Relationships that you and your partner have with the other people in your life can also impact the relationship between the two of you. Relationships with family and long-time friends can be particularly influential because you often are already in established routines and your relationship has a specific dynamic. It can be difficult to change those things when you meet someone new.
If your partner has an unhealthy relationship with their parent, it could actually be hurting the one between the two of you. The signs can be subtle, but if you see them, having an honest conversation with your partner or including a therapist in the conversation as well is important.
They don’t institute or enforce any boundaries
Boundaries in any relationship are exceedingly important and that includes a relationship with parents.
“Boundaries are such an important part of any alliance a couple makes with one another as this is entirely related to trust and feelings of partnership,” Allen Wagner, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, told INSIDER. “Partners often feel hurt and minimized by this experience.”
If your partner’s not setting up boundaries with their parents, that can make you feel like you’re only second-best.
Your partner believes something about themselves that a parent told them, even though it’s not entirely true
“If your partner has internalized what their parent has said about them or lives in accordance with how their parent has defined them even though that definition may not be completely accurate, they may have a limited self-concept of their own and look to you and your relationship to further define who they are,” Julie Williamson, LPC, NCC, RPT, a therapist at Abundant Life Counseling St. Louis, told INSIDER. “This could create codependency in the relationship.”
If your partner and their parent are in a codependent relationship, you can end up feeling left out and that makes you feel sort of boxed out in your relationship. Talking to your partner is very important.
“If your partner is internalizing their parent’s negative and/or inaccurate assessment of them, you can validate and encourage the aspects of their own self-concept and individuality that shine through,” Williamson added. “Ultimately, if your partner is codependent, they will need to seek their own individual support for that, but you can set boundaries in order to prevent enabling their codependent behavior.”
Your partner and their parent argue all the time
If your partner and their parent argue all that time, that can place you squarely in the middle. Either you agree with your partner or you agree with your partner’s parent, either way you lose.
“If someone has an unhealthy with their parent it is not your role to mediate. Be careful not to play both sides,” Nedra Glover Tawwab, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker, told INSIDER. “Talk to your spouse about trying a different approach with their parent instead of responding in their typical way. Be creative about discussing how you’d like your partner to respond to common issues with their parent. It’s always a good idea to practice what they might say or do if … before being in the presence of their parent. Be sure to process issues they have with their partner and explore better ways to handle the issue if it happens in the future.”
They talk about things with their parent before they speak with you
When your partner speaks to their parent about things before chatting about them with you, that’s a sign that their relationship may be lacking boundaries. This can make you feel like you’re either not trusted or aren’t seen as important as their parent is and that can really hurt.
“Help them see and acknowledge that this is going on, and talk about what healthy boundaries would look like with their family,” Heidi McBain, MA, LMFT, LPC, RPT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, told INSIDER. “Then, start helping your partner set and maintain healthy boundaries with their parents, especially if and when they get pushback regarding this change in the relationship.”
Their parent gets to make all their big decisions
“When a person is talking to their parent multiple time daily, and use them as the primary strategic partner in decisions made in their personal life or professional life, this can hurt trust within the partnership immensely,” Wagner said.
If you’re feeling like your partner isn’t running their own life because their parent is, it might be worth bringing that up with your partner, particularly if they seem to be unhappy with how things are going.
“Premarital counseling is a way to address this issue collaboratively at the outset, but if that did not happen, there are ways couples can be more organized in making their decisions collaboratively, so that the parent is no longer the chef in the kitchen, but rather a customer, ordering from a set menu,” Wagner explained. “Couples need to be able to express their hurt in this situation without anger that will bring up defensive postures in the person who might feel compelled to protect their parent.”
They take care of a parent who doesn’t need it
Though, of course, sometimes grown children choose to take care of a parent in the event of an illness or injury, but if they unnecessarily take care of a parent who is perfectly capable for caring for themselves, that’s not a good sign. Similarly, if your partner was forced to care for a parent from the time they were a child, that too can result in an unhealthy relationship.
“If you or your partner were placed in this role in your families of origin, you may still be playing this role, caring for an adult family member and/or parent when it was never your job in the first place,” Williamson said. “This could impact your current relationship with your partner by creating feelings of guilt if you choose to spend time with your partner over your parent, seek to develop new rituals or traditions with your partner separate from your family, etc.”
If need be, a therapist can help them determine how to navigate this relationship and give them the tools they need to set some additional boundaries or extricate themselves from something that isn’t exactly healthy.
Your partner’s mood changes in accordance with interactions with their parent
A particularly difficult or exciting interaction with anyone can sometimes have an effect on your mood, but if your partner’s mood tends to change every single time they interact with their parent, that can make things difficult for both you and them. If you’re worried about how their relationship with their parent is affecting them, it’s best to talk to them about it.
“It is helpful to be candid with your partner about how their interactions with their parent impact you,” Tawwab said. “Be clear about your feelings. For example, ‘when you get upset at your mom in front of me I feel helpless and unclear about my role.'”
They crave praise from their parent for every achievement
Everyone hopes for a little recognition and affirmation when they achieve something especially great, but if your partner is constantly looking for praise from their parent for every single achievement, that’s a potential sign that the relationship between the two of them isn’t entirely healthy.
“Therapy can be a safe place to talk about your relationship patterns, and the patterns from their parents that are playing out in your relationship,” McBain said. “A therapist can help you both see what healthy relationship boundaries look like, so you can work towards this goal together as a couple.”
Holidays are an emotional minefield
When your partner and their parent have an unhealthy relationship, holidays and special occasions can be complicated. Tawwab said that in some cases, an unhealthy parent-child relationship can make these kinds of celebrations difficult and exhausting, rather than fun and celebratory. And so even if you’re not sure that the relationship between your partner and their parent have many other indicators that their relationship isn’t all that healthy, this can be a giveaway.
If your partner and their parent do, in fact, have an unhealthy relationship, the first thing that you likely want to do is speak with your partner (without blaming or shaming) about these sorts of things that are affecting your own relationship.
Encouraging them to seek individual therapy, therapy with their parent, or couples therapy for the two of you can all potentially be helpful as well. Ultimately, your partner’s relationship with their parent isn’t something that you should feel the need to be at the center of, but if it’s ruining your relationship, you may need to take action.
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