In 1960, Random House published “Are You My Mother” by P.D. Eastman. I was 3, at the time, and it is the first book I ever remember reading.
It was a story about a bird hatching while his mother was away looking for food. So the youngster heads out to find his mother. In order, he asks a kitten, a hen, a dog and a cow, “Are you my mother.” Each says “no.”
The hatchling chick then asks a car, a boat and a plane the same question, each time rebuffed. Finally, he asks a steam shovel, which, in reply, picks him up and drops him back into his nest as his mother returns from foraging. All is well. Parent and child are reunited.
Little did I know at age three that I would someday study psychology and specifically Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. And thus, little did I know at age three I was reading a book about modern marriage.
Not really joking here.
It’s amazing, really, if you listen carefully, how frequently the little bird’s question is present in marital interactions. Nobody says it out loud, but the inquiry is there, loud and clear, in implication and subtext: “Are you my mother? Are you my father?” And, depending on the specific marital encounter, “Would you be?” Or, “Would you stop being my mother/father?”
I’m saying it’s in the very nature of marriage to provoke and arouse long-ignored, unconscious or not-quite-conscious memories of our earthly mother and father. Positive memories. Not-so-positive memories. In some cases, really painful, traumatic memories. And not so much historical memories; rather, emotional memories. That is, patterns of learned, emotional reaction.
This aspect of marriage could rightly be called “transference,” a word normally reserved for the transferring of feelings about (usually childhood) relationships onto your therapist. That is, confusing, for a moment, your therapist with your mother, your father, or other important people from your childhood.
In therapy, transference is predictable, expected and useful in the hands of a competent clinician. In marriage, transference is not generally predicted and expected. If the unsuspecting spouse on the receiving end of transference notices anything at all, he/she might find themselves thinking “Hmm, doesn’t this reaction seem a little over-reactive?”
So, let me try to shine some light into these shadows.
First, all healthy, thriving marriages contain chapters of “re-parenting.” I mean that, over time, spouses learn something of their mates’ childhood wounds, insecurities and empty places. They learn to identify their mates’ neuroses, ego defenses and preferred compulsions. And, in love, they move to re-parent these wounds. The marriage provides the soothing nurture, champion advocacy and encouragement a lucky child receives from a competent mother and father. Like the wife who said to me, recently, in speaking about her husband: “He was, in our early days, at once my constant champion and utterly intolerant of my reflexive self put-downs. I couldn’t get away with even the slightest self-scorn or negative self-talk. He was literally the Good Father I never had.” Or like a husband who said of his wife, “She at once won’t let me get away with any shoddy, selfish behavior, yet somehow does that without leaving me feeling constantly criticized.”
In addition to re-parenting, all marriages sooner or later manifest “parentification.” Whereas “re-parenting” is most often a good and loving thing, parentification of your spouse tends toward not-so useful. Not-so adaptive. And generally erosive to romance and thriving sexual courtship.
Oh, a little parentification, here and there, can be adorable and endearing. Like the stereotypical husband with the flue, who transforms into a whiney, irritable little boy, and then transforms his darling wife from peer/lover/mate into mother/soother/forehead stroker. Or the cliché wife who, upon seeing the spider or cockroach or mouse, transforms into a 6 year-old damsel in distress, and then transforms her darling husband from peer/lover/mate into father/rescuer/and conqueror of rodents, insects and arachnids.
But chronic parentification requires action. Without intervention, it is guaranteed to erode respect which is guaranteed to erode marital love. Parentification is an unconscious process. And it cuts one of two ways, or sometimes both at once. Either we unconsciously posture our wife/husband as mother/father, or we unconsciously adopt the office of authoritative (and usually critical) parent, talking to our wife/husband as if she/he was a child.
I’m saying that, if you should begin to ‘hear’ in your mate’s reactions to you the implicit question, “Are you my mother/father?,” the correct answer is “No and hell no. Remember me from the wedding?”
“And the man shall leave his mother and father, and the woman shall leave her home, and the two shall become One Flesh.” – Genesis, 2:24
(Steven Kalas is an author, a therapist and an Episcopal priest. You can reach Steven Kalas at firstname.lastname@example.org.)