At times, focusing on a partner’s need for help, advice, support and guidance is the kind, caring thing to do. But too much of it can create a mothering or fathering dynamic in a relationship. By regularly, habitually focusing on your partner’s need to do things differently rather than on your own feelings, fears, and reactions, you may in fact be distracting yourself from doing your introspection and self-inquiry.
Mothering and fathering spouses often have a hard time accepting that they can’t ultimately control another person. They try to change their partner through unsolicited advice, complaints, recommendations, emotional strong-arming, and other methods. In then end, this can shut the “mothered” or “fathered” partner down, breed resentment, and solidify their resistance to making important, healthy changes.
Mother and fathering partners often fear loss. Underneath their attempts to control, manage, micro-manage or pressure their partner into what they believe are the appropriate health choices, there are layers of uncomfortable and vulnerable emotions they don’t want to feel. These emotions often relate to an earlier historical time when they felt helpless. Maybe their parents divorced and they couldn’t change the trajectory of their family’s dissolution. Maybe they had a parent who was an alcoholic who drank despite the impact it had on others, or a diabetic relative they loved who didn’t take care of their health. Mothering or fathering spouses may find it easier to focus on a current situation than to explore underlying feelings that seem too overwhelming, scary or painful to deal.
Often, mothering or fathering partners fear losing connection to their partners. They may feel they depend on their partners for their own safety and stability. There may also be a strong attachment to a fantasy of how things should be rather than how they are. Sometimes, there’s a fear of losing a fantasy vision of their partner or their relationship or the family as a whole as “perfect,” healthy, safe, or happy.
Mothering and Fathering is Different from Advocacy
Advocacy is when we step in to help our spouses when they need our support, ask for it, want it, and are relieved by it. When we advocate, we are using our voice as an extension of our partner’s voice with their full permission or at their behest. We’re loaning them our passion, conviction, energy, strength, knowledge or confidence to help them deal with a temporary crisis more effectively.
Advocating for our spouses emerges from a place of deep respect and love. Far from being a pattern or a dynamic in a relationship, advocacy arises in specific times of crisis or need.
Mothering and fathering spouses, on the other hand, is an entrenched way of relating. It’s a pattern that permeates almost every interaction with a couple. It tends to have a belittling flavor to it. We view ourselves as being superior in some way, and we view our partner as being limited in an areas where we’re strong. We may also misinterpret their resistance to our suggestions as willful defiance.
An Alternative To Mothering or Fathering
A far better tactic than engaging in the mothering/fathering dynamic with your partner is to “walk to the walk.” Walking the walk is a relational superpower. Do the things yourself that you would like your partner to do. Model what self-care looks like. Model what self-respect sounds like. Show them you respect them by modeling respect. Let them know you love them, want what’s best for them, but understand that they are their own person and will ultimately need to make their own self-supporting choices and decisions. If they engage in self-destructive choices that you find too difficult to tolerate, explain this to them. Figure out what your boundaries are. Do you need your partner to seek outside help in order to be able to continue in the relationship?
Practice re-focusing on what your partner’s “poor” health choices trigger in you. What are the deeper fears or needs that may be driving your well-meaning desire to control them? If you’re able to share your reality vulnerably with your partner, and take more responsibility for your underlying reactions, it can bring you closer. That closeness is often a stronger motivator for self-care than unsolicited advice.
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— The Good Men Project (@GoodMenProject) March 11, 2019