Dealing with childish behavior in adult relationships
March 18, 2012 11:11 AM   Subscribe

My partner often behaves in a way that I consider to be very childish. How to deal?

I've been dating a wonderful man for about six months. We're both professionals in successful careers; he's mid-40s, I'm a mid-30s female. We have a fantastic relationship in nearly every respect, with shared interests, common values, fantastic conversation and great sex. I think he's sexy, smart, and overall pretty much my dream man. We've talked of marriage and I'm very keen to build a life with him.

But. (Always the but!) I have one major issue with him. I find that he often behaves somewhat childishly. Meaning: quite a bit of baby talk, pouting, sulking when he doesn't get his way, literally sticking his lower lip out or sticking his tongue out at me as a way of expressing himself. Today we had a disagreement while out and about shopping, and he actually stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk and crossed his arms across his chest with that classic sulky "toddler refusing to eat his green beans" expression on his face.

I seriously do not know how to deal with this behavior. Most of the time he is a normal, well-adjusted adult, but in our private interactions this sort of weird regressive behavior shows up pretty often. My reaction thus far has been to try to ignore it; when he pulled the stunt in the street today, I just simply told him I wasn't going to deal with that kind of behavior and turned on my heel and walked away. I keep hoping that refusing to engage with the childishness will make him cut it out, but it doesn't seem to have any impact.

I already feel the "see a therapist" comments coming on, but I'd appreciate some practical advice on how to respond to this kind of behavior, as I'd really like to understand why he does it and how to engage in a productive way (and how to talk to him about it in a way that doesn't demean or degrade him.)

Possibly related: he lost a parent recently. Don't know if that's somehow triggering the behavior.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
He's in his mid-forties. He's too old for this shit. If he hasn't figured this out by now, nothing you're going to do is going to change that.

I'm of the opinion that the best way to deal with this is to treat him as if he were as old as he's acting. He wants to pout? Fine. He can do that. Doesn't mean you have to deal with it. Go do something else until he's ready to act his age.

If that isn't something you're willing to deal with, it's probably time to move on.
posted by valkyryn at 11:14 AM on March 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

I just simply told him I wasn't going to deal with that kind of behavior and turned on my heel and walked away. I keep hoping that refusing to engage with the childishness will make him cut it out, but it doesn't seem to have any impact.

Yeah, I think you're doing exactly what you need to do, but that doesn't mean it will work. It's only been six months? Did he do this before his parent died? I don't think you're going to be compatible; this is pretty hard-wired at his age.
posted by desjardins at 11:16 AM on March 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I do this a bit with my partner (and she does too) but we're playing around. You should probably make sure that's not what's going on here before you get all Freud on the guy - you've only been dating for a few months and its possible that you don't yet know all his quirks.
posted by downing street memo at 11:16 AM on March 18, 2012 [22 favorites]

I'd talk to the guy about it, and make it clear that this behaviour is neither endearing nor effective. He may just think it's harmless and cute and a release valve for whatever frustrations he's feeling.
posted by orange swan at 11:25 AM on March 18, 2012 [13 favorites]

My guy occasionally does things like this, mostly either when he's stressed out or I'm stressed out and he's trying to help. He's from a "laughter is the best medicine" sort of background and it works well on other people but makes me nuts. I've talked to him about this when we've been calm, asked him to generally not do this, and that works pretty well. My basic approach is just to tell him (when calm) that I want a partner, not a child and I don't want us to interact that way and if he's trying to make a joke, it's not funny. When it happens now, which is pretty rare, I just say that the juvenile behavior is NOT sexy and do the walk away thing. The main thing though is that we've been trying to reach a compromise. I don't expect him to never do it again and he doesn't expect me to magically "get" his humor.

And yeah the parent thing might be part of it. I lost a parent last year and was really out of sorts for several months [and still out of sorts from time to time] so I'd have a conversation with him maybe about his stress level generally and see if you can reach some sort of agreement about the whole thing.
posted by jessamyn at 11:26 AM on March 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have found that a pointed, "That shit is not funny and it is not helping. Knock it off." tends to pull weight more than not, but I believe certain behaviors are best dealt with directly than through sit-down-let's-talk-about-our-feelings methods.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 11:33 AM on March 18, 2012 [7 favorites]

Seconding the idea he's doing it ironically, to be funny. I do that sort of stuff all the time myself, and so does everyone I know (I'm mid-twenties) - sticking out tongues at each other, giving exaggerated forlorn puppy-eyes when asked to do something unpleasant or going "But I don't wanna!" None of it's actually real, of course I'm not going to refuse to do something a friend or work colleague asks me to do just because it's tedious/mildly unpleasant/annoying, it's just something we do.

