Partner or Parent?

Are you a partner or parent in your relationships?

You may find this to be a strange question.  Maybe you’re even convinced that the answer is obvious...partner.  I invite you to pause and reconsider.

For years I perfected being a parent in many of my relationships, especially romantic connections, without ever knowing it.  I first became aware that this was an issue after my divorce. While riding in the car and reflecting on my previous marriage, my teacher at the time turned to me and said “you weren’t his wife...you were his mother.” This caught me by surprise.  As I kept my focus on my driving I felt the weight of the truth he had just spoken and a wave of recognition moved through my body. I had been a mother...not a wife. I wasn’t in a partnership at all.

While I recognized this in that moment, I didn’t understand the significant role I played in shaping that dynamic.  I didn’t see the decades of how my social conditioning, schooling, and a society where gender norms remain outdated and a bit stuck in time...never taught me truly how to partner and not parent.

My parents are baby boomers.  Their generation entered life and started shaking up the norms.  My mom and other women in her generation started putting some serious weight behind creating space for women in the workplace.  They broke boundaries and for the first time, women were showing up to work in power suits and not limited to the domain of the household.  Breaking away from the tradition of their mothers who were often limited to the traditional housewife role, my mom and her generation became badass bosses in the boardroom and in the household.  

My mom is a badass.  Full stop. That woman is a strong matriarch with drive of steel.  After coming from a challenging upbringing, my mom was basically super mom.  She managed to step out on her own right after high school, build strong careers along the way, easily moving between different fields when her heart was calling for change.  She went back to school as an adult and paid her own way through college and a master’s degree, changed careers to become a teacher mid-life, and has manifested her dream houses.  She drove me to endless activities as a kid including dance, music lessons, track meets, and gymnastics while juggling her own hobbies. She ran the household like the best CEO, organized, strategic, and smoothly as my dad’s work took him traveling most weeks of the year.  She showed me strength, drive, leadership, commitment, and prowess. She taught me how to show up in the world and lead.

It’s no surprise that I became a strong, independent, opinionated, and driven woman.  I know who I am and I know what I want. While I got out of touch with that after I entered adulthood and felt the pressure to not be “too much,” I essentially was raised to BE the too much woman.  To never hold myself back. To recognize no dream is to small. To pick myself up by my own bootstraps. To speak my truth. To pave my own path.

This has served me well in many areas of my life.  I’ve been successful in each career endeavor I step into.  I’ve held leadership roles in my professional and personal life.  I received good grades. I learned about the merits of hard work and holding my own.  I had the courage to start my own business and call myself CEO. And it’s also been a stumbling block.  

In my strength and in my social conditioning, I learned to be a leader, but not to be a partner.  This has translated into parenting more than partnering.

Part of this is my social conditioning as a strong woman.  My mother’s generation broke down the walls and trampled on through.  But on a societal level they didn’t build a bridge. How was society meant to relate to them now that they were no longer housewives carrying the entire personal sphere of a family life?  How were they to relate differently to the men in their life? There was no roadmap because it had never been done. Gaps were left along the way. Some old conditioning remained, some new emerged.

Many men remained frozen in their social conditioning and somehow, many didn’t quite figure out that with women leading in strong and new ways in the workplace, they too needed to show up different...at home.  

As women started leading, many led in the best way they knew how...as mothers. As men watched women step in strong, they related in the best way they knew how...as children.

Ok.  You may think to yourself, you are generalizing Marci!  Yes. I hear you. In many ways I am. Listen, there are always exceptions and variations to trends.  This is a trend I’ve observed in one section of the population that I’ve spent decades interacting with.  This trend has shown up in my personal and professional life, and nearly the life of every single strong woman I’ve done 1:1 work with, led in group, in a classroom, or befriended.  Women learned to lead...as mothers. Men learned to meet the leadership as...children. So while this is not an EVERY man and EVERY woman conversation, I will assert that this is a significant trend that needs shifting for a healthy society and healthy partnerships.  

So what does this look like?

When I first started reflecting on how this pattern developed over time I recognized that it started for me in school.  Remember group projects? Remember how they were either so much fun or such a drag? Yeah. Me too.

Throughout school I often led group projects and filled in gaps when different members didn’t pull their weight.  Honestly, it felt easier than trying to get them to get their shit together and it felt painful to let us fail. Because let’s face it, my grade depended on them.  And since I took pride in my grades, I wasn’t about to let my next A get taken away because someone in my group was irresponsible. So, I pulled more weight than was mine.  I took on responsibilities that were not assigned to me. I stayed up late to pull together the final paper. I gritted my teeth, dealt with my feelings alone, felt angry, and kept it inside.  This didn’t allow the person who had dropped the ball to feel the consequences of their actions. Here’s the problem, this behavior led to positive results. The projects got done and my grades were good.  This taught me that taking charge for what is not mine when other people are falling behind always led to a good outcome.

