Agency and Autonomy (or Lack Thereof) in Partnering and Parenting

a black and white photo of a dove flying away after being let go
Image by Omer Unlu / CC BY

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

-Khalil Gibran (from a poem, called “On Children,” in his collection The Prophet)

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I’ve talked many times on this blog about the difference between letting your partners have agency in their other relationships versus acting like a strict, overbearing parent.

I have a reframe that I use when I’m in doubt that I’m doing the right thing, “Am I being a partner or a parent?“:

Any time I wonder if I’m doing the right things by my partners, metamours, telemours by setting a particular boundary– I ask myself, “Am I being a partner here? Or a parent?”

It’s a crucial distinction.

Partners and parents. I know the words are close, although not quite anagrams (“partner” has an extra “r”). But I firmly believe that any time that one of us is behaving more like a parent than a partner to someone we love? Something has gone terribly wrong. On one or both sides.

Partner versus parent is a handy analogy for me in particular.

Because while it’s possible to parent your children while still honoring their autonomy and agency (and the best authoritative parents manage this well, more on that below), that’s not what I grew up with.

Instead, I grew up in an incredibly strict house, where everything we did was monitored, judged. A house where you had to ask permission before you got a glass of water because after all someone had to wash it when you were done.

And no one really trusted you to do a good job washing the glass because you were a little fuck-up, weren’t you?

Yes, you were.

No one would let you forget how much of a little fuck-up you were. You were reminded of it on a daily (or more than daily) basis.

You weren’t allowed to do anything without permission. And often even when you did have permission to do something, you were quickly interrupted and prevented from doing it because you weren’t doing it right.

In the house I grew up in, there was always one correct way to do anything. And if you were too “stupid” to realize what the right way was on your own, no one was going to explain it to you. Or as my mean older sister Alice liked to put it, “If I have to explain it to you, you won’t understand.”

If you managed to figure out the right way by watching others, you’d still find a way to mess up the execution.

And nobody was going to explain to you what you’d done wrong then either.

So Many People Expect You to Essentially Parent Romantic Partners

It was with this very warped view of what parenting looked like that I stepped into the world. And discovered that a lot of people expected me not to treat any romantic partner I had as though they were my equal but to instead parent them:

I’ve seen this over and over again. As a society we judge people based on how well they control their romantic partner.

Even though I’d opted out of parenting a child, I was expected by everyone around me to parent another adult. To do everything I could to attempt to rob that person of agency.

To other people, being a good partner meant restricting what they could do, whom they could see, where they could go (so I could lessen the odds that they could have additional sexual or romantic partners, at least conveniently).

And it also meant being able to exert my will upon them and force them to assume responsibilities through any means necessary (passive-aggression, trickery, threats, emotional blackmail, dishonesty, etc.).

This wasn’t some kind of fluke. It was a very prevalent view, reinforced by practically every place I sought relationship advice — women’s magazines, my friends, etc. “Why do you let them do that?” “You should make them do X.”

I was horrified by this idea. I had hated growing up in a house where my every move was monitored, controlled, criticized. The last thing I wanted to do as an adult was create an environment where this was imposed on someone else. Especially where it was imposed on someone I loved.

No, no, no.

So I stepped away from it entirely. Just said no to parenting partners. And let my partner (and eventually partners, after I became polyamorous) parent themselves.

Did every relationship I have make it? Hell no. Some exploded spectacularly. And yes, there were people who blamed me when they did. For not doing enough to control my partner.

But the relationships I had with people that could parent themselves ultimately went great.

The Worst of Both Worlds, Strictly Policing Multiple Relationships at Once

Parenting your partner can be exhausting even in a monogamous context.

Sadly, however, I have seen similar strict overbearing parent-type behaviors (e.g., veto powers, etc.) follow people from a monogamous context into a polyamorous one.

Where they combine the most unpleasant parts of monogamy (relationship policing) with the most unpleasant parts of polyamory (the additional complexity) and everyone suffers for it.

It’s really the worst of both worlds, strictly policing multiple relationships at once.

Do the Children of Authoritative Households Paternalize Their Partners Differently?

But I’ve said all of this before, more or less.

And what I haven’t devoted any time or space to is a logical question that springs out of all of this: Maybe being an overbearing, strict, abusive or borderline abusive parent to a partner should be off-limits. But what about parenting a partner with good, healthy parenting? Parenting that protects a child and guides them but also focuses on their child having agency and autonomy (factors that become more and more important as a child grows up).

Parenting that isn’t completely hands off (known in developmental psychology as the “permissive” style of parenting) but doesn’t put a child under a microscope and subject them to harsh punishments (known in developmental psych as “authoritarian” parenting).

Parenting that balances autonomy and structure. Agency and guidance. What developmental psychologists call “authoritative” parenting. Parents who act essentially as Khalil Gibran lays out in his poem “On Children.” Who are aware that their children don’t belong to them. Who help their children foster positive outcomes, all the while understanding that they’re going to have different thoughts and feelings and inner lives of their own.

Could it be possible that those who had authoritative (and not authoritarian) parents, parents who supported their autonomy but also set healthy boundaries and offered guidance, could have a better experience when trying to parent their partner?  Could it be that individuals in non-abusive family environments could have an easier time with the expectation that marriage be paternalized?

Could it be that the advice to parent your partner was always fine for most people but just wrong for me (and for people who had overly strict and/or abusive parents)?

And could it be that people who had good parents who parented in a healthy manner find it easier to form buy-in/check-in models of polyamory that balance freedom and consideration of the feelings of others?

I’m not sure it’s something I’ll ever quite get my arms around, whether the parenting style of the house you grew up in can affect whether or not you paternalize your partners in romantic relationships — and if so, how and how well. And if this changes depending on whether your relationships are monogamous or non-monogamous. Not without formal research being done.

But it’s a question I’m now very curious about.

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My new book is out!

Dealing with Difficult Metamours, the first book devoted solely to metamour relationships, full of strategies to help you get along better with your partners’ other partner(s).

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1 Comment

  1. Very poignant article, thank you. I grew up in a rather confrontational environment, where I didn’t feel respected and so did not give respect either. I was amazed when I left home for university and discovered that people don’t argue all the time! People argue rarely. But I still spent years having relationships that included lots of confrontation and either parenting my significant other, or being parented by them. It has taken me a lot of time, and A LOT of self-reflection to change that about myself.

    I have talked to my poly friends and I have decided to try out poly myself because I like the idea of not holding onto someone. It fits with my level of independence, and I’ve found that I tend to loose myself to all-encompassing relationships in the past.

    Everyone should be able to experience love and mutual respect, without the ownership that our society pushes onto it. I look forward to reading more of your articles 🙂 Vicky

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