Of course, if he's genuinely annoyed and he actually expresses this by stopping and pouting then that's a whole different can of fish. See if you can find out which it is.
posted by Fen at 11:39 AM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Explain to him you need to have better communication. Provide examples like that.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:40 AM on March 18, 2012

My wife and I both fake-pout, but it's totally not serious and never in the midst of an actual disagreement, and neither of us are annoyed by it (right honey?) But when I do it, my wife always says, "Keep sticking your lip out and a bird's gonna poop on it."

Point being, whether he is trying to be funny or not, maybe handling it with humor on your end could help.
posted by The Deej at 11:45 AM on March 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

He may be doing it as a way to ratchet down the tension - some people hate disagreements because for them, even mild disagreement is the same as a horrible screaming fight that results in a breakup.

At a time when you're not disagreeing, bring this up gently and tell him that this behavior just makes you more tense and pissed off. If he's unable to catch himself while he's doing it, start with the ding training ("You're doing that thing that I explained just makes things worse for me. I'm walking away now and will walk away when you do this in the future. Please stop it.")
posted by rtha at 11:45 AM on March 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

I am a big fan of the "knock it off" approach, but due to the nature of his behavior, I think it's better to bring it up with him explicitly in an adult manner rather than telling him to straighten up -- that's too maternal. I thought I'd share the wheel-of-feelings technique my therapist taught me, in the form of a handy fill in the blanks script:

"When [x] happened and you reacted by [pouting like a three year old/other childish action], I felt [uncomfortable/embarrassed/disgusted/stressed out/etc] because I think it means [fill in the blank]. What was going on for you at that time?"

It doesn't have to be resolved then and there -- maybe ask him to think about it. It could be that there is some particular thing you do or say that reminds him of a parent. (Figuring that out isn't your responsibility, though, it's on him.) The two of you can work this out together but only if you bring it out into the light of day.
posted by trunk muffins at 11:57 AM on March 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

this approach might be putting too much of the burden on you, and it would be difficult to pull off if you're pissed, but the next time it happens you might want to say "I'd really like to know what you're feeling right now. Can you explain it to me in words?" My guess is that he's doing this motivated at least in part by a historical feeling of not being listened to (not by you, by somebody 40 years ago), and this approach might allow you both to save face.
posted by facetious at 12:10 PM on March 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is it possible a previous girlfriend thought it was cute? I've known couples who communicate with lots of pouty baby-talk type stuff and I find it SO ICKY but they are otherwise mature people and obviously it works for them. They're not entirely playing around either. So if someone did this to me I'd assume he was doing it on purpose because someone else he'd dated liked it, or that it was an old habit from an old relationship and he wasn't entirely aware he was still doing it. I'd assume that before jumping to the conclusion that he is in fact part 40 year old and part baby. (That said, you've seen him do it, so I could be wrong!)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 12:20 PM on March 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I really think you should just spell it out for him as clearly as you have in this question. (I suspect you haven't.) Tell him you expect your partner to act like an adult at all times, and that any further infantile behavior from him will be a deal breaker and will result in you ending the relationship.

Simple as that.
posted by jayder at 12:24 PM on March 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree that he's probably doing this kind of thing as a jokey way to reduce tension. You might find John Gottman's work to be helpful here. He suggests that recognizing a partner's attempts to introduce humor or reduce tension in arguments is actually an important component in fighting--a way of showing that the connection between the two of you is stronger than the argument. If I made my normal little pouty face to a husband in an argument and he "turned on his heels and walked away" instead of his normal response (which is to make a funny, but exaggerated, baby-crying sound, at which point we both laugh, usually), I'd feel pretty bummed.

And yeah, this was probably encouraged and reinforced at some point in his life. But I think there's a reason these behaviors are sometimes reinforced in relationships--they're a way of showing vulnerability and intimacy. I'd imagine that there's a lot of pressure for a forty-year-old man to play it straight all the time, and so his being a kid with you actually shows that he likes you and feels safe with you. It's one thing if that's not for you, but I'm not sure that the behavior is actually, say, psychologically regressive.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:41 PM on March 18, 2012 [22 favorites]

"Sweetie. You are not six years old. Please deal with disappointments in a grown-up manner."
posted by deborah at 1:27 PM on March 18, 2012

I'm a reformed sulker, though I was never as theatrically toddler-like about pouting as your boyfriend seems to be. I began to cut that shit right out after my current partner had a Come to Jesus talk with me at about the 6- or 8-month mark in our relationship, in which he made it clear that it was a fucking deal breaker, and that he wasn't kidding around. (I was in my mid-30s at the time, and he was in his early 40s.)

