What to Do If Your Partner Is Chronically Irritated
Resources for gathering insight and practicing boundaries with compassion.
Posted Sep 08, 2018
Two years ago, I wrote a series of popular blog posts on what to do when you feel annoyed by your partner. They include (1) an overview of what to do; (2) strategies you can use in the moment; (3) proactive strategies you can use to ward off feeling annoyed.
Recently, a reader asked the opposite question: What do you do when your partner feels annoyed by you? She wrote:
My husband and I have been together for three and a half years, married about two years. Lately, I've gotten the impression from him that he's just super annoyed [with] me, and I really don't know what I'm doing wrong. It makes me really scared. I don't really bother him much while he's at work, usually a “hi” text, or to ask him what he wants from the store, or tell him something funny our daughter did. Is it normal for men to sometimes just get in moods? Or am I doing something wrong? I swear I'm not trying to piss him off or annoy him. Please help me with some recommendations for a great book or a podcast about it.—Amy
Your situation sounds painful, and it can be very confusing and disheartening to bear the brunt of a partner’s irritation. Before we get to recommended resources, it can help to consider what’s going on with you, with him, and with your relationship.
First, the fact that you feel scared means that your partner’s irritation is creating a toxic situation. Whether you’re scared for your marriage or scared for your safety is unclear, but either way, you need to find additional support. Do you have a friend or relative you can confide in, whose wisdom you trust? Do you have access to a therapist or marriage counselor? Can you make an appointment with your doctor and/or clergy and ask for advice?
Second, consider this: For men in particular, chronic irritation and feeling annoyed are often symptoms of depression. Depression can be caused by a number of factors, including:
- Alcohol/drug use
- Poor nutrition
- Sleep deprivation (such as staying up too late, getting up too early, insomnia, sleep apnea)
- Lack of exercise
- Too much screen time
- Social isolation
- Burnout at work
- Overwork and lack of leisure time
- Not spending enough time out in nature
- Poor health (such as diabetes, obesity, chronic pain)
- Financial stresses
- Traumatic experiences that continue to haunt him
- Feeling guilt, inadequacy, and/or regret about misdeeds, decisions, or himself as a person
Does your husband have any of these risk factors? In other words, his being annoyed and irritated may very well reflect what's going on with him, not you. Unfortunately, many spouses dump their stress and unhappiness onto each other, which is why you feel like you’re bearing the brunt of his discontent.
Third, whatever the source of his unhappiness, you can be a compassionate supporter, while setting boundaries. This means you assume that he’s doing the best he can in the moment, while still standing up for yourself and holding firm to what’s okay and not okay with you.
Keep in mind that being a compassionate boundary-setter is easier said than done! But dumping on a partner, though normal, is not okay either, and it doesn't have to be that way. With practice and perhaps professional support, you can start letting your husband know that you will not tolerate his dumping on you. When you set firm boundaries, your husband can feel whatever he feels, but there are certain behaviors, actions, words, and ways of interacting that are not allowed.
Fourth, it's time to learn some new relationship skills. You and your husband are not alone in needing to learn better ways to handle conflict. The vast majority of couples struggle with this, and a marriage counselor or therapist can help enormously.
One skill to start with is taking "timeouts." Let him know that from here on out, when he’s triggered and acting out, you’ll be taking a timeout and removing yourself from his presence until he calms down. (After all, when any of us is triggered, nothing constructive comes out of our mouths!) Removing yourself will reduce the damage he is doing to you, himself, and your marriage.
If he wants to cooperate in this technique, he can practice noticing when he’s triggered (by tuning into his body and noticing tension, tightness, heat, agitation, etc.) and letting you know that he needs a timeout. If you’re on your own with this, then practice recognizing when he’s triggered, and take your leave gently, firmly, and quickly.
Finally, recognize that his irritation and his problems are not yours to fix. They are his. You can be caring, encouraging, and supportive, but it's his path, and you just have to let him find his way. Trying to direct him is useless, because all those bumps, twists, and turns he encounters are important parts of the journey as they hold tailor-made lessons for him. In the meantime, you can focus on your own path, which can intertwine with his, but it certainly has its own set of bumps, twists, and turns for you! Indeed, like many of us, your biggest lesson may be how to stand up for yourself and fix your own life (rather than trying to fix others' lives). This is a key adulting skill.
Resources That Offer Support, Information, and Skills
Is your husband aware of the effect of his irritation on you? Is he interested in improving your relationship? If so, send him the links to the blog posts on dealing with feelings of annoyance listed at the beginning of this article.
Is your husband struggling with depression or any of the listed risk factors? Here are two easy, well-written books that offer insights on taking care of our brains and promoting emotional well-being. (In fact, both of you can benefit from this information.)
Unf*ck Your Brain: Getting Over Anxiety, Depression, Freakouts, and Triggers with Science by Faith Harper. Here is the author’s website.
meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier by Jan Bruce & Andrew Shatte.
Finally, these wide-ranging resources below contain information on promoting emotional well-being, relationship skills, and quality of life. See what resonates, and dive in.
Blog post: On PsychCentral, 10 Ways to Build and Preserve Better Boundaries by Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
Video: Brene Brown has a powerful video on setting boundaries, which explains how it's the opposite of being selfish. Setting boundaries, along with assuming everyone is doing the best they can, is what enables you to be more loving and compassionate.
Book & website: The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. She identifies exactly what verbal abuse is, how subtle it can be, and most importantly, how to recognize it and counteract it. Explore her websites here and here.
Book: How One of You Can Bring the Two of You Together: Breakthrough Strategies to Resolve Your Conflicts and Reignite Your Love by Susan Page. This book explains how to take your marriage by the reins and create what you want by claiming your power and focusing on what YOU are going to do about it. No need for discussion—just do it! Explore her website here.
Book & website: The Relationship Ride: A Usable, Unusual Transformative Guide by Julia Colwell. This brilliant, skill-focused therapist explains how relationships offer us many challenges that can sink us. But if we can see challenges as opportunities for personal growth and learn the necessary skills that navigating requires, we can find smooth sailing with our beloved. Explore her website here.
Book & website: Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself by Melody Beattie. This is a classic bestseller, on how focusing on your own well-being improves all your relationships. Explore the author’s website here.
Book & website: Making Life Easy: A Simple Guide to a Divinely Inspired Life by Christiane Northrup, M.D., the bestselling author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. In this book, she takes a holistic view of life and health, and writes about finding purpose, cultivating well-being, and going with the flow. Explore her website here.
For sure, this is a challenging time for you, but there are lots of resources (people, books, websites, and videos) out there to help you. With their support and your own resilience, you can grow and thrive. I wish you well. Readers: Please comment to share resources or ideas that have helped you.