Just remember: It’s annoying because you care. / Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images
It’s a universal truth: The people you love the most can drive you absolutely crazy. Your partner — that roommate, best friend and family member all rolled into one — is certainly no exception.
“Your significant other’s most annoying habits probably drive you crazy because you care about him or her so much,” says Jeremy Nicholson, a Boston psychologist. “Once you realize that, helping them change becomes a cooperative process instead of an antagonistic one.”
Here are his tips for lovingly changing course when your partner is driving you nuts.
1. The grievance: You want your partner to be healthier, but he won't get off the couch.
Nagging just won’t work — your mate will feel insulted and defensive, and not eager to, say, go for a jog.
Instead, help him see himself as a fit, healthy person with a trick psychologists call “attribution.” When he pulls carrots out of the fridge or shovels snow in the morning, say: “It’s so great that you care about staying active and healthy. I love that about you.” Says Nicholson, “People want the boost to their self-image that comes with a compliment, so they’ll make an effort to live up to it.”
2. The grievance: Your spouse is extremely unhelpful when it comes to cleaning or tidying up.
Notice when your partner does pitch in — even in small ways — and praise her for it. “That results in increased compliance,” Nicholson says. “The problem is, most people just do the opposite.” We tend to hoot and holler about a dirty glass left in the living room, instead of expressing gratitude for all the times the cup made it into the dishwasher. “Punishment doesn’t motivate better behavior,” Nicholson says, “but positive reinforcement changes a person’s feelings about tidying up.”
3. The grievance:When my partner has had a bad day, she takes it out on me.
Plenty of people are moody when they see their loved ones after a long, hard day. “It’s a failure of self-control,” Nicholson explains. “When you experience stressors, you only have a finite amount of composure, so by the evening you’ll have trouble controlling yourself.”
A solution: Build in a “reset” period after work: Turn on NPR so nobody feels obligated to talk, and sip a glass of wine or put your feet up while you both feel residual tension melt away.
Also, when your partner seems determined to pick a fight, watch your body language, Nicholson says. Crowding her or crossing your arms can make you seem like a threat. Calmly say: “Look, I know you’re upset about outside things. If you want to talk about it, I’m here for you,” Nicholson says. He adds, “If you don’t look threatening, she’ll chill out.”