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Relationship irritants

Living with someone’s quirks and habits can be a challenge. Rebecca Smith discovers how to stop little things sabotaging a good relationship

by Psychologies

A recent poll of the Psychologies office on our partners’ most irritating habits revealed we have little reticence in naming and shaming the worst offenders. In our (mostly female) editorial team, lively debate ensued on the relative demerits of sniffing, sighing, complaining in restaurants and road rage. Some of the top irritants were quite predictable (snoring, not listening, messiness), others less so (number two was buying expensive equipment for a new hobby, then swiftly moving on to a new one), and some were very funny (‘He finds it relaxing to go to sleep listening to the sound of someone being dismembered in Saw III; I do not’).

Exploding point

Yet the abundance of answers proves that living with another person, however much we love them, can be tricky. Typically, we think of relationship deal breakers as the big dramas — infidelity, addiction and disagreements over big decisions such as whether or not to have children — rather than loud chewing or being ignored in favour of Cops With Cameras. But, according to Michael Cunningham, a psychologist at the University of Louisville, irritating habits that are left to fester can erode or break down relationships. ‘In our study, we found that minor irritations can, over time, build up to exploding point and result in one person walking out of the relationship,’ he says.

Most of us start off in a relationship oblivious to, or even fond of, our partners’ quirks, and it is only when the honeymoon haze lifts and we settle into everyday life that these things start to grate. ‘I used to find it cute that Jake enthusiastically wolfed his food down in about three seconds flat,’ says Heather, 36. ‘But three years later, I’m increasingly bothered by it and find it a bit revolting.’

Cunningham puts it down to the transition from ‘front-stage behaviour’, when we’re still trying to make a good impression, to ‘back-stage behaviour’, when we relax and show our true selves. It is often difficult to eliminate these annoyances, so the challenge is working out how to live with them. ‘Often relationships fail not because we don’t love each other enough,’ says therapist Trevor Silvester, ‘but because we don’t know how to live together.’ You may not be able to change your partner’s behaviour, but you can change your perspective and your reactions.

Think about what lies beneath

‘In some ways there are no small things in relationships,’ says Andrew G Marshall, marital therapist and author of 'I Love You But I’m Not In Love With You'. ‘Things that really irritate you are often doing so for a reason. The small things may be standing in for much bigger things.’ So irritation over a sock left on the floor may be code for deeper issues. We can also be quick to draw conclusions, so the sock on the floor ends up being evidence of selfishness and lack of respect. ‘It becomes less about the behaviour and more about the meaning we attach to it,’ says Janet Reibstein, author of 'The Best Kept Secret'. It’s important to think about whether a reaction could be a clue to something deeper (are you getting your needs met and feeling loved enough?), while being aware that it is easy to leap to conclusions. Join the same team ‘Everybody has to live with irritations,’ says Susanna Abse, director of the Tavistock Centre For Couple Relationships. ‘It’s the way these things are approached that is the indicator of a healthy relationship. Take one partner snoring as an example. Successful couples avoid talking about it in an attacking way or in a way that implies it’s just one person’s issue, and instead see it as a problem they will manage together.’

Aim for friendly intervention

Raising difficult issues can feel precarious, as we can get stuck in a cycle of hammering out the same issues, with each confrontation becoming more toxic. For this reason, psychologist Jacqui Marson and her colleague Val Sampson came up with the BARE model: breathe, accept, respect and eulogise. ‘Before you raise anything that is causing you anxiety or annoyance,’ says Marson, ‘you need to soothe yourself. You will be visibly holding tension in your face and body, so take some deep breaths. Then start from a position of acceptance and compassion, and speak respectfully in a way that does not blame or shame, taking responsibility for your own feelings and avoiding any statements that begin “You always” or “You never”. And lastly, find something genuine to compliment your partner on to soften the complaint.’

Work out what you are projecting

hink carefully as to what your partner does that irritates and bothers you most, says Marson, as it might say more about you than it does about them. ‘Often the things that annoy us most intensely in our partners are the things that we struggle to accept or come to terms with in ourselves,’ she says. ‘Look to yourself and ask, am I projecting onto my partner the parts of myself that I am really intolerant of or that I find unacceptable?’

Express annoyances early on

Although it can be hard to change behaviours, studies show that the earlier in our relationship we can express what really bugs us, the better. According to Cunningham, who studied relationship annoyances in 160 couples, irritations become more irksome over time.

Acknowledge your different drives

Many irritations derive from basic differences in personality. Couples therapist John Gottman estimates this is the cause of 69 per cent of relationship problems. It’s easy to take the things that annoy you as personal affronts, but it’s useful to remember that your partner’s motivations may just be different from your own. ‘People do things for their own reasons,’ says Silvester. ‘They are just not yours.’