By Ashley McIlwain

When we think of affairs, we have a certain thought as to what that means and looks like. Typically it involves at least one spouse seeking intimacy, oftentimes physical, outside of the marriage. There is one affair though that happens much more frequently, is extremely dangerous, and yet, it goes relatively undetected. In fact, it’s often praised or considered normal.

The affair I’m talking about involves an emotional dependency and intimacy with none other than your children.

I know this is a sensitive subject that some may find offensive, but it’s one that must be addressed. Time and time again I have witnessed firsthand parents using their children to fulfill the emotional needs not being filled by their spouse. Rather than working through those issues with their spouse, the parent just molds their child into a pseudo husband or wife.

Professionally speaking, we mental health professionals call this enmeshment. Basically enmeshment is an unhealthy dependency and attachment between two people like a parent with their child. Not only does this create a further chasm between a husband and wife, but it establishes an unhealthy connection between the parent and child that can lead to devastating and crippling effects for the child down the road.

A child was never meant to fulfill the emotional needs that a spouse does. A child is a child and needs a parent not a spouse. When you begin to turn to your little one to fill the shoes of a husband or wife, you are twisting and contorting that relationship into something it was never designed to be. You are hurting them, yourself, their future relationships, and your marriage.

You may be unaware of this dynamic as so many parents are. Or you may be aware, but you think it’s harmless. “So what if my child makes me feel loved, adored, and needed in the ways my spouse doesn’t? What’s the big deal?” The big deal is that that is not the role they were meant to fulfill. You are bypassing the need for intimacy, communication, and connectedness with your spouse and seeking it in a little, vulnerable person who shouldn’t have to handle that kind of pressure or responsibility. And what happens when that child grows up? Leaves home? Gets married? What then?

Suddenly you will be faced with the reality that your child cannot be your source of emotional fulfillment any longer. Not if you want them to go on and have a healthy, satisfying life with meaningful, strong relationships. You will be forced then to deal with the mess of a marriage you’ve allowed to go unattended in your own life.

While it does occur between fathers and daughters, this is most commonly seen playing out between a mother and son. A lot of mothers, rather than dealing with their husband’s shortcomings and limitations, shape and mold their sweet, vulnerable son in to the husband they wish they had. They bypass the need for communicating, arguing, and negotiating with their husband because it’s easier to just raise their son to be what they want and need. This is so dangerous and detrimental!

Many mental health professionals agree that one of the most challenging traits to deal with in a spouse is a “mama’s boy.” It’s not that mothers and sons cannot have close relationships, but a son with an unhealthy attachment style to their mother will struggle to detach appropriately when necessary. These sons who have been raised to put their mothers first and meet their every need will often always be that way. Even when they marry, they will keep their mother as their number one woman and priority. This leads to so many issues, arguments, and dysfunctions in the son’s new marriage.

Not only does the new wife have to deal with her own personal insecurities, struggles, and exploration of her new role, but she is fighting for her rightful position as the top woman in her husband’s life. The husband feels obligated to his mother and is placed in a really awkward and uncomfortable position of choosing between his mother and wife. This is not a choice that should have to be made; his wife needs to be his main priority. The worst part is that the mother often grows resentful, angry, and bitter toward her son’s wife because the wife is now “stepping on her toes.” The mother is faced with the threat of “losing” her son and being left alone with the marriage she’s neglected to maintain and work on all of these years. It all makes for an epic battle that should never have existed.

So many times … too many times … this is the biggest issue for a couple. Personally I have seen this more times than I can count – dealing with the parent who used their child as a crutch and supplement to an unfulfilling and troubled marriage and now refuses to let them go. It’s tragic, devastating, and absolutely destroys marriages over and over again. Matthew 19:5-6 says, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

Parents, your child is NOT a substitute for a spouse who’s not measuring up. While it’s wonderful for you to raise your child to be an amazing husband or wife, it shouldn’t be for you. They are not meant to be manipulated into your own personal feel-good piggy bank where you make withdrawals whenever you’re feeling poorly about yourself.

Yes, your child is a blessing that will no doubt deliver such joy and meaning to your life. Yes, you should create a loving and meaningful relationship with your child that will last a lifetime. That’s one of the incredible treasures of being a parent – to love and be loved in that parent-child relationship. Don’t morph that into something destructive and twisted though.

It’s wonderful for you to be a loving, involved, nurturing parent who is close and connected with your child. That’s so important and necessary for the development of the child, so please don’t misunderstand me and think that’s what I’m saying to avoid. What I am saying to avoid is using your child to meet needs that your spouse should be meeting. Avoid contorting the dynamics of your relationship with your child to satisfy emotional gaps left from an unhappy, unsatisfying, or insufficient marriage. Keep the relationship as a parent to a child realizing that one day they will need to leave and start their own family.

If you want to have an amazing marriage that leaves you feeling appreciated, loved, and fulfilled, then you’ve got to work on your marriage with your spouse. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and do the dirty work. You can’t give up on your spouse or your marriage. The only way you will receive the blessings and benefits of marriage is to constantly work at it with your spouse.

Your marriage is the foundation of your family. The greatest blessing and gift you can give your children is a strong, thriving marriage. An example of what it means to love and work hard at a marriage. Only you can give that to your child so that they can then go out one day and experience that in their own marriage.

Parents, don’t give up on your own marriage and just rely on your children to meet those emotional needs. You will cripple them in their future relationships, and you will end up being one of the biggest impediments to their success. Keep things in order – your marriage is your marriage, your spouse is your spouse, and your child is your child. Be faithful in your marriage and continue to work at your relationship with your spouse for everyone’s sake.

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