Finally, another installment of my Couples You Meet in Counseling series! In addition to Mr. Perfect and His Crazy Wife, The Ice Queen and The Martyr, Mr. and Mrs. Just Not Feeling It, and The Wife Who Wants More And Her Annoyingly Satisfied Husband, I am now adding a dynamic that is familiar to most people (and certainly all couples counselors): The Man-Child and His Long-Suffering Wife. (Check out the awesome free image I got for this article below, too.)
This pattern is easily recognizable. It is the wife sighing over the husband who just won't "grow up," and the husband acting like his wife is a buzzkill and the death of fun. If kids are in the picture, the wife is the disciplinarian, and the kids may gravitate to the "fun dad." (Sometimes, when this dynamic doesn't resolve, he turns into the "fun divorced dad," which is even more irritating to women, so try and work on your marriage before divorce is an option.) Sometimes, as the kids get older, though, they look down on the man-child and side with their long suffering mom, condescending to their father as they have seen their mother do. When kids ally with one parent over the other, this is a toxic situation, and one that should be worked on ASAP; read about it here.
The man-child and long suffering wife dynamic is prevalent among women married to video-game addicts, guys with untreated ADHD, and guys who are continually unfaithful. The woman is in an enabler role, complaining about the man's behavior but never truly allowing herself to give him an ultimatum. Instead, she shoulders more and more of the work of the home, making passive-aggressive comments and using other women, or, in unhealthy cases, the kids, as her support system.
This dynamic is often found in couples who saw a similar pattern at home, although the specific behaviors may be different. For example, a man who escapes into four hours of video games a day and avoids parenting the children may have seen a father who retreated into drinking alone in his office after work. His wife, who does "everything" with the kids and the home, may have seen a mother who enabled a disabled husband who did less than even his modified share. Both of these people are locked into a dynamic where one partner is considered the "child" and one is the "parent." Of course, this parent-child dynamic is going to extinguish any spark in the bedroom.
The way out of this dynamic involves change from both parties. The long suffering wife generally has to find fulfillment in something outside of caring for her home and family. Cleaning up after kids plus a passive husband is likely to lead to internalized rage and passive aggression on her part, over time. Additionally, the woman in this pair often tends toward perfectionism and a controlling nature, and it may be that some of her behaviors have perpetuated the passivity in the guy, as I describe here and here. (A book about this part of the dynamic has been written, called The Superior Wife Syndrome.) If the husband can't do anything right, then he may have decided the path of least resistance is to do nothing at all, which makes her even more frustrated, and the cycle continues.
The man-child, for his part, often suffers from low self-esteem, like this guy. Often, he observed a male role model who was felt detached from family life, and had low self-esteem as well. Sometimes, though, he has been kept in the child role by overly involved parents of his own. In this case, his parents have doubted his ability to function on his own and stepped in to offer him help (financial or otherwise) for so long that he can't imagine functioning on his own, without either his parents or wife to take care of him.
Interestingly, both individuals in this pair usually have intimacy issues. From the (usually unhappy) marriage that they have observed growing up, they have formed a cynical view of marriage, or else a hopelessly idealistic one that was created in reaction to what they saw between their parents. Therefore, the man-child settles for haranguing and disappointment from his wife, and the long-suffering wife settles for having another child instead of an equal partner. They continue to stay in the dynamic because it can be subconsciously appealing: the man-child gets to do what he wants, and the long-suffering wife gets to stay in control of everything.
If this is your dynamic, couples counseling can provide you and your partner with new ways to view your interactions, and ways to change so that neither party feels alienated and disappointed. The younger you and your partner are, the likelier that marital therapy will succeed; often a "man child" will literally grow up when he has more kids and more responsibilities, and his wife will stop focusing so much on his deficits as her kids age and she finds more fulfillment outside of the home in career and so forth. But even if this has been your dynamic for 20 years, there is always the potential for positive change if both (or even just one) parties are motivated. Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Speaketh The Truth.
Learn about Dr. Rodman’s private practice, including therapy, coaching, and consultation, here. Order her books, 52 Emails to Transform Your Marriage, and How To Talk To Your Kids About Your Divorce, here. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.