Stop Acting Like a Child
And don’t treat your partner like one
Last night, I threw a snarky comment at my husband.
It was getting late, but not quite late enough to go to bed, so I decided to whip up a fruit compote. Quarantine life in action.
It’s not an especially challenging recipe, but I was getting tired and I slopped some of it onto the counter and on the floor. He saw and said “Are you OK?”
Frustrated, I snarked at him, “Isn’t it nice for you to be playing that stupid game on your phone while I’m here doing all the work?”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I cringed internally.
It felt even worse when he calmly got up and washed the dishes from my culinary work.
Why We (Sometimes) Behave Like Children in our Adult Relationships
The majority of the time, we behave like functional adults in our relationships.
That’s how we pay the mortgage or rent. It’s how we put food on the table. It’s how the trash gets taken out. It’s also how we get along (most of us, more or less, most of the time).
Then there’s what happens the rest of the time.
You know, when we lash out at each other (like my snarky comment).
When our behavior and/or our partner’s behavior becomes childish.
What makes us do that?
For the most part, it’s stuff we carry with us from childhood.
When you experienced emotionally difficult things as a kid, you adopted and internalized certain patterns of emotion and behavior. These were important adaptations to things going on in your family over which you had no control and they helped you survive. For far too many, it was survival from things that threatened their very physical existence. That’s Trauma, with a capital T. For most of us, it’s trauma with a little t.
It could have been ways to protect yourself emotionally from something bad, or things you picked up from a parent you idolized.
That little kid is still inside you, and sometimes she starts taking charge of how you interact in your most intimate and important relationship.
As my mentor, Terry Real, has said “If you want an adult relationship, you must be an adult”.
How You Can Heal and Improve Your Relationships Now
What was a critical emotional adaptation as a kid no longer serves you. What worked for you back then then, gets in the way of a truly intimate relationship now.
It’s time to thank your inner child, and reassure her, “I’ve got this,” and handle things like an adult.
If your partner behaves badly (like sitting a few feet away from you, playing a stupid game on his phone while you’re working in the kitchen!), respond with empathy and compassion.
Don’t escalate the situation by snarking at him.
In some cases, just let it pass through you, and move on. Notice, my husband is really good at this (better than me). He sat there thoughtfully without snarking back at me, and then chose to do the dishes. Thanks, my love.
If you can’t (or don’t think you should) step past it without responding, rather than complain about what he did, ask him for what you need from him in the present and/or the future. In hindsight, all I needed to do was say “Sweetheart, can you help me with this. I’d like to do this together instead of alone”. The grown up in me knows how to do that. My adaptive child throws snark around instead.
Shouldn’t My Partner Love Me No Matter What?
Kids deserve unconditional positive regard. It is their birthright. We love them no matter what they do or say, and always seek to express our regard for them even when they say or do hurtful things.
This unconditional positive regard is reserved for children. Adults, we need to hold to a higher standard. We have to hold them (and ourselves) responsible for their (and our) words and actions. You can’t say or do just anything in an adult relationship and have the expectation that your partner should put up with it and get over it. Especially if it is a repeated pattern that erodes the relationship and causes damage or worse yet, is abusive..
When one of you misbehaves, it doesn’t give the other permission to misbehave at the same time. It’s up to each of you to act with integrity, no matter how the other behaves in the moment – that’s called Relational Integrity.
If your partner is being abusive, you do need to take steps to protect yourself. But that is for a different article.
As parents, it’s our responsibility to teach and model for our kids how to do this, so when they grow up they can be adults in their relationships. It is our responsibility as adults in a relationship to bring our healthiest adult self to our interactions. It is not our partners responsibility to put up with the kid in us acting out.
Your goal should always (or as close to it as you can manage) be to behave toward your partner from the functional adult part of you. This even, no, especially, in a moment when they don’t manage to do the same. Be compassionate, deescalate the situation or remove yourself if necessary.
How to Repair Your Relationship, and Why You Should Do It
As adults, we have to take action to repair our relationships when we hit a rough patch, a disharmony.
When your partner messes up, you should expect him to take responsibility and make repairs. That’s the easy side of the equation.
When it’s you who messes up, you should expect no less of yourself. And do it even if he has not. Why? Because it’s in your best interest. This is the more difficult side of the equation. We must learn to move out of the childlike part of us (that wants to get our way and can be selfish and see ourselves as better than our partner) and into the grown up part that wants love and connection with our partner. That’s why, as soon as I managed to collect myself, (it took a few minutes, I admit) I apologized to my husband for my snarkiness. I’m human, I have faults and make mistakes. Unlike the plaque on my Dad’s dresser growing up that read “I thought I made a mistake once, but I was wrong”.
You know what happened when I did? He apologized for not staying present to my working in the kitchen, for playing instead of offering his help. That’s what a healthy adult relationship looks like. When you behave like an adult and expect the same of your partner, you open the space for him to show up for you. As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats. Be the rising tide and raise your relationship to new heights of Relationship Intelligence.