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What happens when a love partner is a parental substitute?

written by: Kosjenka Muk

Trying to change a partner

When I work with couples (and individuals, too), in their bitter criticisms of their partners I can often guess what a person wanted to say to their parents, but for whatever reasons couldn't or didn't dare. (Sometimes I can literally see their eyes lose focus, as if they don't really see the person in front of them anymore.) With at least 95% of people I work with, the connection between their adult intimate partnerships and their childhood conditioning becomes soon quite obvious. One of such patterns is the hope that a partner would change in a way a problematic parent never did. Sometimes this is already clear in early stages of a relationship, but more often it shows up later, after several months or even years.

Such hopes can keep some people in low-quality relationships for a long time, self-sacrificing and suffering. Some others might keep accusing, punishing, demeaning and even abusing their partners trying to make them change. What approach a person will choose, depends primarily of survival strategies learned in their early family, as well as parental role models, usually the parent of the same gender, but not always. Perceived similarities of a partner with a parent often results in presuming bad intentions (projection of resentment against parents), which is often a "killer" of intimacy. This easily happens even when the partner's faults are small and unconscious, such as forgetting things, not answering a text message quickly enough, different level of tolerance to mess and similar).

When something in a partner's behavior triggers childhood memories ("age regression"), few people are able to recognize what happened, even when they are theoretically aware of such a possibility. The most obvious signal of childish emotions being triggered is an unusual intensity of the reaction. So if you feel intense anger, followed by mental accusations of your partner, I suggest you consider if such a reaction might be at least partly related to something in your past (even if the partner's present behavior might be realistically irritating, adult irritation would usually still be milder).

Since unresolved emotions related to parents are usually based on some form of belief of inadequacy, rejection, not being loved and similar, trying to change a partner is basically striving to finally achieve the approval recognition and appreciation some child parts of us crave. Such a hope is an intense motivation, which keeps many people bonded to incompatible or unhealthy relationships. Yet even is such a hope is fulfilled, external experiences usually don't reach the subconscious mind ("inner child"), emotions from the past are left unresolved and can erupt again at any new provocation.

Exaggerated expectations

If a person didn't have a chance as a child to learn to value balanced responsibility, or to be self-reliant, they can perceive an intimate partnership as a chance to give up on some part of their own responsibility. It might be the responsibility for their own emotions, or for practical chores. Sometimes such people can see a partner as a source of what they need, but sooner or later the partner feels reduced to the role of a servant.

If an emotional bond is based on childish emotions, one can perceive it as natural that a partner should be perfect, understanding, love and give unconditionally - which is actually normal in a parent-child relationship. When the partner turns out to have their own needs, expectations and requests, such a person can feel hurt, even betrayed in some way, and they can react accordingly. The more a partner is a parental substitute, the less we can allow them to be imperfect and have their own identity. The consequences are easily predictable, and many people live them.

Neglect followed by panic

If we observe a small child with a parent, especially primary caretaker (usually mother), we can see that as long as everything is normal, the child takes the parent for granted and focuses on their own desires and needs. However, as soon as the relationship with mother is in serious danger - the mother is for whatever reason unavailable (i.e. illness, long working hours, emotional coldness, and for babies even mother going to a different room in the house can be enough), a child usually starts to panic, crying, screaming, and slightly older children might try apologizing and promising they will be good from now on, whatever the cause for the mother's absence might be. Yet as soon as a safe routine is again established, the child forgets their panic and turn back to their own interests.

Emotionally immature adults often show a similar pattern of behavior: taking the partner for granted until the partner announces they had enough; after that panicking, apologies, promising the world, bringing stars from the sky and such - but when the relationship is back to normal, they start to ignore their partner's needs again (which often includes demeaning, abusing and cheating on them). In the stage of panic and regret, such a person can be genuine and very convincing, and keep pulling the partner in an exhausting cycle of hope and disappointment. We can guess that such a partner keeps reliving their own childhood memories of alternating hope and disapointment with an irresponsible parent, as the unhealthy entanglement is usually mutual.

The more responsible person in such a relationship usually has a vision of how nice the relationship could be with mutual respect, consideration and understanding. They believe their partner must be aware of it too, or at least it shouldn't be so difficult to make them aware, and that the solution only requires some reasonable conversation and sharing perspectives. Yet, as people are emotional rather than rational beings, if the partner has a strong need to avoid responsibility, no reasoning or explaining makes a difference... just as nothing made a difference with an irresponsible parent (but the child kept hoping, because they couldn't imagine to lose hope).

