Sometimes you'll search in vain for any deeper significance. Sometimes he's incredibly annoying, full stop. In that case, the easiest course of action is not to change him (though, as we shall see, this may be possible) but to figure out what you might do to reduce your own irritation.
What to Do
One of the following strategies may help:
- Protect yourself from "social exhaustion." Being around people is wonderful, but it also creates a unique kind of fatigue that can be alleviated only by privacy. Being intensely annoyed by a partner's quirks is often a sign that you've spent too much time together. Taking a few minutes to walk, sit, or lie down by yourself can dramatically improve your mood and resilience.
- Ask yourself if your partner is doing something you'd love to do, except that it's against your rules. Often people feel severely judgmental toward those who are doing the things they've denied themselves. Wanting your mate to eat healthy food is one thing, but if you writhe in fury whenever he munches a cookie, the issue may be that you're denying yourself too stringently. If so, don't beat him, join him.
- Stay in your own business. Some people escape the content of their own lives by obsessing about the two other categories. Whenever you become intensely focused on changing someone else's behavior, you might want to check what part of your own business you're avoiding. The first step is to accept that you're annoyed. Watch your mental turbulence without judging or repressing it. Observe your own resistance, offer yourself some sympathy, then commit to facing your problems. Better yet, enlist your partner. Tell him about the difficulty or scariness of your business. He'll probably listen and maybe offer help—and presto! Your need to get into his business will be replaced by increased love and gratitude.
Step 3: Train His Brain
If the methods outlined above don't work for you, it may be time for some good old behaviorist training. This is a simple procedure, grounded in the fact that animals (including humans) will repeat behaviors that are positively rewarded and decrease those that aren't. I love behaviorist training because, in contrast to the noble approaches we've already discussed, it doesn't require all those tedious virtues (open communication, self-examination, authenticity, yada yada). It's just plain bribery, though invisible and, of course, well intentioned.
What to Do
Begin by identifying small, easy-to-give treats your mate really loves: praise, chocolate, backrubs, shiny objects...list as many as you can. Hand out these rewards whenever your mate does something you like, especially something that replaces the behavior you most hate. Don't tell him what you're doing, and don't react to the annoying behavior at all (carrots are much more effective than sticks). At first, reward behavior that goes anywhere near what you'd like to see. Then, as the positive behavior increases, offer the reward for more specific actions. This method requires persistence, like housebreaking a puppy, but if you're up for it, you'll find it highly effective.
Realize this last strategy may seem Machiavellian, but would you rather shower your mate with kisses (real or Hershey's) or emerge from a mental mist to find you've strangled him for doing that weird falsetto humming thing?
I thought so.
This month, then, might be just the time to work on clearing out the fetid pockets of mate-hate in your relationship. Look for meaning in maddening moments, take your share of blame, and use gentle means of changing behavior. Got that? Good girl! Have a piece of chocolate!
Keep this up, and by next Valentine's Day you'll hardly remember how it felt to hate the one you love.
More Insight From Martha Beck