and instructions around the tasks of daily living.  On the inside you feel exhausted and resentful, thinking to yourself: "Where's my partner?!";  Why do I have to do it all?!";  "Why don't I get to relax and have fun?!"  "I feel like an ogre."

If you find yourself taking the child role, you likely notice yourself complaining that you never get to do what you want.   You start to see the tasks of daily living as burdens rather than as a natural part of life. You start to resent your partner for interfering with your life and keeping you from doing fun things. You step away from making decisions or problem solving.  You leave tasks half finished or sloppily done.  You start to see your partner as the competent one in the relationship, and yourself as the incompetent one.  You start to think that you can never measure up to their expectations.

As these positions become polarized, it's difficult to make a change.  If you had been playing the parent role, you may have very little energy left to invest in the relationship.  Exhaustion and resentment block your ability to find compassion and respect for your partner.  Regret may temporarily sap your inspiration to make changes in yourself.  A lack of trust in your partner's dependability makes it difficult to begin to engage in a truly collaborative relationship.

If you had been playing child role, you may have developed a fear of doing it wrong that is now paralyzing.  You want to come forward and participate but you don't trust your partner really wants your input.  You've learned to avoid, and one perceived harsh look from your partner has you withdrawing.  In the child role you have organized yourself around pleasure and fun, so becoming a collaborative partner seems like giving all this up.  Though mentally you may be clear, it's difficult to know in your heart and body that collaborative partnership is more fulfilling than the pursuit of pleasure and fun.

So what can you do about a parent / child dynamic in your intimate relationship?  Of course, the best medicine for parent / child dynamics in an intimate relationship is prevention.  Prevention in this case includes three major areas of focus:

  1. Clear boundaries about where you allow each other's influence and help.  (see Connection Gem:  span style="color: rgb(17, 85, 204); text-decoration: underline; vertical-align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap; background-color: transparent;">,)

  2. Profound respect for your partner's autonomy and authentic path in life.   (see Connection Gem:

  3. A commitment to continuous consideration and communication about where private decisions impact a shared life and how these are negotiated.

If you find yourself already in a parent / child dynamic with your partner, professional help may be the most helpful way to start making a shift.  On your own, you can start by asking yourself some key questions that open the way toward new behaviors:

If you are in the parent role:

  • What am I am currently deciding or doing that is really my partner's business or something for us both to do?

  • Is there anything I could let go of doing that would not impact basic needs like security and safety?

  • What's one thing I could notice or remember about my partner each day that helps me to see them as a capable adult?

If you are in the child role:

  • What's one place in our lives together that I could find the courage to take the lead and ask my partner to relax and keeping managing impulses to themself?

  • Is there anything I want to do to contribute to needs like security and safety in our lives together?

  • What's one thing I could reclaim as mine and set a firm boundary around?

The important thing about asking yourself these questions is getting input from as many wise friends and mentors as you can.  Being in the parent/ child dynamic skews your sense of boundaries over time and you may need the help from others to discern what boundaries truly meet needs and support a collaborative relationship.


Take a moment now to reflect on your own intimate relationship.  Where do you trust mutuality and collaboration?  Is there a context in which you have a sense that things are uneven?

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2 Responses

  1. Aug 11, 2016


    I was struck by reading this that in many relationships there may be parent-child roles in certain areas, like child card, household care, automotive care, financial care. And that in one area one person may take the "parent" role and then in another take the "child" role.

    I believe that in a relationship it is beneficial to try to not get stuck in roles, he always takes care of ... or she always does ...

    And if the divide and conquer is the best strategy, have points where you review and shift those roles.

    I just came out of a relationship where my partner was always the person in charge of financial dealings. This was not healthy for either of us. It was too much burden for my partner and I was not "in" on all the decisions with a full understanding of our finances. After the break up this unhealthy pattern became more apparent and I realized that it was not good for our mental health (either of us) or our financial health. I wish I had been more active in the financial management of our household.

    Thank you for writing this gem.

  2. Aug 11, 2016

    THank you so much for your comments. Sounds like you have a lot of clarity here and I imagine others will benefit from what you bring.

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