Most of us think that by the time we marry or commit to that “forever” relationship, we are pretty well all grown up.
This is untrue.
Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely better have a certain level of maturity to say “I do.” In fact, over the years as the age of first marriage has increased, the divorce rates have lowered, so being grown up certainly seems to help in that regard.
But in many ways, that major commitment launches us to a whole different phase of "growing up," in which the intensity revs up and the stakes get higher.
Growing up ... or simply growing?
I first married when I was 19, and oh, did I have lots of growing up to do. My brain wasn’t even fully developed (brains usually mature at about 25 years), which probably came as no surprise to my husband. During our 35 years of marriage, my spouse and I discovered that by challenging each other to keep growing — and to grow up — we deepened our love and intimacy.
Then my husband died and the universe invited me to grow in different ways.
A few years later, I met a man who woke me to the possibility of another relationship.By the time my new husband and I married, I figured I had this whole relationship puzzle pretty well solved. Hah!
The thing about marriage, or any committed relationship, is that it keeps presenting you with ways to confront yourself — and grow up.
The toll of immaturity
Both “growing” and “growing up” are needed in successful relationships.
Growing is about opening oneself to new experiences, to stretch and learn with the intention of improving and bettering oneself. Growing Up is about letting go of old, maladaptive ways of doing things. It’s about responding from the mature, best part of yourself that reflects who you want to be, not how you want to win.
We all know examples of couples where one or both of them refuse to be the adult, and we know the toll it takes – not only on their own relationship, but on their friends. Who wants to continue to get together with the couple who are constantly bickering over endless picky reasons?
They may as well be arguing about whose toy it is and whose turn it is to hold it.
Nor is it any fun to be with a couple who verbally and emotionally freeze each other out. Not only does their coldness chill all those within their radius, but they remind us of the five-year-old who declares, “I’m never talking to you again and you can’t make me!”
While these two examples of couples may be pretty obvious, there are lots of other ways our immaturity can leak out. Just remember that each time we spring a leak, we are being invited to both grow and to grow up to a better self, choosing a better way of being with our partner.
Here are some clues you may have some growing up to do in your relationship
“What do you mean I didn’t finish the laundry? You’re the one that always leave clothes in the washer until they stink.”
2. Needing to have the last word
Insert here the classic childhood example of Did-not/Did-too or Am-not/Are-too. Similar to its cousin –
3. Needing to have the final say
Not so much the last word as the closing argument on decisions to be made: with kids, chores, or finances. Does it always have to go your way?
4. Trying to change your partner
“Why do you always bring the car home on empty? When are you going to learn?”
5. Constant criticism
“You should have known better. How many times do I have to tell you how irritating that is? And while you’re at it, you handled that situation with the kids totally wrong and now I have to fix it.”
6. Avoiding responsibility
“But you didn’t tell me you needed help!” “I just lost track of when the bills were due.”
Really? Do you always have to be asked or told what is needed?
7. Knee-jerk reactions
Not just to your partner, but also some external triggers.
Signs you may be growing up
As much as we may want to change these immature patterns, there may be another part of us that really doesn’t want to change. After all, growing up means:
Owning your own “stuff” and taking responsibility for it
If you didn’t finish the laundry, then own it. “You’re right, I didn’t finish the laundry. I’m trying for this afternoon to get it done.”
It doesn’t make you a bad person, maybe just a busy one. Are you afraid your partner will criticize you? They might. So what? You can hear it as their own dissatisfaction, or you can swallow their opinion as the truth about your character.
Their criticisms are coming from within them and don’t need to reflect on you, unless you want to take them on.
Knowing that nobody is going to rescue you
If I haven’t been able to get my spouse to stop bringing the car home with an empty gas tank, who or what do I think will rescue me to make him change?
Do I think if I get mad at them enough times, then I’ll hit a “critical-mass” magical number and poof! Spouse changes? Good luck with that
Accept the reality that we can’t change anyone. All we can change is how we relate to that person.
All those energies that are directed to changing a partner, then the resulting frustration when a partner doesn’t change, drains us and disempowers us. That’s the point where we want a rescue. And that’s the point we could decide to do something different instead of criticizing the one who didn’t fill the tank, ask for a simple gas-tank status check.
“Could you let me know how much gas is in the tank?” Keep it factual. “I don’t have time to get gas before my appointment, so I’ll need to take your car.” Or, “Will you be available if I run out of gas?”
Keep the tone neutral and fact-seeking or you’ll sabotage your own efforts. Of course, you may still be frustrated, but anger alone doesn’t make anyone change.
Watch what happens within you when you quit trying to change someone. Pretty soon you won’t want to be rescued. Instead, you’d rather feel empowered.
Shifting the focus inward, not on your partner
I may be utterly unsatisfied with how my partner dropped the ball with the bills, or the kids, or the upcoming party. And Partner may need to be confronted with how their behavior impacted me, the kids, or our friends. But there’s a difference between a healthy confrontation and an attack. The former looks more like a complaint about a partner’s behavior, while the latter is an assault on their character and personhood.
If you are constantly looking outside yourself to criticize or disapprove of your partner’s behavior, you may need to ask yourself a question: “What am I avoiding by continuing to look outside myself instead of inside?”
If you notice your stomach jumping at the thought of looking inside, maybe you’re not quite ready — no judgment intended here — to be the adult in this relationship.
Can't do it? Here are some reasons you can’t be the grown-up yet
You may need to grow before you can grow up
Your exhaustion overwhelms you, and convinces you to stay stuck
It feels safer and less anxious to keep things the same
Looking inside at what you need to change is too scary
You don’t want to surrender the one-up position of thinking there’s something wrong with Partner
You’re afraid you’ll outgrow your partner, that you’ll end up being the only grown-up in the relationship
You think you have to change everything, versus taking one small internal step.
One small internal step may be recognizing that you want to grow up. Or at least that you want to want to grow up. And then another step may be recognizing what it is keeping you from growing up.
Surprisingly, the very act of identifying a block or stuck place can help to dissolve it and empower you.
To adult or not to adult?
Remember, you can choose:
Who you want to be, not how you want to win
The repetitive reactions you want to relinquish
How much you want to grow and grow up
These choices are independent of any responses your partner might make, and because of that, offer you ultimate empowerment. Even better, it’s the empowered, grown-up individual who has the greatest potential for intimacy in relationships.
Dr. Judy Tiesel-Jensen is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (LMFT) and Psychologist Emeritus, specializing in couple relationships and trauma, much of which is reflected in her recent book, Invitation to Intimacy: What the marriage of two couples counselors reveals about risk, transformation, and the astonishing healing power of intimacy.