Last December, my wife Roni and I were on a research ship. We stayed for 18 days in a tiny 8 by 10 foot twin room on the vessel—in bunkbeds—in order for us to be in Antarctica, South Georgia Island and The Falkland Islands. But staying in very close quarters with someone, even someone you love, can be trying. And inevitably, Roni got on my nerves. “I don’t care how you feel,” I found myself saying to my wife, “I don’t want to do that.” Roni responded “Well I don’t care how you feel. I want us to do it anyway.”
But then Roni did something remarkable: she turned into an adult. “Actually, I care very much about how you feel,” she said to me. “Your feelings matter enormously to me. In truth, I care very much how you feel.”
One of us (it was obviously her) had the presence of mind to look out for our relationship and not let a tense moment get worse. She was not giving into me, she was taking care of our marriage. In every relationship, there’s three of us: “you,” “me” and “us.” It’s important that you feel valued and heard, and it matters that I do as well. But equally significant—and sometimes more consequential—is whether either one of us is looking out for “us.” Our marriage becomes like a third person in our relationship: there’s you, me and us, and it’s vital to care for all three pretty much equally.
This is why good relationships are achievable only between adults. One of you has to be the bigger person when the other is triggered or upset. And in the best of relationships, the two of you trade off that role. This time you are the bigger person, and hopefully the next time (or the next several times) I will be.
Here are some of the things you have to do in order to be an adult in a marriage:
- You have to choose a peaceful response instead of an irritated, angry or sarcastic response.
- Never violate trust, bully or intimidate your spouse, and absolutely no angry name-calling.
- Be kind, polite and appropriate. (Sounds simple, doesn’t it?)
- You have to make important to you that which is important to your partner. So if you say your family is coming into town and would I please make myself available for them, I need to treat that as important and do it to the best of my ability. This works best when we are both doing it for each other.
- Don’t get into a “tit for tat.” Don’t act nasty or disrespectful because your spouse has done so. Don’t be indifferent or give the silent treatment because your partner is, and don’t withdraw because s/he has withdrawn. You can do better than that. Someone has to be the adult, remember?
- Be the bigger person when your partner is angry, hurt, withdrawn or grumpy. Bring warmth, openness and kindness to an issue that your partner is out of sorts about, and look at how to repair whatever’s wrong. Make it safe for your spouses’ emotions to be part of the relationship.
- Challenge yourself to be independent without being distant. Keep your relationship on solid footing, and make sure not to threaten, destabilize or withdraw from your partner.
- A relationship requires your time, treating your partner as a priority, emotional engagement, connection, having fun together and being romantic with each other. Stop doing these, and your partnership will become distant, withdrawn and colder.
- Do the right thing, regardless of what your partner does. And when a discussion between the two of you becomes possible, show up to this discussion with an intent to understand, and do not approach the conversation with a self-righteous attitude.