Dr. Seth Meyers, Clinical Psychologist

Dr. Seth Meyers, Clinical Psychologist

Thursday, October 6, 2011

How Adults In Love Are Just Like Toddlers

Adults in the midst of hot new love have a lot more in common with toddlers than you may think. In addition to the usual joy and lust that the first year or so of a new romantic relationship brings, a new relationship also brings frustrations. In fact, it's my experience of counseling couples, while simultaneously raising a couple of toddlers of my own, that's confirmed this reality. The ugly truth is that adults in love are just as good at acting out as the average toddler found playing in the preschool sandbox. Further examination will reveal that the dark side of dating is often filled with jealousy, over-dependence, and the need for immediate gratification, all of which are hallmarks of the not-so-pleasant toddler years.

First, consider poor emotional regulation, or the inability to manage one's thoughts and feelings in a smooth and consistent manner. In the early stages of a relationship, Person A often feels overwhelmed with anxiety, wondering whether their new love interest will ever call, and hours upon hours are spent talking to friends who do their best to offer reassurance. This stage of a relationship is difficult because of the uncertainty, and the emotional overflow that love and lust brings hurls rationality out the window. Though Person A may feel solid in his or her professional life and with friendships, the romantic nature of the new relationship turns everything upside down. The uncertainty causes men and women alike to feel anxious and even depressed or anxious, at times.

Perhaps the best example of adults' difficulty with emotional regulation is jealousy. While a couple often learns later in the relationship how to navigate these feelings more effectively, the beginning of a relationship puts everyone on edge when it comes to others who could steal their new partner away. Of course, when jealousy comes to visit, it often brings with it what I call adult temper tantrums. In such moments, screaming and insults often ensue, words spoken that are often retracted the following morning when the angry passion has passed.

If you have your own toddler, know one, or have witnessed the antics of a three- or four-year old, you know how difficult emotional regulation can be for the little ones. Though a toddler may feel happy and calm one moment, the next moment can bring tears or whining. These behaviors understandably frustrate parents who do their best to understand the cause of such unhappiness, and they spend more time (than they'd like to admit) analyzing their motivations. Is he fussing because he needs a nap, or is he just hungry? Sadly, the similarities between adults who are in the beginning stages of a relationship and their toddler counterparts don't end there.

In addition, adults in a new relationship and toddlers often display a similar type of over-dependence. With adults, the push for codependence is often strong, causing the new couple to do everything together and to come to expect that the other partner can meet each person's primary needs and (gasp)be enough to make them happy. In this context, men and women often stop seeing their other friends, visiting the gym, and taking the kind of care of themselves that they should because the new focus is the other person.

The irrationality of these feelings is more understandable when it comes to toddlers. After all, the brain isn't yet fully developed when a three-year old child looks up at her Daddy when a cold breeze hits and says, "Cold! Cold!" as if he is powerful enough to change the weather. Despite the fact that Daddy can't solve all of her problems, his toddler child has come to depend on him in a way that she actually sees him as more powerful than he really is. In other words, she has an excuse; adults in a new relationship don't.

The final similarity between adults in the early stages of a relationship and toddlers relates to immediate gratification. In terms of sex, for example, couples usually jump into bed way too quickly. My experience with couples has shown me that rushing things in bedroom often backfires because the strong sexual feelings cloud everyone's judgment in the interviewing-a-partner process. The real need at this stage of the game is to pay attention to the emotional characteristics of your potential partner and figure out whether this person is going to give you what you need emotionally over the long haul. Yet lust and the need for immediate gratification on the sex front take over everything else, and it's not simply limited to sex. This happens with time spent together, too, with new couples clamoring to spend each night together early on, oblivious that they will have the rest of their lives to spend together if they truly belong with each other.

In comparison, toddlers have immediate gratification down pat. Spend an hour with one and you'll see how they want every last need met now, and there's little thought about the fact that tomorrow could bring gratification, too. In the life of a toddler, the stakes are always high. Toddlers think a thought and must act it out, while adults are supposed to have the cognitive flexibility to sit with their thoughts and feelings.

Overall, the similarities between adults newly in love and toddlers boil down to one theme: drama, or what we commonly refer to as highs and lows. The good news for society is that both of these stages pass, and everyone learns to settle down, play nicely, and move on to a higher stage of emotional maturity.

PLUS: Check out Dr. Seth's book, Dr. Seth's Love Prescription, about how to stop repeating the same negative patterns in your romantic relationships. This book is for what Dr. Seth calls Relationship Repeaters. (Click the book cover at the top right to buy a copy today!)

No comments: