Laura Gilliom, Ph.D.
I certainly don't claim to have all the answers, but there are some things I have come to believe strongly about what constitutes being a "grownup." It doesn't always happen automatically as we achieve chronological and physical adulthood; sometimes we get stuck in childish ways. Growing up can be a lifelong process, in fact. However, it is my belief that striving to "grow up" will bring a more rewarding and meaningful life.
So, what characterizes a grownup? In my view, a grownup is someone who
These are a few of the characteristics that I see as being central to a "grownup" life. They are simple but certainly not easy. Often, learning these abilities is central to the work of therapy.
¹Weinberger, D., Giedd, J. & Elvevåg, B. (2005). The Adolescent Brain: A Work in Progress. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
It is easy to think of lots of things that your partner could do better, or ways that he or she is just not measuring up to your idea of the ideal spouse/significant other. But how much time do you spend thinking of ways to make your partner happier? Be honest. Unless you are still in the early stages of romance, you probably spend a lot more time thinking about what to have for dinner than how to please your partner.
"But why should I?" You ask. "He/she is certainly not making any efforts to please me, at least not that I can see." That may or may not be true. But here is why you should give this some attention.
Are you convinced yet? I hope so. If not, let me tell you Sheila and John's story. After 15 years together, Sheila thought everything was fine, even great, in their marriage. Then she discovered that, unbeknownst to her, her husband was feeling sorely deprived of physical affection. Not sex, just the everyday hugging, kissing, cuddling kind. It took a crisis in their marriage for this to come out, because he'd never been one to complain even when he should. As someone who grew up in a family that was loving but not particularly touchy-feely, she didn't realize how important touch was for him in conveying love. In fact, she felt sort of smothered by his affection at times and would push him away. But once she realized that physical touch was her John's primary love language, she made a big effort to "speak" it more often. As she did so, she realized how little she had been touching him and how easy it was to give this gift to him. The more she did it, the more natural it felt and the more enjoyable it was for her too. He responded with lots of gratitude and with efforts to make her happier too. Their marriage is stronger than it has ever been.
If you want to take action to improve your relationship, think of what small everyday things make your partner feel loved and valued. Is it touch, like John? Is it making time for them? Is it complimenting them, cooking for them, writing love notes, laughing at their jokes? It's not necessarily the things you like best or the things that come most naturally, but if you think about it you probably know what it is. For more help, I highly recommend The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman.
Once you've identified one or two things, do them! Make a point of doing them every day, at least once, for at least a month. After that it will become much more natural and habitual to do. Chances are good that your relationship will be improved. And even in the worst case scenario -- if your partner does not reciprocate by making more effort him- or herself -- you will still be a better partner and a more generous person.
One of the most common problems reported by couples who come to therapy is "poor communication." By this they usually mean they either don't talk about difficult issues, or when they do, they get into fights. That in turn often leads to more avoidance of discussing difficult issues.
There are lots of ways of working on couple communication, including looking at deeper underlying factors. But one simple tool I often recommend to couples is a regular "couple meeting" where they can check in with each other and address any issues that may be bothering them. For couples who are not addressing problems effectively (or at all, in some cases) it provides structure and safety for bringing things up. The idea of a "meeting" can be less threatening than a "discussion" for some people, especially if there is a tendency toward conflict avoidance for one or both partners.
Couple meetings can also be a time for connecting at a deeper level on what's going on in each person's life. It is easy to become distant from each other when you don't make an effort to stay connected. Relationships need nurturing, and I often tell people that when it's most difficult to make time is when you need it the most. Of course, there are lots of ways to spend time together and connect besides a "meeting," but they can be one way that connection happens.
If you decide to try couple meetings, here are some basic guidelines to follow.
1. Agree on a time and place ahead of time. I usually recommend weekly couple meetings, but for some couples it works to simply call a meeting when one person has something to discuss. Ideally, it should be sometime when both partners are rested and won't be interrupted. Turn off phones, TVs, etc. Make sure children are occupied and know not to interrupt. If it's feasible, you may want to make it an outing for coffee/tea (not alcohol) or a meal.
2. Set a time limit. The amount of time can vary, but sticking to the agreed-upon limit is important. One big reason that some partners avoid communicating about problems is that they fear it will turn into a long, drawn out argument. If you have a time limit and stick to it you won't have that problem. If you reach the limit and are not finished, set a time to resume the discussion if it can't wait until the next scheduled meeting.
