In any relationship, there’s bound to be some conflict, and from time to time, probably even a blow-up or two. It pretty much comes with the territory and (here’s the good news) it’s actually healthy. But there are some subtle, potentially destructive behaviours that can creep into a relationship and sabotage how you and your partner feel about each other.
Take, for example, the parent-child dynamic I see so often in couples. Just as adults are caretakers and caregivers of children, telling them what to do and how to act, one “parent” in the couple fills the same role and a childlike dependence develops. Instead of being built on mutual respect and understanding, these unions are defined by an imbalance of power.
Adults who are natural caregivers (a.k.a. women) may create this dynamic in their romantic relationships by accident, while others may have seen it modelled in their own family growing up and have always thought of it as normal. It’s not.
When couples get stuck in a pattern where one dominates the other, there can be a high price to pay: decreased marital satisfaction, low sex drive, frustration, anger, resentment and low self-esteem. If you frequently find yourself nagging or scolding your partner, you may have fallen into the parenting trap. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to get your relationship back on grown-up ground.
1. Acknowledge your part in it
Parent-child scenarios often begin when one partner feels the other isn’t sharing the load, or when the same issues keep resurfacing. The person who adopts the parent role ends up frustrated, thinking: “Well, if he would just do it [take out the garbage, fold the laundry, turn off the lights, put the toilet seat down], I wouldn’t have to keep reminding him or take care of it myself.” The truth is that although we can’t control what our partners do, we can control ourselves. So, instead of immediately blaming your partner, consider how you’ve helped create the situation: Is it your default setting to assume all the responsibility just because it seems easier? When you get frustrated, do you lash out, scold or punish? Now consider changing your approach to help him change his.
2. Be direct, not passive aggressive
Guys respond much better to clear requests. So saying “Hey, can you take out the garbage this morning?” is a much faster route to success than simply stating “Wow, the garbage is so full,” while privately wishing he’d empty it.
3. Talk it out (even better, make it a joke)
Choose a time (not in the heat of the moment) to voice your concerns. Explain what’s frustrating you, why it bothers you and what the fix is. Be sure to highlight the benefits (like it’s way easier for you to find him sexy when you’re not preoccupied with an overflowing garbage can). Humour can help: When you tease him about leaving the toothpaste uncapped, it gets the point across without any unnecessary friction.
4. Divide and conquer as a team
Write out a list of daily, weekly and monthly responsibilities, then decide together who does what. Figure out your ideal partnership and how roles such as housekeeping, parenting or financial planning will be divvied up. If you’re usually the “parent,” accept that you need to give up certain tasks. Touch base often to share your thoughts about what is or isn’t working. Finally, be respectful and remember to thank your partner for the help, grown-up to grown-up!