How Emotionally Immature Parents Impact Your Relationships (& Divorce)


As a child, you need your parents to be attuned to your needs. What happens when a parent is dismissive, too passive, withdrawn, or narcissistic? A child then grows up always trying to be the person they think they need to in order to obtain their parent’s approval or love. This dismissing of one’s own needs, wants, or interests for another will translate into relationships as this child grows older. Many times, they are never truly satisfied in relationships because they never truly get to be themselves.

With so many people experiencing this type of behavior from their parents, it is vital to understand: this isn’t your fault. After reading Lindsey Gibson’s book: Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, I thought about how it can impact relationships and even be a cause of divorce.

What exactly is an emotionally immature parent?

In the book, they talk about four different types of emotionally immature parents. If you believe you may have had an emotionally immature parent growing up, I encourage you to read the book, it is extremely helpful. However, I will list a few of the characteristics one person may experience with an EI parent (from Living Better Lives Counseling):

  • They are rigid and single-minded and can become very defensive when people have other ideas.
  • They have low-stress tolerance and have trouble admitting mistakes, discounting the facts, and blaming others instead.
  • They do what feels best, often following the path of least resistance.
  • They have little respect for other people’s differing thoughts and opinions. They are self-preoccupied and egocentric.
  • They have low empathy and are emotionally insensitive.
  • They fear feelings and might have taught their children that certain feelings are shameful or “bad”.
  • They place focus on the physical instead of emotional needs of their children.
  • They can be killjoys, responding to their children’s ideas or enthusiasm in a dismissive or skeptical way.
  • They have intense but shallow emotions, and typically quick to react.

The Danger of Never Being Your Authentic Self

The unhealthy pattern the child has experienced can feel “normal” and then they will seek out relationships in which they are viewed as “less than” and needing to adapt to be loved. They will create a “role-self” to appease others and feel it is a necessary part of being loved. What they are left with is constantly feeling alone, empty, and never truly experiencing happiness as their own unique self.

In a marriage, this is a recipe for disaster. It is incredibly draining to never be your own authentic self, leading to resentment and silent anger that can result in a “surprise” divorce. The other side never even saw it coming.

Always Feeling Responsibility for Other’s Happiness

One of the big signs that you had an EI parent is always feeling responsible for everyone feeling happy. If someone is upset, you feel ownership, guilt, and shame that you somehow caused the discomfort. You do anything, even sacrificing yourself emotionally to make things better. When that sacrifice is one-sided for the long-term, it leads to resentment.

This is a pattern we commonly see in divorce. One person is bending over backwards, either in doing much of the work in the relationship. They want their spouse to notice and show appreciation. The spouse doesn’t know that they are supposed to reciprocate in a particular way because the dynamic has always been that the other person does x, y, z. Suddenly the person breaks the “role” due to pure exhaustion and lashes out in anger.

How to Overcome These Pre-Programmed Dynamics

The first step is to acknowledge that you have had an EI parent and that you may be programmed to look at relationships this way from a very young age. Therapy is the best way to deal with these feelings, find new tools to communicate, and deal with the aftermath in your relationships. Even if divorce is the only solution, you can move forward with a much better idea on who you really are and how to love yourself and others.

If you need assistance with marital mediation or divorce, contact West Coast Family Mediation Center. We are happy to schedule a free consultation to discuss your particular situation.

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