What hadn’t occurred to me over time was that I learned the perfect recipe to take on what is not mine, foster resentment towards others, and parenting my partners.  

This led to some serious challenges because when I entered marriage and then post-divorce dating...I was often picking up all the things that my partners were not taking.  I was the leader in all the things. Like the present and future “things to do for home” list that like a ghost haunted my brain all hours of the day. This is the mental load that people often refer to.  The way women hold all the priorities, spheres of their life, and “pay attention to” pieces in their mind for themselves, their family, and often their work. This sucked up mental ram in the background and is exhausting.  

I was usually the decision maker for most things.  Like what should we eat? Should we go to that thing? Reminders of important dates that are often forgotten (ahem...anniversaries and birthdays, and don’t forget mother’s day!) came from me.  I took on the emotional burden in conversations by processing their emotions in real time (if they could even talk about them) and explaining the consequences of their actions and how they hurt me...like a mom.  I dealt with the “emotional clean up” of situations when my partners regressed into childlike and teenage like states, reacting in full emotions, tantrum like responses, pulling away affection, and wall like facades.  Doing the inner work needed to heal myself, bring myself back to center, forgive, and always being the one to let go and keep going.

It was exhausting, I was full of resentment, and felt drained.  Many days I found myself thinking...this is WAY more work than it is worth it.  I’d rather go it alone.

I bring up partnerships, especially between men and women, because this is where the dynamic has shown up the most for me, my clients, and friends.  Feminism took us leaps forward into the workplace and didn’t deliver us with new archetypes for relating.

Modern psychology says that we often partner with people to play out the parent-child dynamics and wounding of our childhood with each other.  I get that. When done with some level of consciousness, you can heal A LOT OF STUFF that way.

However, to heal these dynamics instead of unconsciously playing into the parent-child pattern, it asks us to be conscious and step out of the dynamic when it happens and into being partners to heal.

Responsibility.  After being really mad at a good part of the male population for some time for this super yucky dynamic when I was dating and men couldn’t hold their emotional weight with me, I had to get realllllllyyy honest with myself and admit I was a huge part of this unhealthy problem.  I saw this loud and clear when my current partnership entered the scene. Finally partnering with a man with far more consciousness and emotional awareness than I’ve met in the past, I was surprised when the parent-child dynamics reared their head. The truth was that I hadn’t fully taken responsibility for my pieces of the puzzle and so the play was predictable.  Yes we were more conscious and yes...we were still playing the game.

How do you know if you might be in a parent-child dynamic with your partner?  Here are some clues:

  • You feel resentment towards another person in your life.
  • You think it’s easier for you to just take care of something that is perhaps their responsibility.
  • You struggle with letting go of being in control.
  • You think it’s easier to deal with your feelings yourself than to ask for what you need or create a change.
  • Your partner outbursts or shuts down when you have conversations about your needs, how you feel, or what you want.
  • You make pretty much all of the decisions and your partner looks to you to do so.
  • You over explain your feelings…all of the time.  Giving all the reasons why something is wrong, why you are hurt, why things should be different.  Aka...scolding.
  • You don’t create any consequences for your partner breaking your trust, your requests, or your needs.  You simply forgive and keep trying to make things work.
  • You carry the personal/home to do list around in your mind and have to prompt your partner to help rather than them taking things up on their own accord or letting balls drop.

For this week’s Joy Tip Wednesday, I want you to take a hard, honest, loving look at whether you may be playing a parent role in your life.  

This is now about a blame game.  Towards you or anyone else.  It's about getting into integrity with yourself and in your relationships.

Here’s the thing...this can be in your partnership, or it may be at your work with co-workers. I see this dynamic happening often for my strong single women in the workplace who rather than letting balls drop around them, run to pick them up and carry them down the field, only to find themselves super resentful for doing so while they watch their co-workers get praise and feel unnoticed for how much they are carrying.  

This is a deep seated patterning at the personal, familial, societal, past life, and ancestral level for most of us.  So far, all of the past lives I’ve remembered, I was NOT partnered and was a leader. It’s no wonder that doing true partnership is hard for me.  But that’s part of what I showed up to master in this lifetime.

Have a lot of love and compassion for yourself for what you uncover.  Check in with the clues I listed above and start asking yourself, am I being a parent or a partner right now?  And be honest. This was hard for me. It was ego shattering for me. It required me to let go of control, let balls fall, let things get messy, and to be disappointed at times.  I don’t have it all figured out yet, but every day that I ask myself what it would look like to partner right now, it gets a little bit easier.

Think you might have a lopsided power dynamic of parent-child in your adult relationships?  Let’s chat. I work with women every single day to start shifting how they show up, asking for what they want, and stepping into a partner over parent role in their relationships.  This empowers them to heal resentment, get more of what they want, take a ton off of their plate, and to stand more fully in their power. Schedule time with me HERE.

Much love,

Marci