Parent, Child and Adult Roles in Relationships

In working with a couple, I was recently reminded of a long established and widely used model of relationships, called Transaction Analysis.  Developed by Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne in the 1940s, I first came across it in my previous career, working for a marketing research agency. The founders of the agency were psychologists, and a number of psychological frameworks were used in our day to day working lives, to help us with line management and as ways of thinking about client problems. 

Berne identified three states of mind (or ‘ego states’) we all adopt at times in our lives and in our relationships with others – Parent, Child and Adult. While these terms might seem obvious, they do warrant a brief explanation:

Parent state – when we adopt the behaviours, thoughts, feelings and responses of our parents, or of parental figures in general, as permeated through society

Child state – when we replay behaviours, thoughts, feelings or responses from our own childhood, or like our own children or children in general

Adult state – in contrast to the parent state, when we behave, think, feel and respond as we are here and now.

The framework says that all interactions are a combination of these:

We often adopt these forms of relating unconsciously, and at times these can be helpful in our relationships.  However there are other occasions when we can get trapped in unhealthy states of mind with our partners, leading to conflict, circular arguments, and fuel anxiety rather than allowing partners to help each other with anxieties.

The most common difficulty like this is when couples are often inadvertently drawn in to parent-to-child roles.  We can find ourselves being the voice of a parent with our partner, and our partner can adopt the role of a child with us. Sometimes these roles can be reciprocated in different contexts and at different times in life, or sometimes the partners tend to be stuck in particular roles.

Parent/child roles in relationships can sometimes be linked to vulnerability, with one partner tending to be the one who shows all the vulnerability (in relation to, for example, feelings of fearing failure – the child), while the other partner is the apparently ‘strong’ (parental) one. The ‘strong’ partner focuses on looking after the vulnerable one. This might not be a bad thing at all if the ‘parent’ can provide some nurture to empower the ‘child’ to find their own inner strength and to find the adult in themselves.  However often the couple gets stuck, with the ‘parent’ doing all the thinking, having all the agency and with the ‘child’ becoming more and more dependent. Or, the ‘parent’ being controlling and prescriptive. 

Some couples adopt a child-to-child relationship at times, and while there is absolutely nothing wrong with some play between a couple, it can sometimes become a way of avoiding adult intimacy, tickling rather than a more erotic caress, for example.

Often, just simply by recognising these dynamics can help couples snap out of these habits and to discover or rediscover the adult-to-adult dynamic which arguably should be what the relationship is mostly like. In other situations, couples therapy can identify the difficulty and help couples explore the roots causes of their interactions and how they might change things.

Finally, sexual intimacy is likely to be most associated with an adult to adult stance.  As I said to one client recently, admittedly rather flippantly: ‘the parent/child dynamic is hardly sexy, is it?’