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Symbolic Parenting – How All Successful Couples Embrace It

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

After working with couples for over four decades, I know first-hand what successful long-term partners believe and do to keep their partnerships alive and growing.

Some of those behaviors are well-known and been have proven to enhance most intimate relationship partners, and are regularly practiced in long-term quality partnerships.

The partners:

-Communicate honestly and effectively

-Feel the same about the need to share important decisions

-Allocate their combined resources fairly

-Find joy in each other’s company

-Resolve disagreements effectively and support each other’s dreams

-Free to be who they are within a mutual commitment to stay together.


But there is an additional key component that is rarely talked about and part of every quality relationship I’ve ever seen.

The best way I can describe this important interaction is to describe it as mutual symbolic, parenting, readily available to both partners when nurturing without judgment is needed. These partners know when the other just needs to cry or to fall apart within a safe place. They understand how to do that without making the needy partner feel any loss of self-respect.

Most people have experienced this blameless euphoria in the first few months of a new love relationship. The partners often call each other “baby” or other childlike pet names. They go out of their way to tune in to the other’s needs, often before they are expressed. They cradle each other in their arms when the other is sad or upset, easily putting themselves aside to make sure the other is okay.

Many of the couples I deal with know exactly what I’m talking about when I point it out to them. They also realize how safe and trusting they feel when they experience that kind of love.

If couples are missing that capacity for symbolic parenting, they cannot recognize nor respond to the times when that behavior is so crucial to deeper trust and security in the relationship.

These are the five steps that couples must take to add this critical component to the way they need to be there for each other in times of stress.

Step One - Sharing Embarrassing or Vulnerable Thoughts and Feelings That May have Been Withheld

Most people have had traumatic events in their lives or losses they could not resolve. Also, people vary in their sensitivities and their ability to be open about the things they are uncomfortable to share, even with the person they most trust.

When people are in emotional distress, they often feel triggered into some of those past events that have left them shattered, ashamed, or destroyed in some way. If they have never shared those with their partners in the past, and desperately need to forgive themselves and let them go, they will not be able to do that when under the pressure of internal pain.

The more a couple has shared with each other about their past mistakes, heartaches, embarrassments, or fears, the more accurate their partners can be when they know their partners are in trouble. They know where those internal sorrows are and it helps them navigate how to respond.

Step Two - Recognizing the Signs that Signal the Need for Symbolic Parenting

Everyone communicates on two levels at all times. They use words that help them get their thoughts and feelings across, but words alone, no matter how well phrased or clear, only account for ten per cent of all that is being communicated. The other ninety per cent is made up of facial expression, voice intonation, body language, touch, and rhythm.

When people need their partners to be symbolic healing parents, they become less able to use words effectively, and their partners must rely on what they intuit. Many who are needing that kind of nurturing look young, respond with childlike reactions, seem inconsolable, and cannot easily trust. The partner giving the healing parenting cannot take those things personally but needs to just stay with the experience of the other until whatever is inside emerges.

When a nurturing, symbolic parent stays with that process, the partner needing that care will eventually break through the resistance to dependency and be able to allow nurturing and tenderness.

Step Three - Matching Response to Need

There is a critical balancing act between what partners in trouble need and the way the healing partners respond. They must be careful to match the level of intensity and not be overly or underly reactive. Gushing can overwhelm. Too many words drown out feelings. Touch must be in attunement to what the makes the other feel safe. Focus must stay with the person receiving and not confused by the other’s thoughts or feelings. Timelessness is crucial so that the person in trouble does not feel pressure to adhere to the other’s timeline

Step Four – How to Put Personal Needs Aside

Symbolic Parenting is the equivalent of chivalry. There is joy and the honor of giving without the need for reciprocity or appreciation that is fulfilling within itself. The adult feeling as if he or she is a child, must be able to trust that the nurturing he or she is experiencing is truly altruistic and will not demand a price at a later time.

If both partners know they can count on each other to be able to be there for them in those ways at these special times of need, they also trust that the other would be there for them in the same way.

Step Five – Letting it Be

After a symbolic parenting vulnerability, many people need to return quickly to their former, more mature selves. This may be truer men than women because of what society expects of the male gender in many cultures. Being open and defenseless as a small child is not a comfortable state for most adults, no matter how nurturing and non-judgmental their partners respond to them.

Many people feel embarrassment or too vulnerable to talk about it afterwards, content to just move on. It is painful enough to be that emotionally naked, but can be even more uncomfortable if it is brought up after the process, especially in front of others. Partners who know each other well know when to move on without redressing the situation and only readdress it if the partner who needed that symbolic parenting wants to talk about it after the face.

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