Annoyances in Marriage, Pt. 3 (and a free book!)

Managing Marital Irritations.cover

Glynn Wolfe might win the prize for history’s most irritable husband. According to his daughter in law, Vikki Wolfe, Glynn left his wife because she ate sunflower seeds in bed. But wait, there’s more. Wolfe divorced another wife for using his toothbrush. But wait, there’s still more. Wolfe is famous for being a wife collector. All counted, he married and divorced a total of 29 wives. Click here for his bizarre story. I’m not sure who needed counseling more, him or his 29 wives!

If you’ve asked your partner to quit eating sunflower seeds in bed or using your toothbrush and they refuse you can do like Wolfe did and file for divorce.

Or, you can become more tolerant of your partner’s irritating mannerisms. If you can’t change your partner, change yourself. Here are some tips.

1. List the things your partner does that irritate you.

2. Ask them to list the things you do that irritate them.

3. Compare lists and negotiate. “I’ll put down the toilet seat if you stay within our budget.”

4. Don’t give your partner negative labels. If you’re convinced your partner is a “self absorbed, cheating, immature, lying, slob” you’ll look for evidence to back up the label…and of course you’ll find it.

5. Re-examine the stories you tell yourself about your partner’s bad habits. Our interpretations play a bigger role in our frustrations than our partner’s behaviors. “As a man or woman thinks, so are they.” Here are some common stories that deserve challenging.

  • “My partner irritates me on purpose.” This might not be true. They could be mindless, automatic behaviors. Don’t you ever do things without thinking? Give grace and the benefit of the doubt.
  • “I take this personally!” If we treat their actions as a sign they don’t care about us, isn’t prioritizing us, or doesn’t love us, we’ve turned a benign action (like how to load a dishwasher) into a moral issue.
  • “If you really loved me you’d stop driving me crazy with all your irritating habits.” To which your partner could answer, “If you really loved me you’d let me do what I do without nagging.”
  • “They should know what I like. I don’t need to tell them.” Maybe it never occurred to your partner that it bothers you. They aren’t mind readers.
  • “My partner is one big irritation.” Is that their only redeeming trait? Won’t you miss that irritating habit once they’re gone? If the marriage is that dysfunctional there are bigger problems than crumbs on the counter or leaving wet towels on the floor.
  • “They don’t respect me.” Maybe they do respect you but just don’t have the same passion for when dishes get washed, bills get paid, or floors get vacuumed. They could just as easily say you don’t respect their way of doing things.
  • “If they don’t load the dishwasher right I’ll leave!” That’s why divorce attorneys call marriage a three ring circus–engagement ring, wedding ring, and suffering.
  • “Reasoning hasn’t worked. Time to explode!” Two wrongs don’t make a right.
  • “I’ll fight fire with fire! If they don’t take out the trash, I won’t talk!” Welcome to the walled off marriage. Hard to be close to someone you punish with silence.
  • “Any request my partner makes is an attempt to control me.” Really? Where did you learn that? From a demanding parent, grandparent, or ex?
  • “Differences are not allowed in this relationship!” Um, oneness does not mean sameness.

Click here Managing Marital Irritations.1 for a free book, Managing Marital Irritations. (This book contains Bible references).


Challenging Negative Thoughts When Things Go Bad

blackboardHere’s a handy truth to keep in mind the next time things don’t end well. The end of an experience does not define the beginning and middle of an experience.
If on day fourteen of a two week vacation we lose our luggage, it rains cats and dogs, and we run into grouchy people it doesn’t mean the whole vacation was crummy. And yet we’re prone to think the whole vacation was a disaster even if the first thirteen days were great. 
If we enjoy 40 minutes of musical bliss listening to a vinyl record but the last minute has a scratch on it, we tend to think, “The whole record was ruinied!” conveniently overlooking the first 39 minutes of pure enjoyment.
If a pregnancy goes well but the delivery is hard mommies tend to treat the whole pregnancy as an ordeal (so I hear).
If the last years of a long and fruitful life end in a depressing nursing home it doesn’t mean that person’s whole life was depressing. Yet we are prone to equate how a life ends with how it was lived in the beginning and middle.
If a 400 page novel engages, inspires, entertains, and delights but has a crummy ending we tend to forget the 399 pages of enjoyment.
If a long term marriage ends in a painful divorce people tend to think their whole marriage was bad, forgetting the fun times in the beginning and middle.
Our tendency to let a bad ending color the beginning and middle of a good experience seems unavoidable, doesn’t it? 
But try it out. See if you can catch yourself letting a bad end define the whole thing. 
  • Don’t let a bad dessert erase the memory of a great dinner.
  • Don’t let your teenager’s surliness erase the good memories of that first step, first word, first day of school.
  • Don’t let a repair bill when something breaks erase all the years that stove, car, tent, bike, computer, or lawnmower worked great.
It will be hard at first but by learning to resist letting an unpleasant end of an experience define the whole experience we’ll have happier memories, less discouragement, and greater control over a mind that’s prone to negativity. 

