By Peter Wright & Paul Elam (2017)
A wise man once suggested that when it comes to marital discord couples fight more over one issue: who is going to play the child in the relationship and who is going to play the responsible parent.
His comment rings true on its face, with men historically being the ones who take on the parental role in marriage. It’s witnessed in the centuries of men taking responsibility for the financial and other security concerns of wives, and also hinted at in the relationship age gap. Males marry younger females — not to control their sexuality (as we are frequently misled to believe) – but because women seek an older male to place in the responsible, paternal role, to enhance the child theme they intend to play out in the relationship.
Women collectively spend billions annually to neotenize their appearance, enhancing their efforts to assume the infantilized role.
We see the same theme appear in our language when men are shamed for being ‘Peter Pans’ or ‘man babies’ along with the injunction to ‘man-up’ — which has no counterpart for women; they are phrases intended to jolt men out of any inclination to regress to a childlike state of dependency. Never do we hear women being chastised as immature Wendys, woman babies, nor do we hit them with the demand to ‘woman-up.’
To be fair we may see the occasional man playing a full-time child to his female partner, and we can say that all men experience occasional moments of regression to boyishness in their relationships. However, society frowns upon men indulging too much of the child within. And such indulgence is roundly met with sexual rejection by women. The child role is reserved exclusively for women within the relationship context.
The stresses that this dynamic places on relationships and especially on men cannot be overstated; the catering to a child within an adult’s body is exhausting and ultimately demeaning to both the infantilized woman and the parentified man. Standardizing childishness in one partner and hyperagency in the other prohibits any sort of relationship between adult peers. Instead, it breeds contempt and conflict.
The structure of this type of arrangement ultimately results in an assured relationship killer. Hostile dependency. It is impossible for the infantilized partner to maintain respect for, or a healthy emotional connection to, her chief enabler. And it is impossible for the chief enabler to maintain respect or a healthy emotional connection to what amounts to a financial, emotional and familial parasite. Self-respect in both parties is also a casualty of this arrangement.
Before getting more into the dynamics posed by this dysfunctional relationship, we’d like to elaborate a bit more on the concept of the adult child which is something quite different from the literal child we look after when they are small. The ‘child’ is also one of the fundaments of the human psyche, operating equally in biologically mature adults and in children, thus the popular qualifier of ‘the inner child.’
The great 20th century psychologist Carl Jung wrote a paper on the inner child, or what he preferred to call the child archetype,1 where he outlined its main psychological features which include 1. growth toward independence, 2. vulnerability, and 3. a state of innocence.
1. Growth toward independence (but never reached)
This aspect of the child archetype is concerned with futurity, and is captured in the phrase ‘what I want to be when I grow up.’ It reflects the ongoing state of becoming without ever arriving at the destination – it remains an eternal child. In this respect the child archetype differs from the archetype of individuation, a more heroic path that does eventually culminate in mature autonomy and self-reliance.
The ambition for perpetuated childhood, as we commonly see in modern women (and enabled by men), is the inevitable outcome of the child archetype. As men and women collude to remove the destination of adult autonomy from the life-map, they effectively kill the archetype of mature individuation – the path of true potential for growth. And instead they give birth to the child of static permanency. Individuals dominated by the child archetype will always position themselves as eternally incapable of personal agency, even relying on the chief enabler to help fabricate a web of denial about their true nature.
This is reflected in the spiritual, financial, or relationship ‘growth’ workshops attended largely by women, who appear to pursue adult goals but who are in reality only participating in a charade. The true goal is more dependency and more childhood. These pursuits are often funded through the hard labor of the hopelessly paternalized male.
We also see this acted out in the psychodrama of the modern housewife, “taking charge” of such matters of household finances and other matters of home and hearth, without any responsibility for creating wealth, taking the risks that come with those efforts, or any other matter of real consequence. The perpetuated child chooses the colors but cannot buy the paint or climb the scaffold with brush in hand.
Vulnerability is one of the main guises of the child, and so the woman dominated by this archetype is constantly signalling threats to herself from the surrounding environment. She is in danger of getting lost, hurt, abandoned and frightened, and just like the child of fairy tales she projects herself as lost in the woods with snarling bears and wolves, or afloat on the river Nile in a flimsy basket where she is in danger of getting lost or going under.
She is “at risk” at all times, including the risk of exposure to her chief enabler’s frustrations or his wishes for her to realize adulthood.
The vulnerable, permanent child, communicates with the wider world through these threat narratives2 which most everyone is familiar with through the archetypal damsel in distress — tied to the railway tracks, the locomotive of adult agency barreling down on her, or being held prisoner by a dragon from which she must be freed by your parental, sacrificial rescue.
