Intimate love — 09 December 2005
‘Parent-child’ relationships damage intimacy

Maintaining true intimacy and an ongoing loving connection with each other is a goal for most couples. Yet, some pairs create a parent-child interaction style that is sure to frustrate their desires and obstruct true intimacy.

The parent-child pattern of interaction is one in which one mate assumes the role of a parent, the other of a child in most relationship issues. It may be either a mother-son or a father-daughter exchange. In this style, the “parent” spouse often sees the partner as less capable, needing guidance, dependent and even exercising poor judgment. The “child” spouse often views the mate as overbearing and controlling and feels discounted, and disempowered in the relationship.

Each partner maintains his role and holds the other mate responsible for the creation of this style. The “parent” partner often complains that the ineptness, lack of participation, low motivation and initiative, passivity, and avoidance of responsibility by the other mate, causes him or her to take full charge. He or she feels coerced into taking more responsibility and making more of the family decisions as a default position, which he or she resents. The “child” partner often sees the partner as non-cooperative, domineering, and power hungry, which incapacitates the mate. He or she feels forced into a diminished role, not by his or her choosing, but in order to preserve the peace in the relationship.

Parent-child pairs are much less likely to have a satisfying sexual and emotional life as compared to two adult partners. By definition, seeing a mate as an immature person, or as a controlling individual interferes with one’s physical attraction to that individual. Even the emotional association of being with a “parent” or a “child” partner subconsciously creates the inevitable incest taboo.

Most people are not aware of the above programmed conditioning, but are aware that they do not feel inclined to be amorous with their mate. They are often able to state that the behavior of the spouse turns off their interest in intimacy.

In healthy attraction, people are drawn to other adults whom they hope will help fulfill their needs. Once they become disenchanted to find that their partner is not attentive to their needs, they tend to become hurt and emotionally withdraw from the mate. In parent-child interactions both partners feel poorly served by the other and both avoid getting close to each other.

Another reason for loss of intimacy for parent-child couples is that respect and trust, which are two of three necessary elements in love, are damaged and the third element, attraction, is therefore quick to escape. Being in an unequal position in the relationship causes lose respect for the partner who now feels unsafe to trust.

As long as couples maintain the imbalance of power and function and view each other as the cause of the dysfunctional relationship, they are not likely to restore loving intimacy to their union.

If you are in a parent-child relationship please consider:

• Whether you feel disappointed or controlled, both of you are equally responsible for creating this pattern of interaction.
• Intimacy requires attraction between two adults. As long as one of you acts like a child or parent, intimacy is likely to elude you.
• How you view your partner’s behavior will determine how you assess him or her. Choose to describe your mate’s conduct as an option for need fulfillment, not an attempt to control or frustrate you.
• Talk to your partner about the style you have both created and discuss ways you can restore a more equal relationship based on respect and trust for each other. The attraction will soon follow.
• Discuss your view of your mate’s conduct as factually as you can and ask for what you need. Say: “I noticed that when the children fight you do not go to arbitrate it, I would appreciate it if we can both participate in our children’s discipline” rather than: “You never take any part in disciplining our children, it all falls on me.” Or, “I prefer to make my choices and hope that you can support me” rather than, “Why do you always have to control everything I do?”.
• Realize that if you change your conduct, the response will also be altered, which may begin the process of healthier connection.
• There is not mystery to creating intimacy. You can attain it by behaving in an adult loving way and being a responsible, respectful and kind partner.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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