How’d Shakespeare Get So Smart?

ShakespeareI once quoted Shakespeare in a sermon and my wife laughed, “You never read Shakespeare in your life!” and she was right. I lack the bard-appreciation gene.But I’m not above lifting his quotes when they serve my purposes. Take this one for example:

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak 

knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.” 

A quick Google search tells me this quote is from a little ditty Shakespeare wrote called Macbeth. Here’s my paraphrase of what it means.

“Give sorrow words…” If you’re heart is aching, talk about it. We all need a safe place to vent. This is what counselors, therapists, and friends are for. If talking isn’t your thing, write about it. Journaling is therapy. Get the pent up angst out of your head and onto paper.

“the grief that does not speak…”  Grief in our hearts is like a jabbering personality trying to process his/her emotions. We invite disaster if we silence that voice.

“knits up the o-er wrought heart…” Bottling up heartache is like putting a cork in a pressure cooker. If we bottle up heart ache it’ll ‘knit up’ which I think means stressed, tense, tight, and all knotted up.

“…and bids it break.” If we stuff those emotions long enough we’ll soon crack.

Good job, Mr. Shakespeare. Now if only you’d quit writing in King James English I might actually read Macbeth. 

Thesaurus Therapy: Confuse These Words At Your Own Risk

Collegiate_ThesaurusHere’s a list of important words with very different meanings. We fail to grasp these distinctions to our peril. 

Cause vs. Contribution. A partner or family member may contribute to our irritation, anger, frustration, or unhappiness, but they do not cause it. There’s a fine line between what others do and how it affects us.  It’s what goes on inside our minds, not what goes on “out there,” that determines how annoying or troublesome another’s behavior feels. This is good news because we can control our inner world more easily than controlling others. Application: replace the comment, “You make me so mad,” with, “The story I tell myself about what you did makes me so mad.”

Criticism vs. Complaint. As a family conflict mediator I encourage complaining. It’s a healthy way to make our wishes known, initiate helpful dialog, and foster positive change. But there’s a world of difference between saying, “I feel bugged when you leave your dirty socks on the floor,” and “You are a slob and a sorry excuse for a human being.” One is a complaint, the other is a criticism. Application: resist the temptation to attack your partner; attack the problem instead.

Reacting vs. Responding. If you throw a rock into a pond you’ll see waves. That’s a response. If you throw a rock into a pond and see see a tsunami, that’s a reaction. Too often we react like a tsunami when a family member bugs us. Those reactions are impulsive, thoughtless, and explosive.  A response involves taking a deep breath, becoming curious about what the other person is thinking, and giving a soft reply. Application: be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.

Oneness vs. Sameness. When “two become one” it doesn’t mean “two become the same.” Expecting our partners to think, act, talk, eat, and relax just like us is to overlook the fact that we are one (shared bed, kids, budget, goals) but not the same (emotionally enmeshed, codependent, and blurred boundaries). Marriage is not the melting of a blue and yellow crayon into a green blob. We are still blue and yellow. Application:  give your partner and yourself permission to be different.  See The Green Marriage

Assertiveness vs. Confrontation. The conflict avoidant person will cower at both of these words. But if the thought of being a perpetually passive, compliant, floor mat doesn’t appeal to us we should embrace assertiveness (the ability to say what we want and not want, ask questions, make our needs known) and eliminate confrontations (pulling the pin on a hand grenade and throwing it at our partner). Application: speak the truth in love. 


What To Do When Others Disappoint Us

Inside the brain of a frustration stuffer

Inside the brain of a frustration stuffer

When others break their promises, fail to meet expectations, or behave badly we can stuff our frustration (and eventually blow up), rant and rave (and make things worse), or we can voice our complaints in a way that holds others accountable while saving the relationship. It’s a way to disagree agreeably, turn debate into dialogue, and get the results we want.

1.  How we justify NOT confronting

  • We deny the risks of staying silent.
  • We exaggerate the risks of confronting.
  • We’ve convinced ourselves we’re conflict avoidant.
  • We ignore the benefits of resolving the problem.
  • We think nobody else is complaining so why rock the boat?
  • We’re afraid of hurting other’s feelings.
  • We were taught, “Don’t question authority.”
  • We expect others to read our minds.
  • We’re guilty of doing the same thing and we are hypocritical.
  • We don’t know how to complain effectively.
  • We figure “What’s the use?”
  • We hope to ignore it and the problem will go away.

