Dealing with a capable man is triggering for an independent woman who has suffered endlessly through parentification, which is defined as a type of role reversal whereby parents require their child or adolescent to act as a parent to their own siblings and assume adult responsibilities.
The psychology research is ripe with scholarship on this topic. I will not reference scholarly articles in this article because I want this to be a smooth read. However, I will leave a hyperlinked select list of accessible resources that you can read at your leisure.
This article serves as a universal reflection for all those individuals who were the eldest siblings, particularly women, who were expected to act as parents while they were younger, and who subsequently struggle to recognize and deal with a capable man once an opportunity presents itself. This article is also about the capable man who may have had the same experiences with parentification, who makes decisions based on emotions, and who is also financially stable.
Process of Parentification
There are two types of parentification: emotional parentification and instrumental parentification.
Emotional parentification is the most harmful because the child or adolescent feels responsible for the emotional well-being of the family. Within an abuse context, the child is responsible for helping the siblings work through their emotional regulation.
With instrumental parentification, the child or adolescent participates in the physical aspects of parenting, which requires shelter maintenance. This is usually required when the parent(s) works outside of the home.
During the process of parentification, the child or adolescent is expected to act as the parent as in completing physical tasks, which may include cooking, washing, cleaning, paying the bills, and providing assistance to the younger siblings. In certain family dynamics, a child or adolescent may be expected to act as a translator for their parents.
Each family environment has its challenges, especially if the sibling who is forced to act as a parent at a young age must also be an emotional confidante or mediator between siblings and between the siblings and the parent. In other words, the child or adolescent is expected to “step up” before he or she is ready and before he or she completes their own lifespan development.
The Eldest Sibling
It is the eldest sibling who usually experiences the brunt of a hostile, stressed, and maybe depressed parent who has checked out of the family dynamic, assigning larger responsibilities to the child or adolescent. Another common family dynamic is the single parent household in which the one parent works predominately outside of the home, leaving the caregiving of the other siblings to the eldest sibling.
When this happens, there is the realization that all siblings have become latchkey kids and must obey and interpret instructions for how to return to the house after school, how to lock the doors and not leave until the parent comes home from work, and how not to make too much noise so that the neighbors are not alerted. In the past, latchkey experiences were the norm. However, it is almost criminal to leave your eldest child home with their siblings, alone, today.
In addition to these mental and intellectual tasks, the eldest sibling will cook, clean the house, wash the clothes, and prepare the siblings for bed if the mom or dad comes home late from work.
For a sibling who is not yet 12 years old, these responsibilities can be many and the demand to “make sure it’s done before I get home” must be met while also managing unruly siblings who say, “You’re not my mother. You can’t tell me what to do.” The parent also says to the eldest sibling, “You’re not their mother. You can’t tell them what to do.” These are confusing messages for a child or adolescent who is expected to act in the role of a parent while the parent is away.
The eldest sibling must parent, be a parent, and act out what he or she thinks the role of a parent is without much guidance, instruction, planning, and validation. The parent merely says to the eldest sibling, “Do it because I said so.” Thus, there are no teachable moments under the rule of parentification.
Passing the Torch
This dynamic, when the eldest sibling is female, is passed down and transitioned into the romantic relationship where the individual who is now a woman, who has had no true childhood, is expected to manage a house with her own children while living with or married to a man. She is expected to carry on a romantic relationship and deal with the concept and role of a man with which she has no direct experience.
Although her mother may have direct experience living with a man, the eldest female sibling does not typically see parental roles modeled while serving as a pseudo-parent herself. Mom or dad might have had a boyfriend or girlfriend, but there was no true longevity that assured the eldest sibling some comfort that mom or dad could now feel free to take on the role of parent(s) and loosen the grip of parentification off the eldest sibling.
Struggles With Choice
Parentification is like shackles around the neck and even the foot on the neck of a child or adolescent who cannot exit what might be deemed as pseudo-slavery because the expectation is too high to ignore, challenge, disrespect, and refuse. The child or adolescent has no choice in the matter, and this lack of choice is present in the dynamic of the romantic relationship she later has with her partner who she further deems just as much a child as her former siblings.
In other words, instead of choosing a romantic partner who is competent, capable, and conscientious, she chooses her siblings in a mate. For example, she chooses the brother who refused to clean up after himself. She chooses the sister who snitched on everybody to their mother or father. She chooses what she has been exposed to and what her experiences reveal. In a man she chooses what is reflective of her mother or father.
