What are you thinking about marriage in little age

This is the first of a two-part blog on how we may unwittingly enable our spouses to be either too responsible, or under-responsible. In Part I, I will focus on how over-responsible spouses play a direct role in allowing their partners to do less, while burdening themselves. In Part II, I will examine the ways in which less responsible spouses put over-responsible mates to work, and the developmental price they pay for their irresponsibility.

It’s alarmingly common to be presented in marital therapy with an over-responsible mate married to an under-responsible one. It’s a dynamic similar too Sager and Hunt’s (1979) parental-childlike relationship. Over-responsible partners are easy to spot. After all, they’ve initiated the therapy. The under-responsible may request treatment but usually under duress from the over-responsible. The over-responsible have a tendency to readself-help books and relentlessly cajole the under-responsible to do the same…which rarely works. The over-responsible aren’t always the bread winners, but many are. They tend to initiate sex…and just about everything else. The over-responsible almost always appear exhausted and exasperated in treatment; by the time they get to my office they are fed up and threatening separation or divorce.

The over-responsible have plenty of training before they marry. Oftentimes they were parentified in their families of origin or given age-inappropriate responsibility (Betchen, 1996; Boszormenyi-Nagy, 1965). For example, as a child or adolescent the over-responsible mate may have had sick parents or siblings that merited care. In some cases, they were enlisted, as the eldest or most competent children, by infantile or irresponsible parents who encouraged them to take over parental duties. One client reported that her parents immigrated to the United States but failed to assimilate. She said that from the time she was a little girl she served as her parent’s mediator and interpreter. And some over-responsible mates were born of elderly parents who chronically depended on them. Sounds exhausting doesn’t it? In extreme cases it robs one of childhood. But upon closer look, the over-responsible often mightily contribute to their burdens.

It seems the over-responsible relish being in charge despite the load they claim it to be. And therein lies the rub: The over-responsible spouse wants it all: to be in charge with less stress and responsibility—a real conflict. And they happen to be terrible at compromise. One chief defense is to say that they would gladly give up some responsibility but fear the job wouldn’t get done. What they really mean is that nobody can do it the way they can—a nice way to stay miserably in charge. The over-responsible will be the first to tell you how they do most, if not all of the chores in the house. They fail to admit however, that at times they block anyone else from taking over. When they do give others a chance to help, they can be so critical, their help quits. The over-responsible are famous for firing maid after maid or rendering their assistants at work useless. Over-responsible spouses are somewhat sadomasochistic. Their sadism comes out in the hypercritical, belittling of their spouse and the thwarting of their growth. The masochism is displayed in the enormous burden and stress that they put on themselves by rejecting significant relief. I use the word significant because another defense the over-responsible use is to accept a certain amount of help, but not nearly enough to change the dynamic of their relationships in any significant way.

I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that the over-responsible are terrible people. They can be extremely competent, “take charge” individuals who get things done. They’ve been trained from a very early age to be great administrators, and if they don’tburn out too young they can be quite successful. Many also have very good hearts and mean well. Some over-responsible spouses are simply victims of bad luck or circumstances, such as the chronic illness of a spouse or child. Nevertheless, they still remain poor at lightening their loads. It’s not hard to feel sorry for someone who has such difficulties setting limits. From what I can tell, most of their enabling is unconscious.