Andrew and I take turns being grumpy. If one of us is grumpy, the other person’s job is to be steady and playful and kind, and help cheer grumpy-person up. This rule arose spontaneously early in the relationship, and has served us well.
Instead of grumpiness spreading when grumpy-person is a little bit mean to non-grumpy person (as grumpy people sometimes are), the grumpiness is stopped in its tracks!
The non-grumpy person acts as a fire ring, to contain and nullify the grumpiness.
There are some situations that naturally create grumpiness. Let’s say we’re on a long flight and we’re tired and we’re hungry and we’re bored, and we wanted to be home days ago. We both have reasons to be grumpy.
Still, whoever expresses grumpiness first becomes the designated grumpy-person. The other person plays the role of cheerer-upper. In a hard situation, being the cheerer-upper gives you purpose. You find meaning in the situation, in the Viktor Frankl sense. My purpose is to cheer up the person I love, and help him/her get through this difficult situation. Having purpose naturally staves off some of your own grumpies.
What usually happens in difficult situations is that the non-grumpy person is kind and silly and gets all the grumpies out of the grumpy person. Once the grumpy person is properly ungrumpified, then we can switch roles.
Now the non-grumpy person gets to be the grumpy one, and express all the frustration they feel about cramped seats and mushy food. The newly non-grumpy person, now in a good mood, can listen to and help cheer up the grumpy person.
This system keeps bad moods from lasting too long, or from causing resentment in the relationship; if one person is grumpy, their mood is not an imposition on the other partner, it’s an opportunity to be loving and helpful.
My corner of twitter talks a lot about externalized brains. This system is like externalizing emotional regulation. You are outsourcing mood control to your partner.
Externalizing mood control extends beyond romantic relationships. I love this excerpt from Founders at Work, where Max Levchin talks about how he and Peter Thiel would alternate bad moods during the early days of PayPal:
The thing that kept us going in the early days was the fact that Peter and I always knew we would not be in a funk together. When I was like, “This fraud is going to kill us,” Peter said, “No, I’ve seen the numbers. You are doing fine. Just keep at it. You’ll get it.” On the flip side, when Peter would be annoyed by some investors or board dynamics or whatever, I was usually there trying to support him. That sort of sounds touchy-feely, but I think you have to have a cofounder you can rely on in a very fundamental way.