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