She chooses the mother who worked and never came home at a decent hour and when she did, it was simply to yell and shout and discipline. She chooses the absentee father (or mother). She chooses the “father figure” who comes in and out of the house to “take care” of her mother. She chooses her experiences instead of choosing a romantic partner who is different from all the people referenced. Essentially, she chooses what she knows. She chooses what she has carried.
Lack of Modeling
This is why it is difficult for a woman to deal with a capable man because a capable man has never been modeled to her, and she has no idea what he wants, what his goals are, how he moves financially, and the depth of his intellectual capacity. The woman who struggles to deal with a capable man is a woman who was required prematurely to think for herself and for all her siblings and contemplate what her parent needed and wanted.
This suggests that in a toxic family dynamic the woman never felt secure, sure, and/or stable. This woman was trained and nurtured to cater to her mother’s needs, not the needs of a man. Even if the single parent was her father, she was not trained to understand what a man wanted. She would have been trained only to understand what a father wanted. Those are two different needs.
That, too, is just as dangerous because catering to a father is different from catering to a romantic partner. As a child, you are expected to obey a parent. When you get older, the obedience transitions into honor where you respect the parent’s wisdom and the fact that they have walked out the steps you are now forced to take. That’s honor.
However, when it comes to catering to a romantic partner, such as a husband in this scenario, the marriage vows call for “love, honor, and obey.” At the same time, the transition of “authority” from father to husband requires that both parties to a marriage, for example, serve each other. That, too, is an expectation that must be met if the marriage is going to succeed.
When a woman, who was forced to be a parent at a young age, now decides to marry someone who is an adult, there is no true transition for that woman out of that type of thinking. Just because she is now grown and does not have to live with her parent and rear her siblings does not mean that she has the readiness to be in a romantic relationship and/or to be a romantic partner aside from being a pseudo-parent.
There is so much toxic undoing that must be addressed before a woman deals with a capable man for which she has no understanding, no love language, and no direct experience. Before she can even consider engaging a romantic relationship with someone who possesses an adult mentality, i.e., a grown man who is actually a man who espouses grown-up thinking, every relationship she enters will fail because she will be too busy trying to “rear” and “parent” her partner instead of love and nurture the romantic relationship as one that requires a different set of ideals, goals, patterns of behavior, and application of wisdom.
Past relationships for the woman struggling to deal with a capable man always reveal that she has dealt with men who demonstrated no capacity and/or conscientiousness for pursuit of adulthood. These are men who refuse to find and/or keep a job long-term. These are men who struggle with their own childhoods. Maybe they, too, were expected to grow up fast in their own family dynamics.
These are adult men who have never had their own shelter, who jump from job to job, who have only lived with women, and who have no life plans towards security and stability. They, too, might have had the same experiences as younger children with parents who provided no stable shelter or financial stability, who jumped from job to job, and who pursued no consistent life plan.
These are men who are essentially kids in their thinking, and the woman who has suffered through parentification just moves her strategy from caring for her siblings over into the romantic relationship because it just seems logical. In fact, it is the logic she knows!
Within this romantic relationship context, she will go out and work because of the modeling, i.e., her single-parent mother or father worked. She will expect the man to stay home and keep the kids because that is what she did. In some ways, in requiring the man to watch the kids while she is at work, she is having a pseudo-conversation with the parent who made her watch her siblings. She is punishing “her man” because she felt her mother or father punished her in requiring her to assume a larger responsibility, i.e., a parent. Because she never saw a man work, it only makes sense that the man in her life doesn’t work.
From these ways of thinking, she designs the “independent woman.” This label serves as an armor, a protective shield, and a worldview. However, the worldview is distorted because it is not based on any legitimate ideology that suggests consistent stability.
The woman who frames herself as an “independent woman” works from a mindset that is forever fixed on this ideal that the only way to address challenges of any kind is to do so using a metaphorical but fictional cape.
This means that she is forever putting out fires that she believes exist in her life and in her romantic relationship with a man. Instead of simply developing within a romantic relationship, she is always parenting the relationship from an emotional distance.
This style of parenting validates her assumptions and strategies of being an independent woman, which is really a function of independence from her mother! In other words, she is perpetually designing life-based and life planning strategies to distance herself psychologically from her mother. In rare cases, the strategy of emotional distancing can also apply to the woman’s relationship with her father.
