A Description of Parent-Child Dynamics in Adult Relationships

In adult romantic relationships, some partners may adopt roles similar to those of a caregiver and a dependent child, despite both being adults. Such relationships are sometimes referred to as having parent-child dynamics. One partner consistently assumes an overprotective, caretaking, or even authoritative role. They make many of the relationship’s decisions, set boundaries, and often oversee the other’s life. Conversely, the other partner frequently takes on a more passive role, acting reliant or even sometimes rebellious, akin to a child, always looking to their partner for approval, guidance, or support.

Parent-child dynamics often erodes the foundation of equality in the relationship, pushing the two individuals into more rigid, unequal roles. Over time, the dominant “parent” figure might feel overwhelmed by the disproportionate responsibility they shoulder, while the more submissive “child” figure might grapple with feelings of being controlled or might become worryingly dependent. Such dynamics can limit emotional intimacy and personal growth, as the partners often get trapped in roles that prevent them from relating to each other as equal adults.

(This article is part of the series: Unhealthy Relationship Patterns: Categorizing the 21 types)

The Perspective of Partners

“Parent” Partner:

  • Perception: Views themselves as the primary caretaker, protector, or decision-maker in the relationship. They might believe they’re more equipped to handle life’s challenges or that their partner needs their guidance.
  • Emotions: Often feels a sense of responsibility, burden, or even pride in their role. Over time, they might experience frustration, exhaustion, or resentment due to the weight of always being the “responsible” one.
  • Behaviors: Takes charge of most decisions, sets boundaries, and often oversees or directs the other partner’s actions. They might also provide frequent advice, reminders, or corrections to their partner.
  • Rationalizations: They might believe that their partner is incapable of handling certain responsibilities or that their “parenting” approach is for the “greater good” of the relationship. They may also feel that this dynamic ensures stability or security.

“Child” Partner:

  • Perception: Feels that they are often in a position of lesser power or authority in the relationship. They might see themselves as the one who needs protection, guidance, or support.
  • Emotions: Predominantly experiences feelings of dependency, comfort in being taken care of, but also potential frustration or rebellion against the controlling aspects of the “parent” partner.
  • Behaviors: Often defers to the “parent” partner for decisions, seeks approval or validation, and might exhibit passive or sometimes rebellious actions in response to the dominant partner’s directives.
  • Rationalizations: They might convince themselves that the “parent” partner knows best or that this dynamic is comforting. Alternatively, they may feel that challenging the established roles could disrupt the relationship’s equilibrium.

The Parent-Child dynamics typology is one of 21 unhealthy relationship types outlined here.

Is it Parent-Child Dynamics in the relationship or something else?

The “Parent-Child Dynamics” relationship type shares overlapping features with several other unhealthy relationship types. Let’s delve into the resemblances and the unique characteristics that distinguish the “Parent-Child Dynamic”:

  1. Dependent Relationship: Both relationship types involve one partner relying heavily on the other. However, in the dependent relationship, the dependence is typically mutual, with both partners feeling they can’t function or live without the other. In contrast, the parent-child dynamic is more one-sided, where one partner takes on a caregiving or overseeing role while the other assumes a more dependent or childlike stance.
  2. Coercive and Controlling Relationship: The controlling partner in a coercive relationship exerts power, dictating the terms of the relationship, often through threats or intimidation. While there’s an imbalance of power in the parent-child dynamic, it’s typically characterized by one partner guiding, nurturing, or even admonishing the other in a way reminiscent of a parent’s role.
  3. Chronic Rescuer-Rescuee Relationship: Here, one partner constantly steps in to “save” or “fix” the other, and the other perpetually requires rescuing. The similarity to the parent-child dynamic is evident, but the parent-child type is broader, encapsulating more than just rescuing behaviors. It encompasses general caregiving, decision-making, and even discipline, extending beyond mere rescue scenarios.
  4. Neglectful Relationship: This might seem counterintuitive, but sometimes, the “parent” in a parent-child relationship may inadvertently neglect the needs of the “child” partner, focusing on duties or responsibilities and overlooking emotional needs. However, the core of a neglectful relationship is consistent neglect, whereas in the parent-child dynamic, the neglect can be intermittent and usually contrasts with overbearing care or guidance.

Unique Indicator for “Parent-Child Dynamic” Type:

The hallmark of the parent-child dynamic is the consistent role-playing reminiscent of a parent and a child, where one partner frequently assumes responsibility, offers guidance, and even disciplines, while the other partner becomes passive, dependent, or even rebellious. This dynamic isn’t necessarily about age but about behavior patterns. It’s marked by a lack of equal footing, where instead of being partners, the individuals are operating in roles that mirror those of a parent and a child. The relationship often lacks the mutual respect and shared responsibilities that are characteristic of adult-adult relationships.