Vail Relationships column: Be the bigger person |

Vail Relationships column: Be the bigger person

Imagine the following scenario: Your spouse or partner retracts from you, becomes distant and wants to be left alone. This continues for a day, or perhaps a week. During this time, he or she acts abrasive, critical, withdrawn and angry, and when you offer to try to get your spouse out of this sour mood, you are shot down and told to leave him or her alone. Has this ever happened to you? If so, how do you handle such situations?

This type of behavior can rattle many people —myself included — because we can’t help personalizing it. We interpret it to mean we are being rejected and being treated rudely. We fear for our relationship and are concerned that maybe our partner has had a change of heart regarding the future — or perhaps that we have done something so egregious that we have seriously put our relationship in jeopardy.

If you’re like many of us, something like this also goes through your head: “I can do this, too. You’re not the only one who can snub me and act critical and withdrawn. You’re acting like you don’t need me. Well I can act like I don’t need you, either.”

Perhaps you have done this once or twice in your life — where you check out, withdraw into your own world and completely leave your partner to stew in his or her own juices. While you’re trying to communicate that you are OK and you’re not going to let your partner’s bad mood ruin your day, you’ll discover that your day is ruined all the same because this kind of interaction feels awful and appears to be very threatening to a relationship. And to top it off, you will find yourself stewing in your own juices anyway.

I’m saying your partner’s behavior may not be related to you at all.

Offer healing energy

So let me propose a better way of dealing with your partner’s grouchy withdrawal, distancing or unhappiness. First, don’t do a tit for tat response (“I don’t need you, either”), and don’t act nasty or get sarcastic simply because your spouse has done so. Likewise, don’t be indifferent because your partner is, and don’t withdraw because she or he is withdrawn. That’s allowing someone else to be in control of your behavior, and you can do better than that.

Instead, be the bigger person, the person that offers healing energy. Do the right thing for your relationship, and offer warmth — because I promise you that your partner is not feeling very warm, wise, mature or healthy right then. Quite likely, she or he is acting badly not because of you or something you’ve done, but rather because of a feeling your partner has about him or herself or about his or her life.

I’m saying your partner’s behavior may not be related to you at all. Or perhaps a small piece of your behavior is being blown up and used as the reason for his or her withdrawal, but in reality, your spouse may not actually know what’s bugging him or dragging her down.

Hold yourself accountable for being an appropriate and loving spouse, regardless of how sour or negative your partner is. Be the bigger person in a dispute or disagreement, and do the right thing, regardless of what your partner does. And when a discussion between the two of you becomes possible, show up to this discussion with an intent to truly understand what she or he is going through, and do not approach the conversation with self-righteousness or an attitude.

You want to improve your relationship, not punish your partner. Yes?

Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder. He is the author of the best-selling book “Love, Sex and Staying Warm: Creating a Vital Relationship.” Contact him at 303-758-8777 or visit

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