Therefore, she is not truly an independent woman because the emotional ties that bind her still function like puppet strings. She is essentially sitting on the lap of a ventriloquist talking through her to her romantic partner. In other words, when she speaks to her romantic partner, it is her “mother” or father speaking to him.
Out of her heart flows the issues she has with her mother or father, with her siblings, with her upbringing, with her forced development into early adulthood, and with the idea that all life and planning centered on serving her mother, i.e., her needs, wants, desires, expectations, values, standards, and requirements. The woman who struggles with a capable man never practices on a man before she engages a romantic partner.
Even if her single parent was her father, that is not practicing on a man who she will have to sleep with, serve if she is married, and carry on life in a romantic relationship. Those are two different ideologies.
There isn’t much conflict resolution with a woman who experienced parentification because the woman adopts the same mentality as her parent in expecting the man in her life to abide by her standards. It is the transitioning of the “Do it because I said so” argument that should not apply within a romantic relationship.
Not all strategies are useful in different contexts. A parent has the right to require the children to obey rules blindly and without question. However, no adult individual has to obey a romantic partner blindly. Instead, adult individuals within a romantic context walk in agreement and respect the hierarchical, divine structure of marriage. The divine hierarchy of marriage is beyond the scope of this article and is a discussion for a different day.
However, it is important to address emotional running, which is much more prevalent in these romantic dynamics because instead of addressing conflict, the woman is more apt to walk off, slam doors, cook without purpose, and maybe yell and cry. She is still having a relationship with the parent who required her to take on a parental role with her siblings. When she yells, cries, and complains to her man, she is still speaking to her mother. She is still having a relationship, non-sexual of course, with her mother.
In certain cultural dynamics, you can never address the issues you had in childhood as an adult. Because of such social and cultural restrictions, women do not always get the opportunity to express themselves emotionally. Even when they “get grown,” they are still expected to “hold their peace” and not address the very same battle that originated in childhood that now has a presence in adulthood.
Instead, it becomes more feasible to run emotionally than to address the fact that the woman lacks full emotional development. In other words, she was robbed of her ability to engage, learn, manage, struggle, and then learn again from emotions. She did not learn how to regulate her own emotions because she needed to adopt a consciousness for the parent’s emotions as well as for the emotions of her siblings. There was never any time to care about how she felt and what she thought and whether it was important for her to have a voice. Running from these realities was much more feasible.
The Capable Man
This article arguably should have begun with a discussion of the “capable man,” defining the concept, exploring what the capable man is and is not, and understanding the impact a capable man has on society, the family structure, the home, and on himself directly. So let’s now define it or attempt to define it using life examples. Defining the concept is based on the advice my stepfather gave me concerning how to judge a man and his intentions.
For example, I have a personal experience. My stepfather suggested that I ask a potential mate how long he has been out of his parent’s house, if he has his own place, how long he has had his own place, whether he has any furniture in that place, and whether he has a job. The conversation was based on the following questions:
- How old is he?
- Does he have his own place?
- Does he have a job?
- How long has he been on that job?
- What does he do?
- Where does he live?
- How long has he lived there?
- Does he have furniture in the place?
- Does he live with someone?
These are all questions that he wanted me to ask a potential mate. This was before any other decision I made regarding the person.
My stepfather did not live in the house with us directly, but the visits I had with him were always informative, and his life strategies helped me to understand this aspect of life. Even though I was very slow to take his advice, I still respected the wisdom, but his wisdom conflicted with the “wisdom” of a mother still struggling over the relationship she had with my stepfather.
My stepfather is considered a capable man, always having his own place, keeping a job, demonstrating some level of wisdom, and moving through life with sound financial strategies. He is the same person who said, “Whatever you start off doing in the beginning, you will have to keep up.” This is one of many statements he shared with me.
He is also the man who divorced my mother for another woman, maintained an an emotional and direct hold by impregnating her with my younger sibling, and left a family dynamic broken and chaotic and hostile. His “capability” had a toxic impact, which further influenced the relationship that I had with my mother and the relationship I was expected to have with my siblings as the eldest child. I had to suffer through parentification because of the change in dynamics from a two-parent to a single-parent household. The change in family structure created a stressful, depressing, and emotionally divisive environment.
