Love the way your significant other takes out the garbage without being asked, but hate the dirty clothes on the floor and unopened stack of mail?
Love their beautiful smile, but hate the way they spray toothpaste on the bathroom mirror, every time they brush? People we care about often have qualities or habits that we don't like, or, even that we really hate, but the realities of living together don't need to sink your love boat. Here's how do deal when the person you love is driving you bananas.
The Problem: TMI in the Realm of Bodily Functions
One night on the couch, Netflix-ing the night away, my friend's partner turned to her and said, "I feel like you fart more than you did in the beginning of our relationship. Can you try harder, um, not to?"
Ouch. Talk about embarrassing. If your partner is picking their nose, clipping their toenails on the couch, and passing gas under the sheets at bedtime, it's time to speak up.
"Baby, I love you and am so attracted to you," is always a good place to start. "Do you think when you have, uh, less attractive business to tend to, you could do it in the bathroom or in private?"
Seal it with a kiss.
The Problem: Selective Listening
It doesn't feel good when you're telling a less-than-thrilling story about how your least favorite co-worker used the last of the half-and-half for her coffee (again) and your partner's tuning you out. But it's even worse when you're trying to tell your spouse something important and they're giving you a third of their attention as they scroll through Instagram or watch TV—even if it is on mute.
Rather than getting irate — "Are you listening to me???"— marital experts on the Today Show suggest selecting a benign code word, like campfire or apple, for when you really need your partner's complete attention. We can't all pay complete attention 100% of the time, so the code word signals when serious stuff is ahead.
The Problem: A Slob Falls In Love with a Neat Freak
There is often an imbalance in couples in terms of cleanliness. Who is washing all these coffee cups? Who is going to mop the bathroom floor?
Remember that your partner may not be trying to send a message of disrespect (my time is more valuable than yours; I'm not cleaning up after myself), but instead might be living in the moment with their craft project or candlelit dinner. If a mess is bothering you, don't be passive aggressive and don't clean it up yourself. Be direct. Ask them to clean it up, and if they can't right away, ask when they plan to.
Are You Seeing a Theme Here?
Communication is key for staying in love for the long haul, despite dirty dishes and annoying personal quirks. You're more likely to have your needs met in a relationship if you can communicate them clearly to your partner. This can be hard to remember, but even the people who love us most can't read our minds.
But Maybe It's Not Them. Maybe It's You
It's also worth giving your perspective a tweak. The standard model in the psychology of relationships is interdependence theory, in which relationships operate on a cost-benefit analysis. If your partner makes you feel mostly good, you'll want to stay in the relationship. In other words, if your partner stops doing the things you loved — bringing you coffee in bed, leaving a love note in your coat pocket — your satisfaction in the relationship will decline.
Psychologist James McNulty sees a problem with this theory however, noting that people's behavior in a relationship tends to be consistent over time. What changes is not their behavior, but our perception of it due to a process called misattribution.
For example: There are all kinds of stresses in life outside of a relationship. A drippy faucet, the flu bug, naughty children, bad rush-hour traffic, an epic line at the pharmacy. If we get home and our spouse has left their towel on the bathroom floor, we're likely to misattribute all our stress and negative feeling to that damp towel and our partner.
But misattribution has a silver lining and can actually be used for good. Enter automatic affective association, a kind of emotional conditioning.
In a study, couples reported increased relationship satisfaction when they were shown a slideshow of positive images — a sunny day, sunflowers, sunsets — interspersed with photographs of their partner. The spouse's damp towel was still on the floor, but their partners perceived them more positively. Same behavior, different perception.
"We can come to appreciate our partner more if we associate pleasant feelings with them," writes David Ludden, PhD at Psychology Today. "Even in the day-to-day tussles of married life, it's a good practice to let go of annoying trifles and focus more on the positive aspects of your relationship. After all, there was once a time when you thought you'd live happily ever after with your spouse, and you didn't sweat the small stuff." like a sodden towel on the bathroom floor.