2.  If we don’t confront others when they…

  • Break promises they’ll continue to break promises.
  • Violate expectations they’ll continue to violate expectations.
  • Behave badly they’ll continue to behave badly.
  • Lie, steal, cheat they’ll continue to behave badly.
  • Abuse drugs, others, or us they’ll continue to abuse.
  • Act irresponsible they’ll continue to act irresponsibly.
  • Act immorally or illegally they’ll think we approve of their actions.
  • Do wrong we’ll be tempted to belly-ache to others which doesn’t help at all.
  • Deserve to be confronted they’ll get away with things.
  • Offend others they’ll continue to blindly offend others.

3.  Confronting is risky when the…

  • …offense is petty. Would others think this problem is worth complaining about?
  • …complaint addresses the wrong problem.
  • …complaint addresses too many complaints at once.
  • …offended person loves to control, micromanage, or stir up drama.
  • …complaints are frequent, loud, and unending.

4.  Effective confronting starts with curiosity: why did they do that?

5.  Effective confronting creates safety

6.  Establish your credibility

  • Others often disappoint us because we’ve disappointed them.
  • Ransack your memory—are there unresolved old hurts between you and the other person?
  • Is an apology necessary?

7.  Start by sharing your good intentions

  • I want you to be successful…
  • I want to protect you from other’s wrong assumptions.
  • I am concerned about something and I need your help.
  • I want you to continue to live/work here, however, I’ve got a problem.
  • What do we need to do to help you succeed?
  • I don’t want to add to the problem by looking for blame. I just want to solve the problem.
  • I know what I care about. I want to learn what you care about.

 8.  Launch the conversation

  • Describe the ‘gap’ between what was expected and what you observed. “This is what I saw ___.”
  • Offer a tentative interpretation of why you think the other person did what they did (“These are the ideas going on inside my head ____.”
  • Ask if those ideas are correct. If your conclusions are wrong, let them explain their point of view. Seek to understand before you are understood.
  • Don’t say, “You said ___.” But rather, “I thought we agreed that ___.”
  • Does the other person agree there’s a gap? “Did we miss something? I thought we agreed that ___.”
  • What was the underlying cause—lack of ability or lack of motivation? “Are you choosing not to do what I ask or are you unable to do what I ask?”
  • End with a question, “So, I was wondering what happened?” “What would it take to fix this?” “Where should we go from here?

9.  Stay calm. If we lose our cool THAT’S what others will focus on, not their responsibilities. Be direct and respectful.

10.  Ways we justify using force to make others change

  • Other’s non compliance makes us feel powerless, so we ramp up the threats, the volume, and the criticism which in turn triggers their resistance.
  • Exerting power/threats gives us quick results (or so we think) but it turns us into policemen.
  • We think there are only two options: force them to comply (I win, they lose), or let them off the hook (I lose, they win).
  • Others used power on us and so we use it on others.
  • Hurt people hurt people. If we have been hurt, we should do our best to focus on solutions, not revenge, punishing, angry demands, martyrdom, guilting, or manipulating. These tactics don’t last.
  • Winning coaches/drill sergeants abuse their players/recruits. We think, “Some people simply deserve my tantrums, threats, and attacks.”
  • If necessary we can always use power later (law suits, firing, leaving the relationship, discipline). But let’s start with effective complaints first.

11.  Help them be motivated to take appropriate action

  • Do not try to motivate by using force.
  • Do no assume the other knows what you want. Spell out your expectations and boundaries clearly, calmly, and professionally.
  • Help them see the natural consequences of their continued disappointing behavior, “Here are the negative things that will happen if you continue to ___.”
  • Help them see the see the natural consequences of good behavior, “Here are the good things that’ll happen if you start doing ____.”
  • Brainstorm possible solutions that help you and the other person meet your and their personal goals.
  • Agree on who will do what and by when, and set a date for follow up. Check back with (not check up on) later.

12.  Some possible consequences to mention if they continue to resist you

  • Does this behavior accurately represent who you are and what you want for yourself?
  • How might others (family, coworkers, peers) view your behavior?
  • How might your behavior negatively impact others (family, coworkers, peers)?
  • How might you benefit by changing your behavior?
  • Compare short term benefits with long term costs of not changing negative behaviors.
  • Compare short term benefits with long term benefits of making positive changes.

For more information see Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzer, Crucial Conversations (McGraw Hill, 2002) and Crucial Confrontations (McGraw Hill, 2005).

Anxiety vs. Boredom

Anxiety occurs when we believe life’s challenges exceed our skill level. Moving from the contentment zone to the anxiety zone happens when we feel insufficiently prepared to meet complex, difficult, or challenging demands. We feel overwhelmed with stress when we tackle new tasks: learning to ride a bike or drive a car, go on dates, start a new job, get married, cope with irritating people, give a public speech, or handle any difficult situation.

There are two ways to get out of the Anxiety Zone: decrease the challenges OR increase your skills. Moving from the anxiety zone to the contentment zone involves learning whatever is necessary to meet that challenge.