The capable man can be both a supportive and a divisive figure because the capable man can choose to stay within a working situation or choose to take his ideals, knowledge, and resources to another environment without notice.
The capable man also has his stuff together! He is someone who is an adult, who is financially responsible for himself, and who has his own experiences with a family dynamic that might have been conducive towards future success or might have hindered development at a younger age that rears its head sometimes in both actions and speech.
In other words, the capable man could have also derived from a family environment in which he was expected to participate in parentification, taking on the responsibilities of managing his siblings, expected to be a pseudo-husband to his mother (i.e., emotional incest), and struggling to turn over money earned from working a job when it could be the very thing that saves him from his current environment.
The capable man is just as determined not to be what he grew up in as the independent woman is determined not to be her mother. The capable man and the independent woman are one in the same because they usually struggle to overcome the very same family dynamic where they were expected to be grown before they were grown.
However, unless the woman who struggles with a capable man begins to address her own mother-based issues, she may never cross paths with a capable man because even though they derive from the same family dynamic, the capable man is much more financially secure in how he reconciles life. The woman, on the other hand, bases her financial decision-making on “people pleasing” her mother, which always ends with negative consequences.
This does not mean that the capable man struggles less with emotional regulation. As a capable man, he can also be an emotional runner. It just means that there is something the woman needs in a capable man, and there is something the man needs in an independent woman. What each needs is based on the family dynamic, their current state of mind regarding the family dynamic, and how they both can overcome that family dynamic and serve each other romantically, soundly, and stably.
Life Recovery Objective
It is hard to determine what the capable man and the independent woman need as fully functioning adults. There is not a lot of room in this article to suggest their needs, and it would be premature to offer any guidance without sitting down first with both individuals to determine their upbringing and also without consulting the psychology literature.
The better, universal goal would be for people to address issues deriving from childhood, not with your parent but with yourself. You cannot sit your parent down and address issues because in their minds, “they did the best they could.” They will ride the wave behind that statement until they die.
This does not suggest mockery or sarcasm. It just means that people honestly believe that they do the best they can with what they know. If you as an adult suffered through parentification as a child, it might be likely that your parent was also expected to take on the role of parent in his or her childhood.
There should be some challenge, however, to the statement of people doing the best they can because it is one thing to struggle with one child, but it is quite another to continue having children and treating each child with hostility. Children do not ask to be born. I know that has become a cliche of sorts, but it is nonetheless true.
Therefore, children and adolescents by extension should not be expected to take on the role of a parent. There is nothing wrong with responsibility and training kids early to shoulder some aspect of solving problems, but children are not parents! A major life recovery objective would be for parents to consider whether they are ready for parenthood. The child is not obligated to “share in the load.” That’s what parents are for and kids should be able to remain as kids without the fear of being forced to be a parent.
When these considerations are met, there will be less women who feel the need to adopt the independent woman mantra in response to their hostile mother and less men who feel the need to move their capability to different contexts when they feel their emotional and/or psychological needs are not met.
The capable man can be just as psychologically damaging to a romantic relationship as the independent woman. Again, they are both the same beast. They both need to take off their respective capes and live life as just 100% responsible adults without all the filters.
Thank you for reading.
Regina Y. Favors, Owner/Operator
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The following are resources on the topics discussed within this article. You are free to research the topic of parentification at your own convenience. This selected list should provide you with some direction. If you are searching for sources that do not require a subscription fee, choose a keyword or key phrase such as “parentification pdf” to focus your search.
Otherwise, you might be required to pay for sources. At the least, you would be required to sign up for a free account. The sources are a bit outdated because these are the ones I was able to find with a downloadable PDF. To stay updated, always seek scholarly sources dated within the last five years.
Fitzgerald, M. M. (2002). The impact of parentification on children’s psychological adjustment: Emotion management skills as potential underlying processes. Diss. University of Georgia. Retrieved from https://getd.libs.uga.edu/pdfs/fitzgerald_monica_m_200508_phd.pdf. Accessed 21 June 2022.
Hooper, L. M. (2008). Defining and understanding parentification: Implications for all counselors. The University of Alabama. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ875392.pdf. Accessed 21 June 2022.
Soysal, F. S. O. (2016). A study on sibling relationships, life satisfaction and loneliness level of adolescents. Journal of Education and Training Studies. Vol. 4(4). Redfame Publishing. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1088516.pdf. Accessed 21 June 2022.
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