Why Do our Partners Drive us Crazy?

The dirty dishes, toilet seats, bath towels, the messes.  The list is seemingly endless.  All those little annoying habits of our partner nibbling away at our mood; eventually, amplifying the discourse into enormous arguments; as we just can’t seem to take it anymore.  Why do our partner’s drive us crazy? 

Why do we care so much about their little habits? Does it really matter that the kitchen is muddled, if not a mess?  Why care about a toilet seat and whether it’s up or down?  Why sweat the small stuff?  Most of us, at one point or another, have probably sensed that there might be more to these situations than meets the eye; that there might be more at play than what’s on the surface.     

Control to Protect Ourselves

In exploring our inner world, we might discover that our frustrations and irritations result from a loss of control.  As part of this human life, we have all suffered; it’s part of what connects and binds us.  We have all experienced some form of loss; whether it be a loved one, a job, a relationship, childhood innocence, etc.  In response to our painful experiences, we understandably attempt to control our environment in order to protect ourselves by limiting emotional risk.  We do this in numerous ways; big and small, not all of them conscious. 

Controlling the Big Stuff

For example, we might protect ourselves from risking relationship loss by avoiding any genuine serious relationship possibilities; falling in love with those who are conveniently unavailable, whether they are married, geographically undesirable, or emotionally unready.  While this pattern of behavior is certainly accompanied by pain and loss, it only masks the attempts to control; protecting ourselves from the potential loss, pain, and abandonment that is risked through real connective possibilities.  Loving the unavailable is an attempt to control or dictate the terms of loss; offering protection from the potential pain of relationships with the available. 

Control in Our Daily Lives

On a smaller scale, we often try to control the details of our daily lives; making mental plans; an internal list of things to accomplish.  However, when unexpected events interfere with those plans, we often feel irritated.  For example, it could be a protracted phone call that eats unexpectedly into the day or an unanticipated errand that prevents us from accomplishing our goals.  However, what is a plan, if not an attempt to control the upcoming day to some degree?  Within this context, we may return home to find that mess in the kitchen or a toilet seat left up, adding to our frustrations and loss of control.  Have you ever wondered why we sometimes feel suddenly compelled to clean and why it feels so satisfying?

I don’t intend to make a qualitative judgment about our desire to control.  It’s an understandable human defense against pain.  Less control implies a greater degree of uncertainty.  The more uncertainty that envelops our lives, the more vulnerable and exposed we can feel.   While vulnerability can be a powerful gateway to connectivity, it can also feel very uncomfortable, if not frightening.  Therefore, it’s understandable that we might feel slightly irritated or annoyed at even the smallest threat to our perceived control.    

Re-framing Control

However, if we can recognize the unromantic influence that control has on our daily moods and feelings, it’s easier to loosen our grip upon the daily goals and the irritations associated with the mess in the kitchen or the open toilet bowl; all the small stuff.  In taking a step back, we can recognize that most of our goals for the day can wait until tomorrow; there usually isn’t a deadline or a pressing need to accomplished most of them; that a mess is just a mess, a toilet seat merely a toilet seat; that none of the little things matter unless we grant them the power to matter.  

Owning Our Emotions

In owning our emotions and becoming more aware of how control impacts our choices and feelings, we may see a transformation in our relationships based on how we deal with the small stuff.   Instead of blaming our partners, we may recognize our own culpability in our irritations and annoyances.  Instead of externalizing responsibility, we might internalize our exploration and realize that, in the end, it was really about us; not them. 

This is not to suggest that we should blame ourselves. After all, it’s important to recognize the humanity behind our irritations; an understandable reaction to a vulnerability equal to the accompanying loss of control. 

The Boiling Point

However, if it was obvious, we would all readily notice.  It usually begins with a tiny detail; a dirty shoe, misplaced scissors, or a dish in the sink.  We ignore it, but there is a tiny tremor of annoyance on the outskirts of our consciousness.  We either don’t notice or just mindlessly ignore it.  However, those little things can add up throughout a day, week, month, or a year and beyond to create an amplified reaction that may seem disproportionate to a particular infraction.  The little things become enormous.  A heated argument begins. 

