3 minute read
There comes a time in most relationships when your partner really and truly annoys you. I’m not talking about the big blowups, the things that cause relationships to end in the marital equivalent of nuclear war. No, these are just the little annoyances that chip away at your affection for your partner. Things like the fact that he never puts his dirty clothes in the hamper; she is late for every appointment; he always forgets to pick up that key ingredient at the supermarket, or she keeps squeezing the toothpaste from the middle of the tube.
You’ve pointed out the issue in no uncertain terms. Calmly at first, but with increasing levels of frustration. Perhaps you’ve shouted, or done something your partner finds annoying in order to show what it feels like, or just grown cold and distant for a while. And underlying this struggle is frustration and puzzlement — why is this so difficult? — as well as worry: “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t do this.”
It’s this worry that makes these struggles so highly charged. After all, your partner is the person who’s supposed to put you first, to be there when you are in trouble, to comfort you when you’re down, to nurse you when you’re ill. If they can’t even do the simplest thing you ask, do they really care about you?
At the beginning of a relationship, when our partners exhibit these behaviors it’s mainly because they’re responding to what’s going on inside of them, not because they’re angry at us. For example, your husband may be easily distracted, or is feeling anxious, and so the sight of clothes on the floor is swamped by other more interesting or worrying things. Your girlfriend’s feelings of being unimportant might be triggered by having to wait for other people, so to avoid that she unconsciously arranges to be late to ensure others wait for her. Your reminder to your boyfriend to stop by the supermarket may be crowded out of his mind by challenges at the office. And your wife’s habit of squeezing the middle of the toothpaste may be just that — a habit of a lifetime that is hard to break.
So this is how your partner’s annoying behavior started, and maybe why it’s hard for them to change. You may say “That’s all well and good, but if my partner really loved me, a little extra effort to change ought not to be too much to ask. After all, I’ve made it clear how important this is to me. And look at all the changes I’ve made to accommodate my partner!”
Unfortunately, when we ask our partner to change, we are almost always offering a subtle (or not so subtle) criticism. Asking for a new behavior tells our partner that their current behavior is…um….less than satisfactory. Most people don’t react joyfully to being told that their behavior isn’t up to snuff, nor do they leap enthusiastically into change mode. They might grudgingly make a move in the requested direction, but often fall short or forget in the near future. This of course makes us annoyed, so we repeat our request for change, this time with a sharper tone, or a sigh, or a snippy comment. Perhaps without even meaning to, we apply a bit of punishment to our partner.
And so we quickly find ourselves applying those two time honored — but remarkably ineffective — teaching tools: criticism and punishment. Our partner responds with resistance, irritation, stubbornness and perhaps retaliation. And we’re left wondering whether our partner really loves us if they won’t do what we want.
You may be feeling discouraged at this point. After all, if requesting your partner to change is a criticism and is only going to get you into a power struggle, does that mean you simply have to put up with their annoying behavior?
Of course not. There are two things you can do. First, you can phrase your request in such a way as to eliminate most, if not all the criticism. I’ve written about this before here and here. But there’s something else you can do too, something that comes from the world of animal training.
Animal trainers reward behavior they want, and ignore behavior they don’t want. So while teaching a dolphin to balance a ball on its nose, they will wait until the animal simply touches the ball with its nose, and then give it a fish. Then they’ll wait until it pushes the ball, and reward that behavior with a fish. They’ll continue raising the bar, providing rewards only when the animal exhibits behavior that is closer and closer to the final goal of balancing the ball on its nose. Wrong behavior doesn't get punished, just ignored.
My wife used this technique effectively on me. For years, she’s been asking me to take out the recyclables in the morning. I’ve done it without complaint, but also without initiative: I responded only when she asked me, and unless I was on my way out the door and could grab the paper and plastics immediately, I’d often forget, causing her no end of annoyance. Then she switched tactics. She stopped asking entirely. One day I noticed a pile on the table and quietly took it out. My wife responded with thanks and a quick kiss. Responding predictably to the reward, I made sure I repeated my behavior the next day. And the next. I won’t say I remember every day, but my track record now is pretty good. And my wife, like any good animal trainer, gives me the occasional reinforcement, mixing up a smile, verbal praise and a hug to ensure I stay motivated.
You can use this in your own relationships — romantic and otherwise. There are two things to remember. First, reward the behavior you want. You don’t have to wait until your partner does something perfectly in order to reward them. You may want your husband to be sweetness and light to your mother during every moment of her entire month-long stay with you, but you know that pigs will grow wings and fly like eagles before that happens. Thanking or praising him, or showing affection when he does manage to bite his tongue will only increase his ability to deliver the behavior you want.
The second thing to remember is to ignore the behavior you don’t want. That can be tough, but it’s important. Criticism and punishment, even if expressed through a sigh or a frown, is enough to undo your efforts.
And one last suggestion: Be open with your partner about what you’re doing. It works just as well when it’s done aboveboard. I suspect it may be even better for the relationship because it becomes something that you both work on cooperatively.
For more information on how to do this, read Amy Sutherland’s article or her book What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers.