4. Dealing with one’s own parents
Continuing with the theme of only child adults as partners, and having looked at the first three of the above four issues, I will now look at the often thorny problem of relationships with parents and how they can impinge on the partnership with the only child adult.
Why can parents of onlies be such a problem in a relationship? Well of course like many other situations it is not always the case that parents are a problem! I don’t think my own parents were at all problematic in my relationships. However from the emails I receive and the couples and individuals I have worked with, it is clear that some people do experience problems with what I would describe as the intrusiveness of their parents.
A recent post “What do I do?” gives an idea of why a parent can become problematic. When a parent leans so heavily on their adult child, that they are unable to make a separate life of their own, one can imagine how difficult it would be to be in a partnership having such a demanding parent. This type of parent, in psychological terms, would be called ‘narcissistic’. In the Greek myth Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection. A ‘narcissistic personality’ is when the needs of a person are so great, they are unable to see outside of themselves. This makes it impossible, for them as a parent, to distinguish their own needs from that of their child, as they see the child an extension of themselves. Further more, there is an unconscious expectation that the child will fulfill their needs i.e. give them the love and attention that they crave. This of course puts a terrible burden on the child and this does not go away when the child enters adult hood. Of course this can happened to both onlies and those with siblings but for an only it can be more problematic because there is only one person to meet the parent’s need.
So how does this effect your long term relationships?
The difficulty with a parent who has problems distinguishing their needs from their grown up child, is that they can not understand that the son or daughter will put and should put their own partner first. This comes as quite a shock to the parent/s. They suddenly find that they have to share the attention that once was fully centered on themselves. (Remember that some parents choose to have one child becasue they want to lavish all the care and attention they felt they missed out on having siblings). This means that potentially there is a great deal of heartache as the parent feels as if they have been marginalised by their son or daughter. For example they may expect to be seen every Christmas, regardless of the parents-in-law wish to see their son/daughter; or they often have vastly high expectations of their role as a grandparent. The latter is never an easy one, but so much more difficult when the grandparents’ come with the expectation that they know best!
Here is an email I received some time ago, which is fairly typical of some of these problems from the point of view of the only:
Hi- I am the only child son, 35 years old and married with 2 young children. I have had many problems in my adult relationship. I worry about my parents and what they will think of my decision-making. I feel guilty when spending time with my in-laws. I worry about not including them in my new family. I’m really struggling with my folks…jealousy of my wife’s parents, etc., (we live closer to them than my parents). I really think there are some issues for parents to deal with as onlies progress into adulthood and marriage.
They’re pretty angry and stubborn. But I guess the issue results from my stress whenever they disagree with any of our decisions. They have interfered on occasion, more through phone and email than directly confronting us. I worry about how they’re feeling instead of focusing on my wife and our kids. That’s been going on for about 7 years now.
My wife is pretty upset because I am constantly on the fence between her and my parents, and not focusing on her and our family. A lack of trust has arisen in her about my parents. The last straw was her declaring that they wouldn’t be babysitting. Mom and Dad are very angry and jealous of her parents right now. It’s a big stressful mess that I can’t seem to get any handle on. How do I rebuild the relationship with my wife and parents, what do I say, what do I do…I am just really the kind of person who wishes it would all go away without the confrontation.
There are a number of issues here, which include the competing demands of a partner, their parents, and the writers own parents. This is not something that can be worked out easily however the place to begin is about putting one’s partner first and making boundaries with one’s own parents.
I will be interested to receive any comments on this series of posts to continue the dialogue.