How to Address Annoying Things Your Significant Other Does
Apply these five principles for working together toward shared solutions.
Posted Apr 30, 2019
I recently spoke with Dr. Ross Greene, an expert in child development, on the Think Act Be podcast. As he described his inspiring approach for helping parents solve problems with their kids, it struck me that many of the same principles can be adapted for couples who have recurring arguments about unresolved issues.
If you're in a committed relationship, your partner no doubt does things at times that bother you. For example, maybe your partner is short with you in the morning when you're both in the kitchen; they seem annoyed whenever you talk to them, and you don't enjoy feeling like a nuisance.
Discussions around these issues often follow a predictable script: You say what's bothering you, your partner reacts defensively, and when the argument is over, you both feel angry, hurt, and misunderstood—often with little resolution. And tomorrow the well-worn pattern of morning tension (or whatever the issue is) repeats itself. It's exhausting.
There's reason to hope: The following principles can be helpful in breaking out of these patterns and discovering mutually satisfying solutions to unresolved problems, as adapted from my discussion with Greene.
Assume your partner is doing the best they can.
Do you often find yourself thinking your partner should be better than they are in some way? That they should be more patient, present, organized, agreeable, etc.? Maybe you think if they were just more motivated—if they cared more—they would be better.
In the example above, you might assume that your partner should be friendlier in the morning. After all, you're not being impatient toward them, and they're nice to you most of the time, so why not just be nice to you in the morning, too?
Psychologists have long recognized that we tend to see our own shortcomings through the lens of the situation—I was impatient, because I didn't get enough sleep last night—while we blame others' shortcomings on their character—they're an impatient person.
However, it's possible that your partner is doing as well as they can. Perhaps through a combination of temperament, upbringing, and circumstance, they're not terribly organized, or efficient, or patient.
And while it's important to communicate what you need from your partner, it's just as important to practice embracing them, imperfections and all. What would be the effect on your relationship when they don't measure up to your standards if you were to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they're doing their best?
The lovely thing about assuming your partner is doing as well as they can is that it actually makes it more likely that they can improve. For example, if your partner is often cranky toward you, telling them to "stop being cranky" will probably have limited benefit. But by assuming that being cranky is the best they can do given their current situation, you open the possibility of changing their circumstances such that they're less cranky.
Once you assume they're doing the best they can, you can talk with them about their experience. What's it like in their shoes? Which brings us to the second principle.
Gather information with empathy.
When you're unhappy about something your partner is doing, start by asking them about it. Bring it up at a non-stressful time, and allow them to describe it from their own perspective.
Be as neutral as possible in the way you bring it up—for example, asking your partner why they're "so grumpy in the morning" is just going to start a fight. Consider instead leading with something like, "Can we talk about our morning interactions? I often feel like you're annoyed with me. I'd like to know what those interactions are like from your perspective." It doesn't have to feel like a canned opening, of course. Use whatever wording feels natural to you.
Once you've invited your partner to share their experience, make room to actually hear them. That means censoring responses that dismiss what your partner says. For example, they might say, "I usually feel so rushed in the morning that it's hard for me to think about your questions, and I get frustrated." If you immediately reply, "I feel rushed, too, but you don't see me snapping at you," then you're on your way to an unproductive fight.
Take time to really understand what your partner is saying, and check out what you've heard to make sure you got it right. It's helpful for them to feel listened to, and it's going to help you, too, as it allows for more effective solutions. For example, if your partner feels overloaded in the morning, you can plan to avoid talking with them in the morning as much as possible.
Express your own needs.
Just as you want to have your partner's needs and concerns on the table, it's important to make yours a part of the discussion, too. A solution will work only to the extent that it addresses both of your needs.
In this example you might express why you sometimes need to communicate with your partner in the morning. Take care to express your needs in nonjudgmental terms. For example, rather than saying "I need you to be nicer," you might describe how there are times when you need to ask them things, like when they're coming home that night.
It will probably help to think in advance about what your needs are, rather than doing it on the spot with your partner. In this way you can be clear about what a successful solution will include as you head into the discussion.
Develop solutions together.
Once you each understand where the other person is coming from, work together to come up with solutions that address both of your needs. You might invite them to offer the first solution, or you could take the lead, depending on your partner's preference.
Make sure the proposed solution addresses both of your concerns; a one-sided solution isn't likely to last. For example, saying "I just won't talk to you in the morning" wouldn't solve your need at times to ask your partner a scheduling question, whereas suggesting your partner "work on being more patient" wouldn't address their needs. Instead you might propose something like, "I'll minimize my questions to you in the morning, and will ask if it's a good time to pose a question before I do."
You'll know you're on the right track when both of you feel satisfied that the solution considers your concerns. This approach tends to help couples feel more connected, rather than feeling irritated and hurt.
Finally, note that relationships are messy, and your discussions are sure to include some challenges. As I suggest above, you can be real and raw with your partner; you don't have to aim for some scripted interaction from a how-to book that makes you both feel like you're wearing a communication straitjacket.
On a related note, the initial solution(s) you come up with may not work all that well. If that's the case, it doesn't mean your attempts were in vain. Finding out what doesn't work so well is an important part of collaborating with your partner. If at first you don't succeed, come back to the problem using the same principles.
Make time to solve problems.
It's hard to solve problems effectively when we're over-scheduled and constantly rushed. Taking the time to work on a problem together might feel like an unnecessary and impractical drain on your time. Why can't you just tell your partner to "stop being so cranky" and move on?
You can always opt for those kinds of quick unilateral solutions, but you'll probably find in the long run that they're neither quick nor solutions. Instead, you'll find yourself circling back to the same unresolved issues over and over again, ultimately taking more time than if you'd worked on them deliberately and collaboratively. In the process, you'll also miss out on the opportunity to strengthen your relationship.
Plan to have your problem-solving discussion when you'll both have time to do it properly, without the nagging feeling that this is taking too long. The time you spend doing it is a true investment in each other. With practice, you can tip the balance toward more productive discussions as you tend your relationship together.
The full discussion with Dr. Greene is available here.
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Greene, R. W. (2016). Raising human beings: Creating a collaborative partnership with your child. New York: Simon and Schuster.