It is said that women are instinctively nurturing beings, and so we can't help but go out of our way to make sure that the people we care about are well taken care of - even in romantic relationships. Of course there are things that you will naturally do for your partner because you love them but what happens when you go beyond the extra mile and start playing a parental role? 

Relationship expert and TEDx speaker, Paula Quinsee, explains that "women don’t intentionally set out to ‘mother’ their partners, rather they are instinctive nurturers by nature, particularly when it comes to taking care of their own offspring and at times their partners can be lumped into this dynamic without realising it."

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At the same time, she adds, "the other influencing factor is how we were raised as children, if you had a parent that was constantly taking care of your every need, you’re likely to default to that behaviour too – invariably we end up parenting the way we were parented and that includes how we take care of our partners."

We wonder though why there is no such a term as fathering your partner? Especially as traditional gender roles are being challenged. But the same principles apply - about parenting your partner.

How do you know you're doing it?

While some people may see nothing wrong with it at all, others may not realise that they're parenting their partner. It's easy for the lines to get blurred, especially when you're generally a caring person and you channel that through being a girlfriend, but Paula explains that when you parent your partner, you begin to take control of aspects of their lives that they should be (and are very capable of) handling on their own. 

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Parenting a partner is more of a default behaviour often unconsciously done and can have negative behaviours associated with it; like a condescending tone of voice, criticism, and a sense of duty and obligation. Nurturing is more of a supportive role yet allowing the partner to remain independent in their thinking and doing things for themselves. The behaviours are more that of soft, warm, gentle, and accepting of each other’s needs.

We asked a few people of their experiences and this is what they had to say: 

Basically, it was her trying to change what I eat and even how I eat - she didn't like the way I chewed my food. She also didn't like the fact that I wore clothes that were very dark. She actually wanted to go as far as going shopping with me to change my wardrobe. It made me feel annoyed and actually drove me to do the opposite of whatever she asked or wanted.
I was in a relationship with a man that I unexpectedly started mothering for 14 months. I didn’t realise that’s what I was doing at first, but it was a big part of why I decided to break up with him. That and the cheating. It started small where I would remind him to do certain things so he wouldn’t forget them, but then it spiralled into me having to do things for him that he should have been able to do himself. I was washing his dishes at his flat, cleaning his room, helping him organise his life and taking care of all his needs emotionally and physically, but none of mine were being met at all. Then I realised that this is what he does in relationships, he lets women mother him and take over his life so that things can be easier for him. This relationship was no longer about give and take and I was allowing it to happen. So it formed part of my decision to finally leave him and move on.

According to Paula, common examples of parenting include:

  • taking care of all their admin (paying the bills, setting appointments on their behalf, etc.)
  • not allowing them to help with household chores because you’ve taken care of everything already
  • cleaning up after them
  • constantly neatening them up (fixing their collars/ties etc.)
  • reprimanding their behaviour as being irresponsible 

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Are you helping or harming?

You might think that you're being a great big help by making sure that your partner sets their dentist appointment and actually goes there, even if you have to drive them there yourself, but you're actually stripping them of all responsibility as an adult. 

In most cases, your actions may have a negative impact on the partner and the relationship as it can end up emasculating your partner and this tends to build resentment over time, says Paula. "A relationship is very much like a partnership where both parties are equal yet have a uniqueness about them that attracts them to each other and at the same time compliments each other," she adds.

"You both have different qualities and strengths that can build each other and your relationship but if one of you is predominantly giving more in the relationship (real or perceived), your partner could experience you as being controlling, smothering, critical or similar even if it is meant with the best of intentions."

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So, what do you do when you find yourself being a parent to your partner?

Paula shares tips on dealing with this aspect of yourself and your relationship:

Give them a chance to do things their own way (and respect them for it)

You don’t always have to do everything yourself even if you know you can do it better than your partner, Paula says.

Involve your partner in the decisions you make and in the things you do instead of taking complete control over everything. This will make them feel more responsible over their own life and make them feel like an equal part of the relationship instead of a minor. This can't be done until you respect them enough to let them be their own person. 

"Don’t lose the respect for each other and the role you play in your relationship – you are both equally accountable and responsible for how you are showing up every day in your relationship and how that behaviour is co-creating what is playing out in your relationship," says Paula. "Once the respect goes, pretty much everything else starts to follow."

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Communicate with them 

Ask your partner what kind of support or help they would like from you and then respect their request by assisting them in the way they need you to and not what you think is best for them. 

Constant communication is key – listen to the feedback you are getting from each other (both direct and indirect) and use these insights to improve yourself to be a better person and partner for the benefit of your relationship. Your partner might tell you what their needs are and how far they expect you to meet them; and likewise you can share your own needs and how you'd like them to be met. Through communicating, you can find middle ground and compromise on everything else. 

Don't forget to be a partner

In the midst of planning and plotting on behalf of your partner's lifestyle choices, you might forget to actually enjoy the relationship. Paula advises that you make time for spending quality time together to build your connection and relationships outside of just the household chores, children, and so on. 

Share your life with your partner and allow them to share their life with you. The keyword is "share", so that means you should avoid trying to take over all the time. Relationships are meant to be enjoyed, and even though they are hard work, you don't have to be the one constantly toiling like a helicopter mom. 

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