Couple Hierarchy?

Monday, November 17th, 2008 at 6:24 pm


Don’t you hate to approach your spouse/partner with questions that can elicit the answer “NO!”?   For example: “Honey, is it OK if I …(fill in the blank)?”  Or, “Can I …(fill in the blank)?”   Some of you guys out there, more than once, have implored your partner/spouse:  “Can I go bowling tonight?”  And then there’s the all-time favorite guy question—“Sweetie, I can go to the (name of favorite sports bar) and watch the football game tonight, right?”

This isn’t reserved for men only.  A wife/partner may ask:  “Dear, is it OK if I go shopping?”  Or, “Can I go with the girls to Vegas this weekend?”   “It’s OK if I go to the movies tonight and leave the kids with you, right?” Permission-seeking opportunities among couples are endless.  But are they necessary, and is it healthy to seek permission?

Well, consider this:  A marriage/partnership is our only opportunity for a non-hierarchical, balanced relationship.  How and why is a CounselorLetter for a later date.  For now,  think of  a non-hierarchical relationship this way:  it is  a collaboration between equals.

Equals who collaborate are reasonably well differentiated.  Well differentiated couples approach each other as adults, and respect each others  separate desires, requests, thoughts, feelings and needs.   As collaborators,  decisions and plans are made together.  Generally speaking, collaborative adults live by consideration. They tend to avoid permission-seeking, and instead offer and seek consideration.


The questions in the first two paragraphs (above) are permission-seeking questions.  Many women have expressed that permission-seeking questions trigger maternal feelings toward their husbands.  Men,  that  has serious implications:  It is very difficult for the woman in our lives to feel simultaneously spousal and parental toward us without a cost to the relationship.

One woman, to her husband, said it best:  “If you want me to treat you like a man, and you want me to respond like a woman & wife, stop asking me for permission like a child.  I’m not your mother!”

It’s very much the same for women who seek permission from their spouses/partners.  In both cases, permission seeking sets up and reinforces a relationship hierarchy. The short version is described as follows: The marital relationship is more PARENT to CHILD, (hierarchal) than it is ADULT to ADULT (collaborative)  While some relationships may seem to thrive within this type of hierarchy, many, if not most, do not.  Sooner or later, the one who tends to be the permission-seeker, i.e. CHILD, will experience resentment, and distance.  The PARENTAL spouse often feels frustration, irritation and distance.  Couples who experience this hierarchy are frequently in conflict about a lot of “little things,” and don’t know why.


Rather than seeking permission, employ consideration.  Now those questions above become statements:  (PERMISSION-SEEKING)“Honey, is it OK if I …(fill in the blank)?” morphs in to:  (CONSIDERATION) “Honey, I want/would like/have begun planning (fill in the blank) and, want to know how that works for you.  Any thoughts or feelings about that?”

Example #2,  (PERMIMSSION-SEEKING) “It’s OK if I go to the movies tonight and leave the kids with you, right?” (CONSIDERATION) “ I really want to go to the movies with (friend’s name) and I know it’s last minute, and I also realize that means you would have to watch the kids.  I really need a break.  How would you feel about that?

The previous are examples of consideration; they are ADULT to ADULT (collaborative) vs PARENT to CHILD (hierarchal) interactions.  They consider how, and/or what, your partner feels and thinks about what it is you want, as well as day-to-day logistics. Equally important it gives you a voice as well, i.e., you are free to say what you want without fear.  Couples who tend to approach each other ADULT to ADULT (collaboratively) generally find they are able to hear objections or conflicts generated by their stated desire.  Furthermore, they area able to negotiate effectively.

The converse is more likely in the hierarchical or PARENT to CHILD interaction—there’s no room to negotiate.  It’s a binary “yes’ or “no,” often followed by a fight, or go-along-to-get-along silence, which we know from the research produces warmth equal to, or less than, that of  the granite counter-top  in your kitchen.

Give consideration a try the next time you catch yourself about to seek permission, and see for yourself.   Here’s a cool twist:  While it’s true that differentiated couples tend to operate from a position of consideration, a couple can become more differentiated by taking the risk to use consideration in place of permission seeking.  It may seem like a small issue, but it can have big rewards.

Wishing you a satisfying relationship,

Jim Hutt, Ph.D. MFT

© Jim Hutt, Ph.D. 2008

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • BlinkList
  • email
  • Faves
  • LinkedIn
  • MySpace
  • Netvouz
  • Propeller
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter
  • Yahoo! Bookmarks


  1. As I was reading Couple Hierarchy, I felt this was about me. I did feel like a child asking my father for permission most of the time. I never felt I could ask or talk to him without getting the third degree at times. Sometimes an explanation is not necessary. Although, he did ask me if he could this that or the other, I never put restrictions on him because I didn’t feel it was fair. As adults we know right from wrong and as long as we respect ourselves and home…permissions are not necessary. Can I? questions, I was never fond of….We have to understand when we say I do to whoever is marrying us; it is a partnership not an ownership for the rest or our lives.

    I really enjoyed reading this…it hit home and make total sense. We take for granted while in the relationship what we do and say vs. outside of it and knowing what we should do or say.

    Comment by Name withheld by request — November 18, 2008 @ 3:04 pm

  2. Great article.
    I think another component contributing to Couple Hierarchy in some relationships is substance abuse (drugs or alcohol).
    If one spouse is abusing and feels particularly guilty after an episode, the other spouse takes the upper hand because of that guilt (and it’s gladly given by the spouse whose abuse is causing problems in the relationship). Then, if the substance abusing spouse is able to curtail their abusive use for a period of time, that spouse often takes the upper hand, again, believing they’re entitled to it because of what they’ve done to get a grip on their substance use.
    The other spouse allows it because they’re unconsciously hoping that doing so will stave off another substance abuse episode.

    And, on it goes until both start to understand the role substance abuse plays in a relationship.

    Comment by Lisaf-breakingthecycles — November 23, 2008 @ 10:48 pm

  3. I loved this article. My husband and I try to be very respectful of one another and have never really gone down that road of seeking permission from the other to do other things. I do try to take his work schedule into consideration if I ever want to go out with the girls and I feel like he always does the same for me. I still do have some guilty feelings sometmes about going out and getting some “me” time but it generally makes me feel like both a better wife and a mother when I do that. I have never wanted to be in that type of relationship where there is a hierarchy among the couple, but have friends who live in that every day. I think that it makes for a much better and healthier relationship and marriage, never mind sets a better example for your kids, when you are kind and considerate rather than in a relationship that is just about giving permission.

    Comment by therapy — November 24, 2008 @ 11:37 am

  4. I like this article a lot because it gives me the grounds that I need to never have to ask for permission to do anything again! I am a grown woman- why do I always feel the need to ask for something rather than state just what it is that I want or what I would like to do? This is crazy. Your article has given me some real insight on how I am not giving myself the respect and love that I deserve because when I ask others for permission it makes me become passive and at someone else’s will. It is time for a brand new me, one who stands up for herself and finally makes the moves that I need to in order to become the person that I want to become.

    Comment by therapist — January 7, 2009 @ 10:17 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Spam protection by WP Captcha-Free