(This article appears in Psychology Today Magazine, Mar/Apr 2009 edition, by Jay Dixit)
Without doubt, there are big problems that afflict relationships; infidelity, abuse, and addiction are not perishing from the earth. A highly sexualized society delivers an alluring drumbeat of distractions. But it may be the petty problems that subvert love most surreptitiously. The dirty socks on the floor. The way our partner chews so loudly. Like the relentless drip of a leaky faucet, they erode the goodwill that underlies all relationships. Before you know it, you feel unloved, unheard, and underappreciated, if not criticized and controlled. Intimacy becomes a pale memory.
Yet irritations are inevitable in relationships. It’s just not possible to find another human being whose every quirk, habit, and preference aligns perfectly with yours. The fundamental challenge in a relationship, contends New York psychiatrist John Jacobs, is “figuring out how to negotiate and live with your partner’s irritants in a way that doesn’t alienate them and keeps the two of you connected.” When marriages don’t work, he adds, often the partners are fighting not over big issues but over petty differences in style.
We each have differing values and ways of looking at the world, and we want different things from each other. Such differences derive from our genetically influenced temperaments, our belief systems, and experiences growing up in our family of origin, explains Diane Sollee, family therapist and founder of SmartMarriages. “We think, ‘My father knew how to put the toilet seat down, so why can’t you?’ Or ‘My father never put the toilet seat down, so I’m not going to, either.'” Whatever the source, such patterns are deeply ingrained, difficult to dislodge.
Sometimes a sock on the floor is just a sock on the floor. But especially among longtime couples, little irritations may code for deeper problems. It’s as if ice cubes become an iceberg, says family therapist John Van Epp. Think of ice cubes as free-floating irritants —bothersome but meaningless: You hate the way your partner puts his feet on the furniture or exaggerates. Such behaviors might drive you up the wall, but they’re harmless.
But small problems coalesce into a vast, submerged force when they take on a different meaning in your mind—when you add them up as evidence of a character flaw or moral defect. You’re annoyed by the fact that your significant other hates sharing food from her plate. And that she hates planning in advance. And that when you try to share important news, she gets excited and cuts you off to share something of her own. When you consider them together, a picture emerges of your partner as selfish and self-absorbed, always putting her own needs first.
“You don’t really live with the partner in your home. You live with the partner in your head,” explains Van Epp. Gradually, you begin looking for evidence that your partner is self-absorbed—and of course you find it. Your perceptions shift over time: The idealized partner you started out with becomes, well, less ideal.
But if you want to stay in a relationship, something needs to change. In all likelihood, it’s you.
Every annoyance in a relationship is really a two-way street. Partners focus on what they’re getting, not on what they’re giving. But no matter how frustrating a partner’s behavior, your interpretation is the greater part of it. What matters is the meaning you attach to it.
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