Is Your Primary Relationship With Your Spouse?

A couple lying on grass facing each otherFrom Dr. Thomas Gordon’s P.E.T. book.

Many parents look to their children for their primary relationship, rather than to their spouse. Mothers, particularly, rely heavily on their children to give them satisfactions and pleasures that more appropriately should come from the marriage relationship. Frequently this leads to “putting the children first,” “sacrificing for the children,” or counting heavily on the children “turning out well,” because of the parents’ heavy investment in the parent-child relationship.

Their children’s behavior means far too much to these parents. How the kids behave is too crucial. These parents feel that children must be constantly watched, directed, guided, monitored, judged, evaluated. It is very difficult for such parents to allow their children to make mistakes or stumble in their lives. They feel their children must be protected against failure experiences, shielded against all possible danger.

Effective parents are able to have a more casual relationship with their children. Their marriage relationship is primary. Their children have a significant place in their lives, but it is almost a secondary place—if not secondary, at least no more important than the place of the spouse. Such parents seem to allow their children much more freedom and independence. These parents enjoy being with their children but only for limited times; they also like to spend time alone with their marriage partner.

Their investment is not solely in their children; it is also in their marriage. How their children behave or how much they achieve, therefore, is not so critical to them. They are more apt to feel that the children have their own lives to live and should be given more freedom to shape themselves. Such parents seem to correct their children less frequently and monitor their activities less intensely.

They can be there when the children need them, but they do not feel strong needs to intervene or push into the lives of the children without being asked. They generally do not neglect their children. They certainly are concerned about them but not anxious. They are interested, but not smothering. “Children are children” is their attitude, so they can be more accepting of what they are—children. Effective parents more often feel amused at their children’s immaturity or their foibles, rather than devastated.

The parents in this latter group obviously are inclined to be much more accepting—fewer behaviors will upset them. They will have less need to control, limit, direct, restrict, admonish, preach. They can allow their children more freedom—more separateness. Parents in the first group are inclined to be less accepting. They need to control, limit, direct, restrict, and so on. Because their relationship with the children is the primary one, these parents have strong needs to monitor their behavior and program their lives.

I have come to see more clearly why parents who have an unsatisfactory relationship with their spouse find it so difficult to be accepting of their children: They are too needful of their children bringing them the joys and satisfactions that are missing in the marital relationship.

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