Relate like an adult

Adults don’t shout, bicker, call names and break off relationships...they find solutions

Estranged relationships

Estranged relationships always happen when communication happens at the first, “power based” level. You can catch yourself responding from the first level. We feel this in our guts, if we pay attention. Our muscles tighten and we feel queasy. Our head kicks in and starts telling us stories:

  • “They can’t treat me that way! I’m an adult!” [As we stamp our feet and get emotional.]
  • “Why don’t they understand me?” [As we get all whiny and tragic-looking.]
  • ‘They won’t let me lead my life! They are always interfering!” [As we act like a rebellious teenager.]

In order to work with such relationships, you need to get rid of the ‘parent [superior] to child [inferior]’ approach.

You know you are in ‘superior’ mode if you are lecturing, demanding, or belittling.

We all do this! Our conditioning makes it almost automatic. We see the behaviour of others, and rather than simply see it as how another is acting, we take offence, judge the behaviour as ‘wrong,’ then judge the person as ‘bad’. Then begins the lecturing while we self-righteously think, “I am doing this for his own good!” Treating someone this way, results in their giving in, fighting back, or running away. All of which are the behaviours of children or teens.

Our initial feeling might be of satisfaction, “I told her!”—but if we think about it, our goal was [likely] not to create distance. We actually wanted to resolve a difference of opinion, so as to become closer! What we did got us the opposite of what we wanted.

You know you are in “inferior” mode if you are thinking: you’d better behave, that you are being “bad,” or you’re feeling the dreaded, “It’s not fair!”

All three reactions are a form of disengagement. You are seeing the other as an oppressor, as opposed to seeing the other as a human being engaged in learned behaviour.

Many of my clients want to break this pattern, and where they get lost is likely where you lose it, too. So, some hints:

Remember, the only behaviour you can control is your own

When we teach communication, we use a specific model—the key is learning to speak for yourself. What tends to happen when you’re using this model is, you speak for yourself while your partner will do whatever they usually do: attack, whine, demand, walk away or something worse. So what happens is, “I said this, they said that, and we got into a fight.”

Now allow me to remind you that learning to have an adult relationship is not easy, and that it takes practice. After all, we got to “now” using the old methods, and those methods are hard-wired in.

So, I suggest that our job is to refuse to be drawn in to a fight or a “one up, one down” situation. How? By being [perhaps] the only adult in the room.

Be an adult

There is a world-wide shortage of adults. Sure, lots of folk are “age-adults”—well over the age of 18, but few have the maturity of self-discipline and self-knowledge. An adult is a person who stays present with and unhooked by what is going on.

The Zen of it all is this: Stuff happens and people act as they do. If I keep my nose focussed on me, and how I choose to respond, there is never an issue, because I am not choosing to create one! “All it takes is one adult in the room.”

Adults hear what’s being said as just words. Adults recognise the prevalence of the ‘parent to child’ game, recognise their own desire to ‘play’, and stop themselves. Adults do not expect to be reaction-free—the voices in our heads are endlessly stupid, and never stop. Adults let them prattle on in the background, while choosing to respond elegantly.

Accept others for who they are

Your parents will always be your parents. Your older brother will always be…well… older. When they get caught in a power game—trying to get you to do something, act a certain way, be a certain person—they believe they have your best interests in mind. If you react by arguing, whining, whimpering, or rebelling, in a sense they prove their point—“See? You’re acting like a kid!”

If, on the other hand, you hold your tongue and your temper, and repeatedly say, “I want to thank you for telling me what you think,” they just stop and the game stops too.

Think about your relationships

Sad to say, some relationships aren’t worth preserving. As we grow, our priorities change, and we outgrow some of our friends. That’s OK. If you trust your heart and instincts, you’ll know when a relationship is over.

Other relationships have gone off the tracks. This often happens in families. It takes a lot of effort to let the kids grow up, and equal effort for the ‘kids’ to see their parents as equals.

In this dance, someone has to make the first move, in order to shift things to adult-to-adult.

If your relationship has deteriorated, and you decide to continue to work on it, you need to find your balance. By this I mean that you have to choose to act like an adult no matter what the other person is doing.

You might say…

“So, I’m noticing that we are [fighting, arguing, annoying ourselves over each other] a lot, and it’s gotten to the point where I am not sure if we can develop a mature relationship. But I love you, care about you and want to work on our relationship. So, I am committing to spending time with you, listening to you, and treating you as an honoured adult. That doesn’t mean I’m going to do what you say. It does mean I will listen and respond, without raising my voice, fighting back, trying to get you to change.”

[I know this is difficult… I remember doing it with my parents, decades before they died…]

And then, you do it, with no expectations about what they will do.

Accept that life is neither easy, nor fair

Once you truly get this, you realise that stuff happens. People act to provoke us, to attempt to control us. We want to scream, “Why should I have to do all the work?”

Because it’s your life!

What you do and who you are as a person is a 100 per cent about you and your actions. Being an adult is acting from this truth. Expecting others to stop doing what they are doing, to make it “easier” for you, is childish, and simply doesn’t work. The hard slogging, the difficult task of ‘adult-making’, is all about you.

The dynamics for difficulty are built into the relationships. These difficulties are growth opportunities, and you take advantage of them by not expecting special treatment. Your friends and family are right there, to practice with. Your job is to grow up by finding out what the adult version of you looks like, and then spending the rest of your life enacting that mature person. What did you think it was all about?

This was first published in the July 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Wayne Allen
A retired psychotherapist, and the author of 5 books, Wayne's approach to writing, life, and living comes from his love of Zen. He teaches living in the now, and taking full responsibility for "how everything goes." Wayne emphasizes wholeness, peace, and clarity of thought. His books, resources and other writings are available at


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