Why You Should Treat Your Partner Like a Child

Couple Therapy Sterling VA

Imagine this: at the end of a long and stressful day, your six-year-old stomps away from you in frustration and yells, “leave me alone!” A few seconds later you hear the slamming of her bedroom door. How do you respond?

Now, imagine the same scenario with your partner instead of your child. Is your response the same?

This week I listened to a great podcast featuring acclaimed writer and philosopher Alain de Botton. Among his many thoughts and ideas about life and relationships was the advice that we should work on treating our partners with the same care and kindness that comes naturally in our relationships with our children. No, I don’t mean that we should tell them what to do and make sure they finish their homework. Rather, this advice focuses on the effort we put into understanding what drives our kids’ behavior — what important emotional experiences and struggles manifest in their interactions with us, especially in times where they take actions that push us away.

Back to my two examples above. In the first scenario, I’m guessing most of you would imagine that after giving your child a few minutes to calm down, you’d knock softly on her door, sit next to her on the bed, put a loving arm around her, and ask her about her day; you’d make an effort to find out what was bothering her, and you wouldn’t assume that her anger toward you was the root of the problem — or even that it was real. And you definitely wouldn’t respond to her “leave me alone!” with “good riddance! I don’t want anything to do with you anyway, jerk!”

In the second scenario, many of us would probably behave less graciously. As partners, we’re far more likely to take these actions personally, to make negative assumptions and attributions about character and decision-making, and to allow our own emotional response to drive reactivity — often resulting in an escalation of conflict.

Here’s another part of the equation: kids often say tough or hurtful things to their parents because they feel safe enough to let their guards down and release whatever difficult emotion they’re working through. They hold themselves together all day at school or camp or with their friends, and then let it go when they’re in their safe space at home. We seem to innately understand this when it comes from our children, but expect that adults should have outgrown this dynamic. But I contend that even as adults, we still have a tendency to let our guards down and show the most difficult sides of ourselves to our partners, because it is our safest relationship. If that’s true, then our partners need the same kind of response that our children do. They need compassion, patience, and help navigating the feeling. They don’t need a snappy comeback or rebuke.

In couples therapy, I talk a lot about giving our partners the benefit of the doubt. In scenarios like the one described above, this means looking for positive, understandable, and external explanations for “bad behavior” rather than quickly assuming that such behavior comes from animosity, a lack of caring, or a character defect. de Botton refers to looking “behind the facade” of negative emotional expression, and calls this some of the hard work of relationships.

So, this week I want to challenge you to think about how you can make an effort to push yourself a little bit harder on how you handle this kind of interaction with your partner. Can you let go of your own judgement and emotional reactivity and give your partner the benefit of the doubt? Can you knock softly on their door, sit beside them on the bed, put a loving arm around them, and help them get to the bottom of their feelings? I bet you’ll be surprised at the possibilities it opens up.

Lindsey Hoskins provides couple, family, and individual therapy at both the Bethesda, MD and Sterling, VA offices. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation.