Avoid a Parent-Child Relationship With Your Partner

Avoid a Parent-Child Relationship With Your Partner

They say that the Kellogg brothers, John and Will, did not get along well. 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. One doctor observed that they, “were like two fellows trying to climb up the same ladder at the same time… The two men did not seem like brothers at all. I believe that the elder deliberately kept the younger down.”

They were, it turned out, unequal partners. When it came to one of their most famous inventions, corn flakes, they differed drastically. Will wanted to make money, add sugar to the flakes! John did not think it was morally right to make money on health food products. Will desired to be a partner no more. He moved out from his brother’s shadow and began selling rival boxes of corn flakes…


The Parent-Child relationship:

Simplistically speaking, we have three ways of relating to one another. As the parent, the peer, or the child. When we were younger we experienced the parent to child relationship at its fullest. Our parents nurtured us, gave us rules, and enforced consequences. When problems arose they stepped in to guide towards the solution. We flew to them in times of crisis. It was a wonderful time when our parents knew best.

Until… we grew up.

As we grew into teenagers and then adults, their involvement became less and less welcome. The more they demanded we do it their way, the more likely we were to withdraw, rebel, or not involve them. The more lecturing that happened, the more likely we were to consider them bullies rather than allies. For all the incredible efforts that parents have spent on their children, if in the end their children felt trapped or trampled into doing it mom or dad’s way, the child resents the parents’ involvement. I should mention that this resentment will come EVEN IF the help was a great sacrifice by the parents and was beyond the child’s own capability.

The behavior of Parent to Child Relationships:

The Parent believes they know betterThe Parent tends to take control of the situation

The Parent expends effort to care take

The Parent becomes frustrated with the apparent non-reaction and withdrawal of the Child

Parent may become more anxious and insistent that the Child face the problem and communicate


As the Parent takes over, the Child withdrawsThe Child stops including the Parent in their process

The Child may or may not accept the help or care

The Child resents the Parent for their involvement. (Even if the parent saved the day)

The Child may reject Parental advice or act out in some manner


The result of this dynamic is that little counseling is done together as partners.

Problems can arise when parents, spouses, siblings, roommates, or friends attempt to play this role during our adult lives. The same patterns can be seen weekly in my office among my clients. There will be a parent figure hovering with the intent for their efforts and pressure to create a change or success with 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.


The parent child relationship continues to have its moments well into our later life. Sometimes we need our mommies and daddies. However, those times are fewer and far between as we aged. Many of us became parents and started playing this role to our children.

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

  • Peers are equals- neither one knows best.
  • Peers share openly- The one resists withdrawing the other respects the distance when the other has withdrawn
  • Peers give advice to each other in a cautious and friendly manner.
  • Peers respect for each other’s opinions, differences, needs.
  • No obedience is demanded.
  • Caretaking goes both ways.
  • Instead of the comprehensive support given by a parent, 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- you let go of your peers problems which you cannot take responsibility over nor control.
  • Each understands and trusts that your peer can handle and has chosen their consequences.

So, you are probably thinking, ”I can do this, but what about the other half of this relationships? How do I get my partner to stop treating me like a child? OR How do I get my partner to be “grow up”? “

The answer is to start treating each other and acting more like peers. Build a new pattern of interaction This means consciously ceasing the old patterns listed above. Instead of the Child withdrawing, they lean in. 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.

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. 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 principle.

I bet you are wondering if the Kellogg brothers ever able to reconcile? Hardly. Their relationship deteriorated in such a way that after Will opened up his cereal company, their bickering became decades of legal battles and sibling silence. They died unreconciled.

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