Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Problem Marriages #4–Using Marriage to Complete the Tasks of Adolescence

Finally I come to the last problem marriage structure [and note that there is an infinite number of ways in which these dynamics are played out–I’m just drawing the very broad outlines]: When a spouse utilizes marriage to complete the unfinished tasks that of adolescence. A common example is the use of marriage to separate from parents.

Can you hear it now? Jackson* never fully individuated from his somewhat overbearing mother. Jackson was cowed in the relationship, and saw Jillian* as his ticket out of the pattern of dominance exerted by Mom.  The two were married at 20, and struck out on their own.

At first, Jackson was thrilled to be both free of the continued orders of his mother, and wanted very much to please Jillian and make her as happy as he himself felt in the marriage.

They came to me over 30 years later, both in their fifties, quite unhappily married.

Every time he went to the grocery store with her list he got a scolding because he forgot to take the recycled bags or bought the wrong size container or they were out of something and he failed to call her to find the proper substitution.

Jillian constantly critiqued Jacksons’s driving–it was too fast, too slow, he let in too many other people, why didn’t he let in that one?  Jackson continually required constant instruction from his wife on the kids’ schedules–on who had to be at which lesson when, and sometimes she included the “why” all over again.

Jackson wasn’t allowed to do the laundry, since he failed to separate colors from whites.

“It was the last thing in the world I wanted,” moaned Jackson, “but I married my mother.”

Because, fundamentally, Jackson never went through the process of separating from his dominant mother, he never fully believed in his own agency, and, over the years, Jillian came to step in as Jackson approached and then stepped back from responsibility, doubting himself, as he had been trained to do so many years before.


*As with all characters in my blog posts, there is no real Jackson or Jillian, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy.  They are teaching characters, composed of bits and pieces from real life humans plus details from my imagination which make the story more interesting and, hopefully, instructive.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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