For an irresponsible partner to change, they need to be willing to change some of their essential life values, which rarely happens in normal conditions. People usually need to experience significant suffering as a result of their life decisions, to truly understand that their old value systems damage rather than help them. Some people don't change their values even if such a thing happens. Therefore my recommendation to the partner of such a person is to primarily focus on changing their own emotional conditioning which keeps them bonded to such a relationship, rather than hoping that their partner would change.

Why constructive communication sometimes doesn't work?

While this type of pattern by itself is not related to gender, traditional upbringing gives much more freedom to boys, often allowing them (and sometimes even encouraging them) to not show significant responsibility or consideration for others. On top of that, children often idealize the parent who has more freedom and spends more time away from the family (usually the father in traditional societies), while taking for granted or even resenting the parent who spends time with them, makes demands, gives criticisms and imposes limitations, therefore usually the mother (just as it's otherwise a part of human nature to appreciate what is scarce and unavailable, while taking for granted what we already have).

If the mother is, on top of that, insufficiently firm and consistent in imposing discipline, which is not uncommon, the child in time learns to ignore her requests and warnings until the mother becomes seriously angry and willing to make her threats a reality. As the relationship with the parent of the opposite sex is often reflected in the relationship with a love partner, such a child grows into a person who in time falls into the habit of ignoring and not taking seriously their partner's requests, needs and pleas, just as they were used to do with the mother ... until the partner becomes seriously angry.

This pattern can easily be unconscious and unintentional, so it can show up not only among people prone to selfishness and aggression, but also among people whose personality is warmer and well-meaning. Such people can ignore mild and friendly complaints and requests not on purpose, but simply because the habit is so deeply ingrained.

This can be very confusing for their partner, who can end up resorting more and more to nonconstructive criticism and blame, such as they probably heard from their own parents. This can trigger childhood memories and childish emotions (age regression) in the unconsciously neglectful person, who might react with defensive strategies: anger and blaming in return. (Their children can easily soak up such behavior through the process of learning through imitation.) It's not surprising that so many promising relationships end up in mutual disappointment and blame.

Hatred for the opposite gender

Just as people form their images of a supreme deity based on their experience of their parents in early childhood (which is easily recognizable in various religions), our expectations of other people are also based on our experiences with our parents. Most often, our expectations of women are based on our experiences with our mothers, while our expectations of men are based on our experiences with our fathers. However, negative prejudice towards the opposite gender is usually more pronounced, considering that most people are less likely to generalize against groups they are a part of.

Prejudice and generalizations which we learn in early childhood are sometimes particularly difficult to give up on, or even recognize them as exaggerated, as early childhood is a stage of life in which we create the basic imprints about the world and strategies how to survive in such a world. If a belief is unconsciously perceived as helpful to survival, trying to question and change it can cause existential fear (often also unconscious).
(Another type of fear that comes out when changing emotional habits from childhood, is fear os somehow "betraying" one's own family or losing one's place within the family. This is, for example, one of the reasons why people hold on to their religious beliefs in spite of all evidence. Resolving such fears is also a part of our method.)

All in all, if bad experiences with a parent create a negative perception of one's partner's gender, this will inevitably influence one's romantic relationships. Then it's very easy to perceive everything a partner (or anybody of their gender) does in the worst possible light and presume the worst intentions. Web-communities in which such opinions and "proofs" for them are exchanged keep growing and gaining influence. As a result, usually the people who least deserve or expect it - including children - suffer the most consequences.

It's almost impossible to not have some prejudice, as our brains are instinctively prone to oversimplifying the world around us, but many people manage to keep their prejudice under control and don't let them influence their behavior. (I want to mention here that some people come to me because they are worried they are bad people because of occasional mean and violent thoughts. Such thoughts alone don't make you a bad person; they are a normal part of human experience. What matters is what you decide to do about them - and this can also be changed.) However, people who often feel a need to express their hatred for the opposite gender, are usually those whose hidden feeling of inadequacy is so intense that they feel they can only find some personal worth and power in belonging to their own gender - i.e. something that is not the result of their own efforts and abilities. People who carry such a feeling of inadequacy can easily be tempted to compensate for it by abusing others, and the partner is usually the easiest victim. This is not likely to be changed by and kind of logical reasoning or persuasion, if such a person doesn't have internal motivation to change.

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