Relationship Experts

On a certain level, we are doing what almost every relationship expert suggests; we are being completely honest, expressing emotions that are irrefutably real.  Some would understandably and rightly suggest that it would be better to wait for a less volatile moment to articulate this honesty; to wait until we are calm before expressing that certain habits bother us.  Yet, many of us who wait for our feelings to subside choose not to say anything at all; preferring to bask in calmer relationship waters than risk a tiny ripple by talking about toilet seats and kitchen messes. 

Blaming our Partner

However, let us place the avoidance possibility aside and attempt to foresee how honest communication works in the long term.  When we decide that the source of our irritation stems from a partner’s particular habit and decide to discuss the issue, there is a reasonable chance they will feel threatened or attacked; no matter how gently the subject is broached.  After all, we are saying that we feel a certain way because of their actions; they did “X, so now we feel “Y.”  It is reasonable to suspect that they might respond defensively, if not attack back.  The discussion can potentially deteriorate into a list of tiny grievances. 

However, it is certainly possible for the conversation to be deceptively productive.  Our partner listens and states that they will try to change their particular habit.  However, as is the nature of habits, they can be hard to break.  Therefore, we may notice that our partner is still enacting the same irritating behavior.  In addition, perhaps we begin to notice other small habits that irritate us as well.  As a result, the small stuff becomes big.  Eventually, the little things can be transformed into perceived proof of our partner’s waning affection if they struggle to accommodate. 

The Little Things Become Big

Interestingly, the smallness of the inaction can sometimes contribute to our annoyance and irritation, as we convince ourselves of our partner’s diminishing affection; evidenced by their inability to satisfy the seemingly small request. 

For example, if they can’t even put the toilet seat down, knowing how much it bothers us, do they really care about us?  When combined with other little things, the sense of disaffection can strengthen.  Perhaps, we eventually decide, consciously or not, to withhold our own ways of showing love; making meals or sharing experiences that we know they enjoy.  As a result, we separate; spend more time apart than truly together.  

Of course, the inability to break a small habit doesn’t reflect their dying affection; it merely reveals that they are as mindlessly habitual as the rest of us.   In other words, if they are like most of us, they are not present when using the restroom; leaving the seat up is an unconscious act, not intended to cause us irritation, and certainly not a way of saying that they don’t love us anymore.    

Our Partner’s Reaction to Blame

However, none of this accounts for the extreme likelihood that our partners have probably gone to great lengths to accommodate our request without us fully realizing it.  In other words, we most likely don’t give equal weight to the numerous times they have remembered versus the few instances they have forgotten; our tendency is to notice the times they forget.   For example, we’re less likely to notice the toilet seat down because, in our own mindlessness, that’s the way the world should look.  When the world isn’t as it should, our consciousness engages with whatever is misaligned or out of sorts. 

When we notice the latest infraction, perhaps we mention this to our partner as a gentle and kind reminder.  However, let us consider how they might feel if they are mostly recognized for the few times they forget, instead of all the times they remember.  What is the net effect from repeating this cycle time and time again, habit after habit, year after year?   

Moving the Goal Posts

However, sometimes our partners make the requested change.  For example, we now live in a house where toilet seats are always down.  Yay!  Everything is great!  However, instead of feeling satisfied and thankful, amazingly our irritation often shifts to a different habit or tendency.  Maybe they don’t put tools back in their “appropriate” spot, place dishes in the “wrong” section of the dishwasher, or separate white and dark laundry “incorrectly;” it could be anything.  While their behavior actually changes, ours doesn’t; the one constant is our discontent. 

As the cycle repeats, our partner may begin to think there is nothing they can do to please us; that no matter what they do, it will never be enough.  Perhaps, over time, they begin to give up; not trying to accommodate our next irritation, thinking that it doesn’t matter.  In addition, the collateral damage could possibly include our partner’s emotional wellness; as they might feel unappreciated and unaccepted.   

Is Honesty and Communication the Key?

It is generally accepted that the most effective way to deal with an issue is through direct and honest communication.  After all, person “X” did something which creates an emotional reaction; consequently, what could be healthier than being open and honest with them?  If we don’t like when our spouse leaves the toilet seat up, the best response, supposedly, is to be honest with them; to communicate our feelings with the expectation that they will eventually change their behavior.  

