If you ask 100 women the question:
“What’s the biggest problem you have with men?”
You’ll see a lot of answers that go something like:
“They act so immature!”
Would that be your answer, too? 😉
Perhaps you’ve noticed that sometimes your guy acts like he’s 12…
While other times he acts like a 17-year-old.
That can be cute, but more often it’s annoying.
You didn’t sign up to be the mother of a teenager!
Now, sometimes he’s an adult. He can be mature. Sometimes you can rely on him and have difficult discussions with him.
Why isn’t he like that all the time?
Why does he revert back to immaturity, leaving you to be the responsible one?
According to family therapist Dr. Terry Real, the best way to understand a man’s behavior is to realize that there are three different “people” inside of him:
- The little boy he was long ago, which Dr. Real calls the Wounded Child,
- The teenager who figured how to make life work for him and was never going to be hurt again, called the Adaptive Child, and
- The calm, confident man he is at his best, called (optimistically) the Wise Adult.
In an ideal world, we’d all act like Wise Adults.
But this isn’t an ideal world.
We all get stressed. We all revert back to our default coping mechanisms.
Understanding why we do that can help us break the cycle.
Still a Kid Inside
Most of us can still remember what it was like to be 5 years old, or 16 years old.
We may have grown up, but we still carry our younger selves inside us.
Sometimes, situations come along that trigger us.
Suddenly, we feel like we’re 5 years old again, waiting for a parent to come home and afraid they might never come back.
Or we’re 16 again, feeling like our heart was split in two and deciding that no one is ever going to hurt us again.
Triggers make us time travel. They send us straight back to the past.
Ideally, no matter what happened to us, we would stay in the here and now.
We’d act like the adults we are today. We’d use our thinking brain.
But, as I said before, this isn’t an ideal world.
There isn’t an adult alive who doesn’t get sucked back into their automatic reactions and defenses on occasion.
The Gift of Awareness
As much as I’d like to be a wise adult all the time, there are times when I get overloaded and my system shorts out.
My maturity goes offline as I get swamped by a storm of emotions.
Luckily, I am aware that my Adaptive Child is taking the reins. I know that this isn’t the best time for having a difficult conversation or making decisions.
I can focus on riding out the storm in a way that doesn’t cause harm to my relationships.
This is the gift of awareness.
When you are aware that a younger part of you is hijacking your behavior—and that younger part has very poor coping skills—you can stop what you’re doing and focus on soothing that part.
The child part of you will loosen its grip, allowing the Wise Adult to come back online.
He Can Do This, Too
Everyone is capable of awareness.
No matter how immature your guy can be, there is a part of him that can witness his behavior and recognize the damage he’s causing.
This part of him is his true self.
Dr. Richard Schwartz describes the Self (a person’s true self) as calm, confident, curious, compassionate, clear, courageous, connected, and creative.
This is the mature side of your man that’s capable of such brilliance and generosity.
This is the side, I think, we fall in love with.
We see how strong and loving and kind he can be. We see how much he’s capable of.
We fall in love with that side of him, but then we take him home…
And we soon discover that there’s another side of him we didn’t sign up for.
A side that’s rigid, harsh, and unforgiving.
A side that becomes aggressive in order to get his own way.
This is his Adaptive Child.
It’s the persona he adopted to survive his childhood.
When his Adaptive Child triggers your Adaptive Child, you’re in for a fight.
There’s a lot of damage two adults acting like teenagers can wreak.
Help the Adaptive Child Step Aside
Remember that this side didn’t start out to cause problems. It started out to help him survive.
And it did its job.
Your guy got through his childhood. He made it.
Now he’s an adult, and he doesn’t need to be that way anymore.
But triggers push him back into the past. Reactions become habitual.
Your relationship cannot survive with his Adaptive Child (or yours) running the show.
If you want a healthy relationship that stands the test of time…
You’ve both got to develop practices that help you step aside from that Adaptive Child and return to the wisdom of your adult self.
A simple process of awareness—noticing when you make the shift to an earlier age—is a great place to start.
If you’re interested in learning more about a style of therapy designed to help couples with these issues, take Dr. Terry Real’s free quiz The Relational Grid Assessment.