Does Your Partner Have a Mother or Sibling Complex?
A frequent issue that I see in couples’ counseling is a couple that has slipped into less romantic roles with each other and into a dynamic they describe as being more like “siblings,” “roommates,” or, worst of all, a “mother” or “father.” This is somewhat inevitable in any long-term relationship once the initial courtship period has declined and you have reached a relatively stable and secure relational bond. As any couples’ therapist will tell you, keeping romance alive in any relationship takes ongoing work: You cannot coast on your initial attraction for 5, 10, or 20 years.
One particular problem arises when couples fall into a parental dynamic—where one pattern comes to occupy or perform the role of a parent to the other. Often we see this play out along gendered lines. Many heterosexual couples who report this problem, typically report a mother-son dynamic—where the female wife or partner unintentionally or unconsciously falls into a mothering role. This can play out in very explicit ways—yelling at the husband to clean his room more or to put away his stuff, or having to caretake for a man’s emotional needs the way a mother might.
Some of these dynamics can be intentionally willed or desired by a partner, and some of them can be unconscious patterns we fall into and reproduce from childhood. For example, many men may wish for a partner who makes his lunch or takes care of the cleaning like his mom did for him at home. The unintended consequence of this may be, however, that his partner no longer feels romantically attracted to him because she starts to see him as a child and not as an adult romantic partner.
The couple therapist Esther Perel reports a lot on this in her work with couples. Many women, she reports, want to be seen, regarded, and valued primarily as a woman and not as a wife or mother: “I want to be appreciated as a woman. Not as a wife, not as a wife, not as a companion. And I want to appreciate him as a man.”
The consequences of not seeing each other as a woman and as a man, reports Perel, are a dwindling romantic and sex life. It is logical, after all, not to feel romantically attracted to someone for whom you feel a family kinship with. In other words, if your husband becomes “one of the kids,” where you need to cater to him in a way similar to your children, then it is often hard to re-ignite the romantic sex drive because you see him through the lens of a child and not a lover.
Signs You May Be Reenacting Parental Roles in Your Relationship
- Your partner looks to you as their primary and exclusive sounding board for emotional feelings and emotional needs.
- You find yourself using tones or strategies that you may use on children: bribing, cajoling, or castigating for not doing household chores or maintaining household responsibilities.
- You start to see your partner as increasingly dependent on you and unable to maintain a degree of independence and autonomy around everyday tasks, decisions, or general mood.
- You feel like your partner is more taxing and burdensome, and you notice feelings of resentment directed at them.