The interesting thing about this plan is that the process of learning those necessary skills is a cause of much happiness. There is something very satisfying about facing and successfully meeting a difficult challenge. Didn’t you feel great the first time you reached a goal? What a sense of accomplishment when you learned how to ski or skateboard, fix a flat tire, beat a video game, learn a new job!

Being stuck in the Anxiety Zone is no fun. One way to reduce anxiety is to reduce the number of challenges we face: quit the job, leave school, run away, leave the relationship. This is why being a couch potato is so appealing—no complexity, no demands, no challenge! But who wants to waste a perfectly good brain and body?

Welcome challenging demands with a determination to learn the skills necessary to live life to the max. What new thinking, relational, physical, communication or emotional skills do you need to develop? The human brain is wired to learn, develop, grow, and help your body know how to meet the challenges of life at home, work, school, neighborhoods! Anxiety can be overcome. You can do it!

We’ll talk about boredom next post.

Conflict-Creating and Conflict-Reducing Comments

“Of course I’m right. I’m always right.”

Avoid Conflict-Creating Comments

Resolving conflict begins by recognizing and eliminating your contributions to an argument. If you don’t think you contribute at all, then this exercise will be easy. Show the following list of comments to a person with whom you have recurring conflict. Ask them if they’ve heard you say any of them. If not, cool! If so, um, not so cool.

  1. “I am right you are wrong and that’s that!”
  2. “My point of view is the right point of view!”
  3. “Your intentions are terrible!”
  4. “You started it!”
  5. “Why didn’t you prevent this conflict from happening?!”
  6. “I know what you’re thinking, feeling, and/or assuming.”
  7. “I know all I need to know about what happened!”
  8. “I’ve got to persuade you that I’m right!”
  9. “What you did was wrong!”
  10. “You make me mad (guilty, miserable, depressed, frustrated).”
  11. “Your actions impact me negatively so cut ’em out!”
  12. “To keep the peace I’ll keep my feelings to myself.”
  13. “You created my bad feelings!”
  14. “You’re responsible for my emotions!”
  15. “You must understand how I feel!”
  16. “It’s up to you to prevent all future conflicts!”
  17. “Ignore emotions and stick to facts!”
  18. “You must learn about my emotions!”
  19. “I am either competent or incompetent, I can’t be both.”
  20. “I am either good or bad, I can’t be both.”
  21. “I am either lovable or unlovable, I can’t be both.”
  22. “I am only trying to help.”
  23. “You’re so stubborn I need to get aggressive with you.”
  24. “You’re so naïve I need to teach you how life works.”
  25. “You’re selfish, manipulative, and controlling so I withdraw!”
  26. “How can you be so irrational?”
  27. “If you loved me you’d change.”
  28. “You shouldn’t hurt or feel bad because I didn’t mean it.”
  29. “You hurt me intentionally!”
  30. “Our opinions differ and since we can’t both be right, you’re wrong!”

Practice Conflict Reducing Questions

Here are questions that deescalate conflict. Learning how to reduce conflict is hard but important. Show this list to a person with whom you have recurring conflict and ask them to choose five that they wish you’d use more often.

  1. “What is important to you in this situation?”
  2. “What’s it like from your point of view?”
  3. “What are your intentions?”
  4. “How did I contribute to this conflict?”
  5. “I wonder why didn’t I see this conflict coming?”
  6. “I think I know where you’re coming from but I’m not sure.”
  7. “What do I not understand about your point of view?”
  8. “What’s your side of the story?”
  9. “What have I done that is wrong?”
  10. “What is my impact on you?”
  11. “If you continue to wound me I’ll be forced to withdraw.”
  12. (to self) “What am I feeling in this situation?”
  13. “Your behaviors trigger not cause my bad feelings.”
  14. “I wonder how I can better manage my emotions?”
  15. “What are your feeling in this situation?”
  16. “How can we prevent this from happening again?”
  17. “Emotions are natural; can we discuss them?”
  18. “Teach me about your emotions; what are you feeling?!”
  19. “I am both competent and incompetent.”
  20. “I am both good and bad.”
  21. “I am both lovable and unlovable.”
  22. “You are a complex person and I’ve got a lot to learn.”
  23. “Your self-esteem is important to me.”
  24. “Why are you hurt? I’ll bet you’ve got info that I need to understand.”
  25. “I actually don’t know what your intentions are. What are they?”
  26. “Because we have different perspectives, both matter. What’s yours?”
  27. “I feel _____ when you engage in ______ behaviors.”
  28. “What’s getting in the way of stopping the things that irritate us?”
  29. “What does this look like from your point of view?”
  30. “My persistence isn’t working, is it? What would work?”

2009 © text and picture, Erik Johnson