Skip to main content
  1. News
  2. Top News

Your partner is not your child: avoiding unequal relationships

See also

There are many famous relationships in history that illustrate the dangers of unequal relationships.

One -- between brothers -- is illustrative. Kerianne Dyer, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker from Swinton Counseling, recounts the ill-fated relationship between John Kellogg, the founder of the Kellogg Cereal Company, and his younger brother, John.

"They say that the Kellogg brothers, John and Will, did not get along well," writes Dyer. "Before they started the now famous Kellogg cereal company, the older brother, John, ran a sanitarium that promoted good health. John invited Will to leave his broom selling business. Believing that it was a privilege to work for him, John paid his younger brother very poorly and entrusted him to help even less. No sooner had he started that it became apparent to the visitors that John was the big brother, the boss, the chief. Will was treated as the second fiddle, less capable, and eternal little brother."

Unfortunately, the two brothers (who never reconciled their differences in life) had the kind of relationship that typifies too many marriages.

At a basic level, everyone has three ways of relating to another person: as a parent, a peer, or a child.

Adults -- if they are whole and healthy -- desire to relate to other adults as equals, as peers.

"Problems can arise when parents, spouses, siblings, roommates, or friends attempt to play this role during our adult lives," notes Dyer. "The same patterns can be seen weekly in my office among my clients. There will be a parent figure hovering in order to exert pressure on the child figure. The child figure understandably withdraws and feels patronized. In turn, the parent figure feels like the bad guy, the only one who can keep it together, and stuck in a role of being in charge. Even though both figures tend to dislike these interactions, old patterns die hard."

Counseling can help. At Swinton Counseling, experienced relationship coaches can help adults to undo old patterns and establish new ways of relating that allow two adults to engage each other as peers.

"The importance of peer relationships grows and becomes more important than ever as adults," Dyer contends. "We crave peer relationships with our adult children, our partner, our spouses, and our friends."

What are peers like? Dyer isolates several key qualities:

  • Peers are equals- neither one knows best.
  • Peers share openly - Since both are adults, neither talks to the other as "a child" from whom things should be hidden.
  • Peers have respect for each other’s opinions, differences, and needs.
  • No obedience is demanded.
  • Caretaking goes both ways.
  • Instead of the comprehensive support given by a parent (which can be comforting at times, but is ultimately infantilizing), mutual emotional support is seen more often.
  • They resist the urge to control or let their situation be controlled.
  • A sense of responsibility for one’s owns problems is paramount.
  • Each understands and trusts that your peer can handle and has chosen their consequences.
  • Each wants to make the changes that will lead to a fuller, healthier, equal relationship.

It is not easy to act as either the "parent" or the "child." Both roles cause stress and limit personal and relationship growth.

So, what if you are the "child" in your relationship and you'd like to spread your wings? Or, what if you play the "parent" role and would benefit from another grown up in the house?

The answer is to start treating each other like equals and acting more like peers. It means, says Dyer, consciously ceasing the old patterns described above.

"Instead of the Child withdrawing, they lean in," suggests Dyer. "They share their thoughts and feelings. They show all of the solutions they have seen. Only then are some Parents reassured that the Child can succeed without their control."

And what should people playing the parent role do?

"Instead of trying to exert control, the Parent will respectfully give advice selectively, ask questions, and resist the urge to step in where you see your partner may fail," advises Dyer. "And then the Child trusts that if they share and counsel with you, you will not attempt to control the outcome. They are now free to treat you as a peer instead of like their former middle school principal."

Change is seldom easy, but it can be so rewarding. A whole world of healthy and happy options open up when adults decide to stop playing assigned roles and instead relate to one another as equals.

"At Swinton Counseling, we've seen the wonderful things that can happen," says Dyer. "Grown people all of a sudden are unburdened, and are free to be the supportive, loving spouses they've always wanted to be."

To learn more, or access daily relationship tips that can help your relationships flourish, visit Swinton Counseling.

Advertisement