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Christine Meinecke, Ph.D.
Christine Meinecke Ph.D.

Your Spouse Is Behaving Badly...

And it's not the first time.

Okay, so you've made a polite request for behavior change. And a not-so-polite request. And then, well, you raised the roof to get your point across! But did you get what you wanted? Nope. Nothing except attitude. Sound familiar?

Nothing you've tried gets the desired behavior change. Now what? There is a better way.

Parent-child v. adult-adult relating

Parent-child v. adult-adult relating

Here's the problem: Even though the appropriate model for relating to a romantic partner is adult-to-adult, most of us, when frustrated, resort to parent-to-child relating. Parent-child, the first type of human interaction we learn, is so deeply ingrained that we automatically follow this template. If your partner is playing the parent, you behave like the child.

If your partner behaves like a rebellious adolescent, you act like a righteously indignant parent. And surely you've noticed - even if your cranky parent act brings compliance at the time, your spouse does not permanently change his or her ways. He or she makes only a temporary concession.

More often than not, the outcome of parent-child relating between adults is impasse. You are at an impasse when you hear yourself saying to your partner, "How many times do we have to go through this same thing? When are you going to get the message?"

When are you going to get the message?

If you are the one behaving like a parent, the message for you is obvious in your partner's unchanged behavior. What you are being told is this: You have no business telling me what to do. And since you are not, in fact, your spouse's parent, your spouse is correct.

If you are the one behaving like a child...well, everybody knows that's inappropriate.

In order to resolve an impasse, couples must follow a new template - constructive, adult-to-adult relating. Somebody has to go first. Might as well be you!

Parent-child example A:

YOU: How many times have I asked you to take out the trash before it's overflowing?

PARTNER: Only six times today! Get off my back.

YOU: Oh, real mature.

PARTNER: Can't you see I'm busy?

YOU: Busy? You're playing video games!

PARTNER: Take it out yourself, if it bothers you that much!

Adult-adult example A:

Say nothing about the overflowing trash. Take it out yourself, if it bothers you that much. Yes, really. See previous posts: Is Your Partner a Matrimonial Slacker? Disgruntled partners defend "honey-do" list.

Overflowing trash is just one example of the myriad minor annoyances that are best left unmentioned. Reminding a ten-year-old to do his chores or to close her mouth when she chews or to put his dirty clothes in the hamper is good parenting. Most adults do not take well to "parenting" by a spouse or by anyone including an actual parent.

Parent-child example B:

PARTNER: I can't believe you spent 300 dollars on a purse!

YOU: It's not a purse!

PARTNER: It cost 300 dollars!

YOU: It's a messenger bag for my laptop.

PARTNER: Hello!! It cost 300 dollars.

YOU: How is that different than you spending 300 dollars on one pair of shoes?

Adult-adult example B:

PARTNER: I can't believe you spent 300 dollars on a purse!

YOU: Guaranteed to last a lifetime.

PARTNER: You'd better hope it lasts a lifetime.

End of conversation. The constructive adult response is to drop this conversation like a hot potato. Your partner is playing the righteously indignant parent - feeling justified in behaving badly because he or she thinks you behaved badly by spending 300 dollars. Don't get baited into taking the role of the rebellious adolescent. Any response you make to a provocative comment will only offer your partner another opportunity to behave badly. See previous post: The four keys to responding constructively and not gving in.

Of course, serious matters such as money, division of labor, sex, child-rearing, etc., merit discussion. Nothing constructive comes, however, from following a spouse's provocation into a parent-child interaction. If you want to have a successful conversation about a difficult topic, take the adult-adult approach.

Practice adult-adult relating

The next time your partner starts a destructive, parent-child interaction take the opportunity to interrupt this pattern by changing the way you respond. By responding constructively, you also offer your spouse a new option. With practice, any couple can transition from parent-child relating to adult-adult relating. First, practice managing emotional reactivity. See previous post: How to Train Your Dragon. Then practice choosing constructive responses.

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About the Author
Christine Meinecke, Ph.D.

Christine Meinecke, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of Everybody Marries the Wrong Person.

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