The child’s way of defending its perpetual dependency is to project its innocence: “I don’t know”, “I didn’t realize”, “I didn’t mean anything”, “It just happened”, “I got carried away by my feelings.” Yes, her own emotions can be the villain in her threat narrative. And the understanding of a hyper-responsible male is required to save her from it. Because she claims ignorance she divests herself of all responsibility for what happens, leaving others to pick up the tab – most likely her male partner if she has one.
We see this even in women’s general predisposition to gravitate toward victim politics, supporting male candidates who offer enabling paternalism from the state, and the vision of woman as perpetually in distress.
Moving on from Jung, perhaps the best conceptualization of the child archetype comes from Eric Berne, whose transactional analysis shows three possible relationship dynamics:
- A child relating to a parent
- A parent relating to a child
- An adult relating to another adult.
The first of these – child to parent – encompasses all that we’ve said so far about the child archetype and its exploitative style of relating with others. The second – parent to child – represents the parental relationship to a child. And the last one – adult to adult – represents a healthier mode of conducting relationships based on steering a middle path between the more extreme demands of both parent and child. This latter is where we might hope to be along with anyone we might choose for pair bonding.
The perpetual child, however, demands that the default relationship setting be parent to child, an emotionally incestuous arrangement that affords some comfort to the irresponsible child, but that does so at the expense of a healthy adult connection.
Eventually, and we think invariably, this results in the parentified male viewing the infantilized female as inept, incapable and deserving of pity over respect. It can also breed a lot of anger that goes both ways, from the frustrated, overburdened male, and the dependent, irresponsible female whose life is a constant reminder of her lack of meaning.
The parental brain
Juvenile characteristics have long been known to evoke in caretakers a neurological state known as the ‘parental brain.’ Children’s faces and various other child gestures provoke hormonal changes that prime parents to be more sensitive towards infant cues and needs, resulting in nurturance, caretaking and protectiveness.
Adult women who learn to mimic child features through cosmetics, and the feigning of childlike behaviors of innocence and vulnerability, evoke in their male partners a very similar parental response. Like parents of literal infants men can be seen to respond with care-taking and protection, and if women are skilled at peppering the routine with threat-narratives she gains the ability to prompt him like a philharmonic concert conductor. Such is the obedient, reflexive state of readiness to rescue that defines the lives of so many men.
Listeners are probably familiar with this charade being played out between men and women, one which was not lost on Esther Vilar when she gave a sardonic description of it in her 1971 book The Manipulated Man. There she writes:
Woman’s greatest ideal is a life without work or responsibility – yet who leads such a life but a child? A child with appealing eyes, a funny little body with dimples and sweet layers of baby fat and clear, taut skin – that darling minature of an adult. It is a child that woman imitates – its easy laugh, its helplessness, its need for protection. A child must be cared for; it cannot look after itself. And what species does not, by natural instinct, look after its offspring? It must – or the species will die out.
With the aid of skillfully applied cosmetics, designed to preserve that precious baby look; with the aid of helpless exclamations such as ‘Ooh’ and ‘Ah’ to denote astonishment, surprise, and admiration; with inane little bursts of conversation, women have preserved this ‘baby look’ for as long as possible so as to make the world continue to believe in the darling, sweet little girl she once was, and she relies on the protective instinct in man to make him take care of her.”3
Vilar hits the nail right on the head; that many women have been taught they will be protected while having every whim catered for by simply playing the child.
This parent~child dynamic, perhaps more than any other theme, captures the dilemma most men are wrestling with – a theme more central than sexual attraction, more central than pair bonding, and more than romantic love and all the other social mandates. The biological urge to care for children is king, and it’s also an Achillies’ Heel for those who abide by it unconsciously.
The good news is that our vulnerability to abuse is corrected in one move: by men refusing to play parent, whether indulging or trying to correct women who are perpetual children. Instead we have to insist that female partners woman-up right alongside men, showing reciprocal responsibility between two adults. Or be prepared to show them the door once it’s apparent that the task is too much for them to take on.
Esther Vilar’s comment that a woman’s greatest ideal is ‘a life without work or responsibility’ requires someone to facilitate it, and that someone is almost always a man. But men need not play the role of parent and they do have the option to seek a relationship between adult peers: two responsible adults supporting each other in the walk through life. Such a woman may be a unicorn but unicorns do exist. And success, if you are lucky enough to get it, will be more likely tied to the women men reject than the woman they seek.
 C.G. Jung, ‘The Psychology of the Child Archetype’ in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Princeton University Press (1969)
 Alison Tieman, Threat Narrative series
 Esther Vilar, The Manipulated Man (1971)