3. Establish some ground rules. In addition to a time limit, you may want to establish other rules for your meetings to ensure that they are a time for constructive discussion. It probably goes without saying that you should prohibit name-calling and yelling. Another ground rule might be that any topic that is brought up must be taken seriously.
4. When bringing up problems, express things in terms of how they affect you, not in terms of what your partner is doing wrong. Avoid blame and criticism. I discuss this in greater detail in my blog series on How to Fight Successfully.
5. Focus on one problem at at time. In fact, don't try to tackle more than one problem in a meeting. Limiting it to one will give you a greater chance of a good outcome and will avoid overwhelming either one of you.
6. Make sure each person gets to share their perspective on the problem. Again, see my previous blog posts for more on how to do this.
7. Use the meeting as a chance to express appreciation for the partner's efforts during the week, or for their willingness to listen and address problems. Even if there is a long way to go, look for reasons to be appreciative. Research on successful couples shows that they have a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. Expressing appreciation whenever you can will help boost your ratio in the positive direction. And it's a good idea to end the meeting on a positive note.
8. At the next meeting, be sure to check in about how it's going with the issue addressed at the last meeting.
When couples are discussing a problem in their relationship, a very common pitfall is to go for solutions too soon. It's common because it's natural to want to reduce the tension by trying to solve the problem as quickly as possible. (This also happens for issues that are not couple issues. So many times I have heard one partner, usually the woman, complain that when they are venting about an issue at work or with a friend, the other keeps telling them what they should do about it, rather than just listening.) And men in particular are wired toward action and problem solving. So what's wrong with that? Why is it a pitfall?
Relationship problems are not like mechanical or technical problems; there are often complex emotions involved. If solutions are proposed too soon, they will likely fail, for two main reasons:
1. The partner bringing up the issue may not feel fully heard. He or she may feel patronized or that the other person just wants to get the conversation over with. As I emphasized in part 2, being heard is extremely important.
2. The issue has not been fully understood from both perspectives. If the husband brings up the issue of the wife working late, and the wife says, "Fine, I'll come home earlier," they have likely not solved the problem. They may be ignoring real pressures on the wife at her job, or her history of perfectionism, or the husband's feeling of being unappreciated. A solution that does not take these factors into account is not likely to succeed.
So, even though it can be anxiety-provoking to postpone the solution part of a discussion, it's important to do so until each side has been fully expressed and heard. The good news is that once you have done that part, it is much easier to resolve. In fact, sometimes just hearing and understanding each other's point of view is all that is needed. Once you understand the reasons for your partner's and your own behavior, it may cease to be a problem, because you may find that it was your interpretation of the behavior that was bothering you and not the behavior itself. For example, when I was staying home with our children I used to be offended when my husband would come home and immediately start straightening up the kitchen. I felt he was silently criticizing my failure to keep things neat, when clearly he had no idea what a challenge it was with two small children around. After we discussed it, I learned that he felt guilty about being away all day and was simply trying to contribute to the housework. From then on, I didn't mind his straightening one bit.
In the cases where change is still needed in addition to understanding, it is usually much easier once you have that understanding. Sometimes the solutions are obvious. You will be much likelier to come up with something that takes both partner's perpectives into account. And, when changes don't happen instantly or perfectly, you will likely be much more forgiving.
If solutions are not obvious at this point, here are some ways to move toward resolution:
Say what you want. Example: "When your mother is here, I'd really like you to back me up if she criticizes my parenting." The other partner should repeat back what they heard, and say whether they are willing to try to make the change.
Say what you're willing to do to help support the change. Example: "I will try extra hard to tell you how much I appreciate it when you do back me up. Also, I will let you know when it happens if you miss it."
Do not agree to a change that you will resent or are not motivated to make. If this is the case, further exploration may be needed.
Revisit the issue soon. Ask how your partner is feeling about the issue and anything they have been trying to do differently. Be sure to show appreciation for efforts to change or efforts to be more accepting.
Recognize that some changes will take time and some may not be possible. For example, one husband asked his wife to read the newspaper more often so that they could discuss current events. She tried to comply but he wasn't really satisfied. Eventually, it became clear that what he really wanted was for her to be more intellectually curious, which was not something she was able to change about herself. Sometimes you need to work on acceptance of the other's limitations while appreciating their strengths.
If you follow all or even some of these guidelines, you and your partner should become more successful at "fighting." That is, you will identify issues, hear each other out, and make progress toward a solution. It may not even look or sound like a fight at all!