Time and time again at Psychological Services I saw husbands and wives trapped in the roles of Parent and Child. They no longer took turns being the giver or the needy one, a system ensuring that both spouses’ needs get met eventually.
Instead, one client consistently acted like a Parent, and usually a highly critical one. The other acted like a Child, and often an obnoxious rebellious one.
Everyone needs to be cared for at times. When your spouse tolerantly listens to you rant about Washington, DC or 1200 Travis, he or she is playing the patient Parent opposite your temper-tantruming Child. In healthy marriages, we hop among the roles of Parent, Child and clear-thinking Adult.
When the marriage is in trouble, however, often a stuck Parent is micromanaging an irresponsible Child. Fortunately, this common trap is easy to spring.
Explaining couple relationships by looking at each partner’s inner Parent, Adult and Child was popularized by psychologist Eric Berne in the sixties. He wrote that everyone has all three of these ego states inside of them. Functioning in an Adult state—balanced, realistic and rational—works best most of the time. The flexibility to move from one state to another helps people cope with the challenges life presents.
There’s nothing wrong with shifting into Parent or Child mode. The dutiful Parent state lets us be nurturing caretakers and the fun-loving Child state brings joy and spontaneity. However, Parents can also be judgmental and critical—even cruel and rejecting – while Children can be irresponsible and self-centered.
When the inner Child comes out to play, you can unwind or be silly or enjoy being pampered. When you can’t leave the Child role, however, the ungoverned nature that fosters creativity can also lead to excessive eating, drinking, smoking and playing with friends. Oversized children, like real ones, shirk chores and responsibilities.
Consider, for example, the simple statement, “We’re out of milk.” In Adult mode, we plan to get it tomorrow. In Parent mode, we say instead, “You should have bought some,” because Parents are full of “shoulds.” The Child, fearing disapproval, offers to buy some immediately, or thinking he’s in trouble, blurts out, “Why is it always my job to get milk?”
Broken marriages can harbor two Children, scared that their overindulgence is catching up with them, or two Parents, deadlocked in mutual scorn. Most often, I saw relationships in which one grown-up got increasingly angry at his or her juvenile partner. I heard harsh condemnations of Child-spouses’ waste of money and time. In the face of this disrespect, male officers had trouble staying in counseling.
No one reacts well to having their flaws pointed out. You won’t get a “Thank you, dear,” and immediate reform. The stuck Children I saw had thick shells to block out the constant negativity. They complained, validly, that their Parent partners wouldn’t spend money on anything, making budgeting impossible, or couldn’t remember how to have fun.
I In short, the more Parents criticized, the more Children acted irresponsibly, and vice versa. In one variation, Children grew sneakier, as in “I’ll keep the extra job cash quiet,” while Parents grew more suspicious—and the evasion and mistrust cycled over and over.
The Parent-Child pattern stands out among the scores of ways marriages derail because it is so common and so easy to change. \
When the Child becomes less childish the Parent becomes less parental.
When the Parent is less parental, the Child becomes less childish.
Parents offer less criticism when Children show more maturity. Children gain awareness of their obligations and their partners’ wishes when they are not pushing back against constant disapproval.
P-A-C theory reminds us of the essential rule for healing marriages: start with yourself. The first session of marital therapy establishes that if he fixes his issues and she fixes hers, they’ll be fine. If they testify to their partner’s crimes and wait for a ruling on who wrecked the relationship, they’ll get nowhere.
Start with yourself: If you’re the Parent, back off. Recognize your partner has needs that need to be met and as long as you ignore them, the marriage will flounder. Don’t trade happiness for righteousness.
If you’re the Child, grow up. Compromise. It’s not all about you no matter how many hours you work or how much you bring home.
For both, find the part of you that is strong, dependable and generous. Grow your Adult state.
The novelist Nathan Hill recently wrote, “If you make the easy choice every day, then it becomes a pattern, and your patterns become your life.” We all find our behavioral ruts somewhat comfortable.
I can’t guarantee that breaking your pattern will help your relationship. Your partner may not budge. Bulls still charge at vegetarians, as Rabbi Harold Kushner said.
But if a couple is doing a complicated dance and one person steps forward instead of back, or right instead of left, usually her partner moves differently too, rather than risk crashing to the floor.
In the end, you should experiment with changing your behavior for three reasons.
First, new behavior from you is likely, if not certain, to cue new behavior from your partner.
Second, your own behavior is probably the source of a lot of your unhappiness.
And last, once you take the uniform off, in spite of any illusions to the contrary, there’s no one else’s behavior you can change.
Many readers would add a fourth reason: ultimately, you will be held accountable only for your own actions.