What drives you crazy about your partner? Dirty dishes left piled in the sink. Several days worth of laundry strewn about the bedroom. The toilet paper roll is never replenished. She talks too much – he doesn’t talk enough. He’s always late – she’s a compulsive neat freak. These are a few of the common complaints that spouses have about their loved ones. It is well known that close intimate relationships can be very tough to sustain over time. There is something about living with someone for a long period of time that turns idiosyncratic quirks into incendiary peeves. Why is this?
I’ve recently finished reading Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us by Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman. This fascinating read dives into a topic that has escaped much direct scientific scrutiny. This fact is amazing because “although everyone can tell you what’s annoying, few, if any, can explain why” (Palca & Lichtman, 2011). One of the topics that these authors explore is this issue of the bothersome habits of intimate partners. It’s exceedingly common – if your partner drives you crazy – you are not alone.
What is very curious is that often the very things that attracted you to your partner, are the things that, in the end, foster contempt. Palca and Lichtman explore the concept of Fatal Attraction coined by sociologist Diane Felmlee of UC – Davis. Felmlee has explored this concept for years and she has seen this tendency in couples all over the world. In the first stage of love (Romantic Love), we are drawn in, in part, by the cute little things, the person’s novel traits, that trigger affection. But, over time, those initially positive attractors often have an annoying flip side.
Why does something that attracted you to your partner get flipped into a detractor? Felmlee believes that this disillusionment occurs due to Social Exchange Theory where “extreme traits have [their] rewards, but they also have costs associated with them, especially when you are in a relationship.”
- If you were drawn to partner because he was nice and agreeable, he may later be seen as passive and prone to letting people walk all over him.
- If you were attracted to your partner because of her assertiveness, confidence, and self-directed demeanor, you may later find her to be stubborn and unreasonable.
- If you were swooned by his strong work ethic and motivation to be successful, you may later be disappointed because you now have an inattentive, inaccessible, workaholic.
- Someone who is a romantic, attentive, and caring suitor may later be viewed as a needy and clingy partner.
- The passionate may become the dramatic or explosive hot-head.
- The calm, cool, and collected becomes the aloof stoic.
- The laid back guy becomes the lazy slob.
- The exciting risk taker becomes the irresponsible adrenaline junkie.
- The gregarious life of the party becomes the clown who takes nothing seriously.
And so it goes. Repetition seems to be a crucial contributor notes Elaine Hatfield, a psychologist from the University of Hawaii. “The same thing keeps happening over and over again in a marriage” she notes. Michael Cunningham, a psychologist from the University of Louisville has come to refer to these annoying attributes as Social Allergens. The analogy with an allergen is played out in the dose effect. He notes that “small things don’t elicit much of a reaction at first” but that with repeated exposure over time, they “can lead to emotional explosions.” Palca and Lichtman note that:
People frequently describe their partners as both “the love of my life” and “one of the most annoying people I know.”
Elaine Hatfield also believes that these social allergens get amplified when there is an imbalance in equity within a relationship. Equity Theory, she notes, suggests that when there is an imbalance of power, commitment, or contribution in a relationship, these quirks take on a disproportionate amount of negative value. However, if there is balance in the relationship (equity), the annoyance value of a partner’s quirks is more easily tolerated. So, if your partner is a good contributor and there is a balance of power, you are less likely to be annoyed. If, on the other hand, your needs are left unmet, or you do the lion’s share of the work around the house, or you feel unappreciated or diminished by your spouse, there is likely to be more annoyance associated with his or her quirks.
It is also important to note that the nature of a relationship changes over time. During the initial passionate Romantic Love stage, the couple tends to be on their best behavior. Once commitment and comfort are attained, one’s truer attributes tend to come to the surface. There tends to be less effort to conceal one’s quirks and thus increased occurrences of these social allergens.
Over time, increased and accelerated exposure take their toll and if there are equity issues, it’s a recipe for disaster. So, what is one to do?
The first step is to think about the issues that get to you with regard to how the value of those attributes may have a positive side. We all have our strengths and our quirks – yes, you too have your annoying tendencies! Michael Cunningham suggests that you should try to be accepting of your partners quirks. These behaviors are a part of who the person is. He notes that “You’ve got to take this if you want all of the other good things.”
Own your feelings and explore them at a deeper level, particularly with regard to the equity issues in your relationship. Arthur Aaron, a psychology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook urges couples to nurture their relationship. “Celebrate when something good happens to your partner” he notes. Attend to and accentuate the positive. He also suggests engaging in novel, challenging and exciting activities fairly often. “Anything you can do that will make your relationship better will tend to make your partner less annoying.” My suggestion is to think of a relationship as a garden that needs attention, maintenance, and nurturance. It’s impossible to rid the garden of all its weeds and pests. But the more attention and nurturance you provide, the more it will flourish. As Stephen Covey is fond of saying: “Love is a verb. Love the feeling is the fruit of love the verb.” So do loving things.