Since I didn't want to drive him away, I had to figure out a few things to undo this habit. I don't know if this is how it is for your boyfriend, but this is what worked for me. First, I had to get to the heart of why I would get sulky; basically, it was a communication strategy that I had learned growing up in a family (and then reinforced in relationships that replicated my family dynamic) where speaking up about feeling disappointed, anxious, etc. was strongly discouraged.

Second, I had to face the fact that pouting and sulking never actually got me what I wanted. It may have worked at some point in the distant past, but it didn't work now. If I wanted my boyfriend to be more mindful about being on time for dinner plans, for example, sulking when he was late never actually made him more punctual.

So, armed with this knowledge, I had to learn how to notice my own feelings and needs more authentically in the first place. Then I had to develop the confidence to speak up about those feelings and needs in a way that would be productive rather than likely to trigger conflict or drama (e.g., saying "when you're frequently so late for dinner, it feels like you don't value our plans" rather than "you're always late for dinner because you don't care that I'm starving!").

This all took some time and practice, but I think I made pretty big changes within about six months or so. I needed to know that our relationship really was a safe space where I wouldn't be denigrated or dismissed for articulating my needs like this, which my boyfriend helped me understand by frequently saying that he was on my side, and that when conflicts came up, we were on the same team to find a solution. (How To Be An Adult in Relationships is a book that helped me a lot during this process.)
posted by scody at 2:03 PM on March 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

I've been in your spot before - the crossed arms and harrumphing. I told him it is seriously, seriously unattractive, and that I didn't date seven year olds. It stopped pretty quick.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 2:10 PM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

The loss of his parent will be triggering this.

Treat him compassionately as an adult.
posted by mleigh at 2:23 PM on March 18, 2012

There's no good reason to generalize these behaviors as "childish" when you talk with him about any of them. Ask him to express his feelings in words. Be compassionate, because he's not actually trying to drive you crazy. You can ask him, "Are you sad/disappointed/angry?" and then after he explains, say, "Next time would you say it out loud?"
posted by wryly at 2:42 PM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is he an only child or youngest child?

My impression is that many people are driven out of childish behaviors only by the arrival of a person who is a lot cuter in the performance of them.

You could try some gentle mockery (uh-oh, does someone need a nap?) in hopes of waking him up a bit.

But the real acid test for me would be how he responds to a serious, unexpected crisis-- yours, his, or the relationship's; if he collapses and expects you to reassure him and handle it by yourself, that would be a deal-breaker, but if he steps up to the challenge, I would tend to think of these habits as child-like rather than childish.
posted by jamjam at 2:46 PM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Tell him to stop.
posted by ead at 3:37 PM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is it possible a previous girlfriend thought it was cute?

This is exactly what I thought. People respond to different things. You haven't been dating very long. Did you say something the first time it happened? If not, there's a good chance he thought it was fine because it's a reflex from a past relationship (with a woman, not with his mother). You are quite condescending about it, even resentful, when a simple short discussion could probably stop it. Even the one time you said you were refusing to engage and turned and walked away, could be interpreted as playing along.

You want to know how to discuss it with him? Don't wait until it happens again, and you are angry. Just sit him down, tell him you'd like to talk about something, let him know how his behavior makes you feel. Ask if he could not do it. See what he says.

I doubt it's part of his core being or anything. Some people like childish/idiotic/foolishness. Some swing a bit too far the other way, imo.
posted by Glinn at 3:59 PM on March 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

If my husband pulled this, I would probably burst out laughing. And say something like, "Dude, what the fuck? Are you five years old?" Then he would be mocked mercilessly until he got over it.

It's possible that response might just make your guy defensive, but maybe it's worth a try. Because he has to come to see how ridiculous that sort of behaviour makes him look.
posted by lollusc at 4:33 PM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

What does he say when you have asked him about it previously?

It would help to know what his perspective on his own behavior is, otherwise, we're all just speculating. Spitballing ideas can be good, and talking to your guy compassionately about this is really good, too.

After that, tho, I'd personally be likely to discover us incompatible if the behavior persisted. Plenty of adults don't behave that way. By his mid-40's it could well be permanent UNLESS he's as turned off by it as you are.

Talking is the first step towards resolution. Ask him about it!
posted by jbenben at 6:09 PM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Read this article. Reinforce behavior you want to see more of. Ignore behavior you don't like. At some point, this has worked for him, and if it stops working, the behavior will be reduced or eliminated.
posted by theora55 at 9:24 PM on March 18, 2012

My reaction thus far has been to try to ignore it; when he pulled the stunt in the street today, I just simply told him I wasn't going to deal with that kind of behavior and turned on my heel and walked away. I keep hoping that refusing to engage with the childishness will make him cut it out, but it doesn't seem to have any impact.

Just responding to your statement here (and riffing off theora55's linked article, which is a great little precis of behaviorism), I'd point out that you are engaging with his behavior when you tell him that you aren't going to deal with it. You're communicating your anger and frustration, which may be what he's seeking to elicit. If you really want to extinguish the behavior you need to ignore it completely, as if it is not happening at all. No comments, no dirty looks, no rolled eyes, just a complete lack of acknowledgement that he is doing the thing that you don't like. If he asks you why you're still walking when he's pouting, or why you're ignoring him, then you can tell him the reason. But from a behavioral perspective, deploying extinguishing has to be more controlled than what you've described.

Of course, I would not actually recommend that in this case. It isn't a very respectful way to act, when you could instead just have a frank conversation with your partner about how their chosen way of communicating dissatisfaction does not work for you, and why.
posted by OmieWise at 10:15 AM on March 19, 2012

I'd point out that you are engaging with his behavior when you tell him that you aren't going to deal with it. You're communicating your anger and frustration, which may be what he's seeking to elicit.

Indeed, you are behaving like a frustrated parent.

It strikes me that, whatever the psychological roots of his behavior, he is functionally behaving like a child in that he 1) does not directly challenge you in the argument at hand, but 2) drags his feet and behaves unpleasantly. Children do this because they lack all real power in conflicts with their parents; all they can do is pout. Passive aggression is the province of the weak. Adult relationships should not work this way. When you have a practical disagreement, you should negotiate to reach agreement. If both parties understand each other, there should be no need for one party to go ahead while the other flails about impotently.

In the moment, I think you should continue to try to engage him as an adult. If he pouts, use words: "Do you have some objection to x? What is it? Can we work on it?" If he has a concrete problem, you now have something to talk about using words. But perhaps he rationally agrees with you on the right thing to do, but finds it unpleasant. Then you can take him to task -- he needs to take some responsibility. He can't just externalize unpleasant necessities onto you. It's not fair and it serves him poorly as well.
posted by grobstein at 12:16 PM on March 19, 2012

I fuss/pout sometimes, but not for manipulation, only when I've lost the rational argument and feel like being cute-stubborn. If my boyfriend ever told me he had a problem with it, I could knock it off without much trouble. Since you haven't addressed it with him directly (guys can be dense), try this first:

1) Sit him down and tell him it's a problem
2) Mention the specific behaviors that are bothering you
3) Find out if he's trying to be cute, or if they're unintentionally regressive actions
4) Treat him like an equal in the conversation. Avoid the word "grownup"
5) Reach a place of understanding about how you want him to behave in the future and how he wants you to behave when he slips up (there will probably be a short adjustment period).
6) When he acts childish in the future, do not treat him like a child or react in a mother-ish way.

He's acting in a disrespectful way, but you shouldn't respond in kind.

Scolding probably isn't the right call in this situation, nor asking leading questions like you would a six year old. Let him see you're annoyed, tell him to knock it off, then ignore him (I like theora55's link, too) until he communicates in a rational, respectful way.
posted by itesser at 12:48 PM on March 19, 2012

I'm the only one who thinks that merciless mocking or name calling ("what are you, five?") is way more childish than over-exaggerated body language?

I'd really like to understand why he does it and how to engage in a productive way (and how to talk to him about it in a way that doesn't demean or degrade him.)

A guess: He's actually just trying to communicate through body language. This stuff is rampant in popular culture, and a lot of people use pop culture as a model for talking to others. If you can figure out a source for this behaviour (perhaps a sitcom, such as How I Met Your Mother) then maybe it'll reinforce the point that he's likely not doing it just to annoy you.
posted by anaelith at 9:35 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

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