Fact: your partner will bother you sometimes. Conventional wisdom says to pick your battles and not sweat the small stuff, but in this episode, Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt, the Relationship Doctor, explains how that can actually have a chilling effect on your relationship.
Here is the thing about being romantically involved with another person: inevitably, they are going to do something that really irritates you. They are going to continue to irritate you repeatedly over the course of your relationship until acted upon by an outside force (which is really just you telling them that what they’re doing is bothering you). This is a fundamental truth of being in a romantic relationship.
Relationship irritations are those little things your partner does that get on your nerves. For me, it’s when my husband leaves every single kitchen cabinet open after rummaging through them. Inevitably, the next time I walk into the kitchen, I feel obligated to close them all. For others, it may be their partner leaving their shoes in the middle of the floor when they get home and not moving them out of the way (in my house, my husband and I are both guilty of this, so it is probably only an issue for our cats to traverse).
Address it or ignore it?
When a relationship irritation presents itself, we have two primary options: we can address the issue, or we can try to ignore it. Research has found that 40% of irritations faced by people in a romantic relationship go unaddressed. Common wisdom recommends you should “pick your battles” with your partner, and learn to let the little things go. But is that really the case? To better understand where this wisdom falls short, I am going to introduce you to two couples who are experiencing relationship irritations.
Our first couple, Jodi and Tony, are married and have lived together for 6 years. They recently bought a new coffee maker that can make both single-serve coffee and a pot of coffee, which is very convenient! Every morning this week, Jodi has woken up first, and has gone to make coffee where she takes the old coffee pod out of the single-serve experience, and leaves it next to the coffee maker instead of throwing it out. Now, when Tony goes to take out Jodi’s pod from earlier today, he is forced to throw out both her most recent pod and the pod she left next to the coffee maker, and to clean up the remnants left underneath that pod on the counter. Naturally, this is frustrating for Tony, but it's a stupid little thing that he can just deal with—it takes about a minute to handle and he just does it without thinking too much about it.
Our second couple, John and Taylor, are also married and have been living together for two years. For some reason, recently, whenever the toilet paper runs out in their shared bathroom, Taylor will start the new roll and leave it on top of the finished roll instead of throwing the old one away and putting the new roll on the holder. When John goes into the bathroom, he gets mildly irritated. “Why wouldn’t he just do it right the first time?” he thinks as he replaces the finished roll with the newly-started roll. He thinks back and realizes that this is now the second time that this has happened, and it's frustrating. As he exits the bathroom, he sees Taylor and brings up his new irritation. “Would you mind just putting the new roll on the holder next time?”
Both of our couples are experiencing rather frivolous, or minor problems. Not throwing out the old coffee pod or not properly replacing the toilet papers are rather silly issues. It makes sense that you probably shouldn’t make a huge deal out of it, right? Well, sort of.
The chilling effect
Our friend Tony is going about his life without telling Jodi that what she is doing is bothering him a bit. Every time he has to complete this little extra labor when making coffee, he thinks about the minor hassle of having to clean up after his wife. After some time, he wishes he had just brought it up the first time because now it’s been a month and he doesn’t feel like he can talk about it with her. Now, other irritants he experiences with his partner are more difficult to talk through with a clear head, too. If he were to bring it up with her, he may have a more emotional reaction because he has been stewing about it and all of these irritants are starting to merge into a bigger problem. Bringing it up at this point would be making a huge deal out of it.
John, on the other hand, was quickly able to identify that his partner’s behavior was something that was starting to bother him. Instead of letting it continue, he was able to address the issue and ask Taylor to be more conscious of how his minor behavior was affecting him. If he were a more skilled communicator, he could probably have used humor to address the issue, acknowledging that it was rather small and silly, but really needed to not happen again. In approaching his partner quickly and plainly, he was able to avoid making a huge deal out of it.
One theory that explains why it becomes more difficult to address relationship irritations over time is called the chilling effect. When we choose to not address a relationship concern, we are giving our partner power in the relationship. This power provides our partner with the increased ability to shape the dynamics in the relationship—their behavior affects how you behave and respond to them. Not talking to your partner increases your perception of their power, which increases their power, and decreases the likelihood that you will address future concerns, perpetuating the cycle.
Research has also found that as people continue to experience a particular irritation, they will start to experience intrusive or ruminative thoughts about those irritations, and then will be less likely to bring up these concerns with their partner. Even worse, they will continue to experience those intrusive thoughts about the issue over time, which may lead to more intensely negative feelings about the issue and their partner in the future.
In addition, there is some evidence to suggest that when you avoid talking about irritations in your relationships, your behavior and demeanor around your partner may change. This change in mannerisms will inform your partner that something is bothering you, even if you don't say something. So, without being explicit, your behaviors in response to the irritation may implicitly let your partner know you are irritated by them. For example, when my partner does something that bothers me as I am cooking, I may start stepping a bit more aggressively in the kitchen and sighing loudly. Without telling him outright that what he has done has bothered me, he knows he has bothered me because of my own behavioral response.
When your partner does something annoying one time, it’s probably not worth bringing up right away. When you start to notice a pattern in your partner’s behaviors and feel yourself responding to that pattern emotionally, it may be time to have a brief, unemotional conversation. Express to your partner that what they are doing is really bothering you, and make sure you do so before you start to get really emotionally charged about their behavior. Try and be light-hearted and casual when talking about it with your partner—these are minor issues and are, in fact, not worthy of an outright argument. So, you don’t have to sweat the small stuff, but by ignoring repeated irritants, you can turn the small stuff into a bigger issue.