Aw, you love the guy! Except when he drives you completely mental. Martha Beck shows you what to do with a significantly annoying significant other.
Recently, I asked a group of ordinary American women to describe their significant others' most annoying characteristics. The responses were startling, not for their content but for the loathing I observed in these usually pleasant, well-adjusted people. If you want to see the red gleam of murder in someone's eyes, if you want chilling insight into the thinness and fragility of the civilized veneer that glosses over humanity's primal drives, don't read Greek tragedy or visit death row. Just listen to a few nice, normal folks talk about the way their spouses fake a Cockney accent, reuse unwashed underwear, or repeat every joke three times.
Hating the Ones We Love
As we pledge our undying devotion to our partners, it might be wise to acknowledge the flashes of vile, indefensible hatred we occasionally feel toward them. Acknowledging them while they're still small can help us deal with them responsibly. Denying their existence allows them to grow until they overwhelm our social niceties, turning us into various manifestations of the Incredible Hulk.
Do you want to reach that point? If not, read on and follow these steps...
Step 1: Find the Meaning in Maddening Moments
Tom and Jerri were furious at each other. On their way to my office, they'd stopped for a cup of coffee. Tom had also purchased a newspaper and flipped to the sports page, holding out the front section and asking Jerri, "Do you want to look at this?" At that point, Jerri burst into tears, all communication ceased, and the couple was officially at war.
Clearly, this had nothing to do with the newspaper. However, the coffee shop incident was an excellent "access point" for figuring out the core issues that were causing conflict. The key to this process is simply asking each person to describe, in detail, the meaning he or she gives to an event.
"He never gives me his full attention," Jerri said. "He finds anything to distract him—traffic, the sports page, whatever. And then he gives me the rest of the paper, like he thinks I'm behind on current events."
Tom's jaw dropped. The motives Jerri had ascribed to his actions had nothing to do with his real intentions. "All I wanted to do was check the baseball scores—my dad and I used to do that. I gave Jerri the rest of the paper because my mom always read it."
Likewise, when Jerri began to cry, Tom knew that, as he put it, "she was accusing me of being a bad husband, trying to control me." This could not have been further from Jerri's intent. "I needed his attention for five minutes over breakfast. If I get that, I feel close to him all day."
What to Do
Like Tom and Jerri, you'll often find that the behavior you don't like is triggering insecurities, fears, or unfinished grief. The next time you feel hatred flaring up, wait until you're no longer frothing mad, then calmly check whether the meaning you attach to events is the same as your partner's intention, listen to the response, and then suggest alternatives that might meet both your needs. This technique can turn a maddening moment into an opportunity for deeper mutual understanding and a significantly happier relationship.
Step 2: Take care of your share
Step 2: Take Care of Your Share
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
Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, March 9, 2014
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