I’m not suggesting this is wrong, that dishonesty is the solution, or that we should ignore our emotions.  However, I will offer that perhaps honesty is more complicated.  Whenever relationship experts suggest that honesty and communication are important, perhaps we assume that honesty equals the truth; something concrete that we always have access too.  

Honesty Doesn’t Equal Truth

However, what if honesty and truth aren’t necessarily synonymous? What if those initial feelings, while honest, don’t reveal the whole story?  What if there are layers that remain hidden from our consciousness?   While it often can feel disconcerting, the subconscious often plays a hidden role in our lives.  It’s the arrogance of the ego to dismiss our shadows and believe that honesty and truth are the same.  Perhaps we can open ourselves to the possibility that our feelings, while honest, may not represent objective truth. 

Honesty and Relationships

We receive the message consistently that a healthy and successful relationship consists of open and honest communication.  When our partner’s actions lead to our emotional response, we may believe we are acting in our relationship’s best interest by openly and honestly communicating that response.  However, perhaps we make two, often overlooked, mistakes.   First, we often conflate honesty with truth and communication with honesty.  Second, we externalize or outsource the responsibility of our emotions; blaming our partner for how we feel. 

While honesty in relationships is coveted by most, perhaps we can see how honesty doesn’t necessarily reflect the truth.  People are fond of saying that they speak their truth.  While certainly a powerful message of empowerment, it doesn’t recognize the evolving perception of our inner world.  The truth and honest expression of the inner world is always limited to our consciousness.  As layers of the subconscious are revealed, the truth changes, as well as our version of honesty.  This suggests that the truth and honesty are moving targets, influenced by all the self-discoveries along the way. While we assume that requests for honesty should be easy to fulfill, the reality is much different. Not only may we be confused about our own reality, but that reality, along with honesty, may evolve over time as we discover more about our inner world. 

Explore the Inner World

If we don’t explore our inner world, our reactions to the outer will be little changed; the small stuff will still irritate us and we will still hold our partner’s solely responsible for our feelings.  In speaking honestly; yes, we are speaking the truth as we see it in the current moment.  However, there is usually a small part of us that recognizes that there must be something more; a part of us that acknowledges are tendencies and the repeating patterns; that the amplified feelings about the kitchen mess speak to something more.  If we have that feeling, let us pause a moment and interfere with the impulse to externalize the issue and blame our partner.  Let us look inward.  As we make new discoveries, a new honesty and truth will emerge.     

If we can dig deeper into our inner world, we may find and acknowledge the role we play in our own emotional reactions; that it’s not just about our partner’s actions.  We might discover the hidden parts of ourselves that lie at the heart of our reactions; and in doing so, take the important step of recognizing that the emotions come from us.  Instead of strictly externalizing responsibility for our feelings, we can begin to own our emotions; understand that there is more to the story than another’s actions.

Transforming Our Relationships

This sort of acknowledgment can profoundly alter the way we interact with our partners.  Instead of expressing that it’s their actions that are causing us to feel a certain way, we can choose a gentler path that is more synchronous with the truth, while also enlisting our partner’s help in addressing our own internal struggles.

A New Way to Handle the Small Stuff

For example, we might start by apologizing to our partner for taking out our frustrations and irritations on them.  We can express our understanding that the toilet seat isn’t inherently a big deal, but that somehow it is for us.  We can state that we aren’t sure why exactly, but that we suspect that it stems from our own struggles, perhaps with control; that all the little things that bother us might be an attempt to create a feeling of security that stems from order.  We can state our willingness to become more mindful of ourselves and our fallibilities; that we will attempt to not hold them responsible for our emotions. 

We might be surprised at what happens.  As an ancillary benefit to owning our emotions, we might find that our partner starts to place the toilet seat down or clean up their kitchen mess.  Our partner, who loves us, responds to our openness and willingness to accept responsibility for our part.  Since they love us, it should not be surprising that they would want to help us with our struggles.  Instead of changing a habit from a place of fear, blame, and resentment, their habit transforms from a place of love.

What could be better than that?

Does your partner have small habits that annoy you? Instead of holding them solely responsible, are there ways you can reframe the situation to recognize your ownership? Please share in the comments below.