When Cute Mannerisms Become Irritations

"I used to love it when you'd try to help me. Now it's just annoying."

“I used to love it when you’d try to fix me. Now it’s just annoying.”

It happens in every marriage. That cute mannerism you used to find so endearing while dating now drives you up the wall. That thing your partner did which was once attractive is now aggravating. A young couple gaga in love wholly embraces each other’s quirky habits, but fast forward a bunch of years and those quirky habits now drive each other bat guano crazy. Here are some examples I’ve collected over the years.

I used to love her helping heart. Now she’s off saving the world and I gotta cook dinner.

I used to love his pensive seriousness. Now I wish he’d open up and be more talkative.

I used to love his giving spirit. Now I wish he’d give to me and the kids and not all the neighbors.

I used to love her career accomplishments. Now I wish she had more time for family.

I used to love his relationship with his mother. Now I wish he’d stop calling her 4 times a day.

I used to love her laid back attitude. Now I’m annoyed she’s late for everything.

I used to love her spontaneity. Now I think she’s ADD.

I used to love his black and white thinking. Now I wish he wasn’t so stubborn.

I used to love her innocence. Now I wish she wasn’t so gullible.

I used to love his cool demeanor. Now he won’t talk to me.

I used to love his hard working attitude. Now he’s a workaholic and I never see him.

I used to love my wife’s body. Now all she does is work out.

I used to love his humor. Now he sounds like an immature dork.

I used to love her jokes. Now she never takes anything seriously.

I used to love his attention. Now I feel controlled.

I used to love it that he listened to me. Now he gets irked if I talk to anyone else.

I used to love her compliance. Now she seems like a doormat.

I used to love him letting me decide things. Now he makes me decide everything.

I used to love her as the life of the party. Now she never shuts up.

I used to love his risk taking. Now he seems utterly irresponsible.

I used to love it that she’s smokin’ hot. Now I’m angry guys stare at her.

These annoyances are tolerable in small doses. In large doses we get annoyed! Why do we get turned off by the very thing that attracted us to our mates in the first place? Because disillusionment sets in. What initially brought a big pay off of joy, entertainment, and warm fuzzies, eventually fails to deliver. We get acclimated, we get numb, we take our partners for granted. Like a drug addict who needs bigger and bigger hits, couples, if they’re not careful, need bigger and bigger relational pay offs.

Next blog: what to do about marital irritations.


When Optimists and Pessimists Marry

glass half full

“The glass is half empty AND half full!”

Some people are genetically endowed with an optimistic bias. Either by training or temperament they:

  • Walk around feeling lucky, blessed, cheerful.
  • Don’t need to be told they are lucky. They already feel it.
  • Look on the bright side of everything.
  • Are resilient when things go awry.
  • Dodge depression, illness, and anxiety.
  • Live longer, take better care of their health, adapt to hardship more readily than pessimists.
  • Take greater risks in business, invention, and investments.
  • Think failure happens to others, not them.
  • Inspire morale in employees, loan officers, family, and friends.
  • Are persistent in the face of obstacles.

But not all is rosy in optimistic land. Optimists also tend to:

  • View the world more benign than it actually is.
  • View their attributes more favorably than they actually are.
  • Think goals are more achievable than they actually are.
  • Exaggerate their ability to forecast the future and predict outcomes.
  • Think they are being prudent and cautious when they are not.
  • Gamble more than most.
  • Throw good money after bad.
  • Confuse optimism with delusions.

Some famous optimists: Pollyanna “Let’s play the glad game,” Winnie the Pooh, “Oh joy, oh rapture” and Baloo, “Accentuate the positive.” Some famous pessimists: Eeyore and Puddleglum.

When optimists marry optimists both are happy. When pessimists marry pessimists both are happy.

But in a mixed marriage the pessimist says to the optimist, “You’re so unrealistic!”

And the optimist says to the pessimist, “You’re such a downer!”

Solution? Mutual influence. Optimists do well to let the realism of the pessimist temper their over confidence, and pessimists do well to let the hope of the optimists temper their doom and gloom.

When optimists and pessimists work together they see a half empty glass as full and a full glass as half empty.

Free eBook: The Quantum Couple

Quantum Couple Logo

In 2008 I began to list ways science and marriage overlap. I planned to write a 60,000 word humor book entitled, The Quantum Couple: Marriage Myths Compared to Science Facts. My purpose was to help pre-married (and married?) couples view their marriage as a laboratory and themselves as scientists.

The Quantum Couple Click link for free 25 page book.

After 7400 words I pooped out. My enthusiasm for this project has waned and I have neither the time or inclination to finish. Instead of trashing the manuscript however I thought I’d make available what I’ve done and show this unfinished ebook the light of day.

From the back cover:

About the author

Erik Johnson is a marriage counselor and mediator specializing in family conflict resolution. He practices in Bellingham, Washington. His hobbies include writing, cartooning, and helping couples understand that a failure to grasp anti-matter and dark matter doesn’t really matter. But getting along with one’s partner does.

He invites couples to put on their white lab coats, fire up their energy particle accelerators (everyone has a super collider, right?), and enter the wild and wooly world of quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, and human relationships!

Research marriage bonds! See marriage is a laboratory! Split the atom!

Or at least pick up your socks.


(Sorry about these multiple postings. I’m drowning in blogs).

Marital Expectations are Goodish

"What kind of expectations are we talking here--lowered, reduced, or unrealistically high?"

“What kind of expectations are we talking here–lowered, reduced, or unrealistically high?”

Every once in a while a client will look at me sheepishly and confess, “I have expectations in this marriage.” 

I love when this happens because I get to be the bearer of good news. I say, “Expectations aren’t bad. The reason we exchange vows is because we expect our partner to practice fidelity, sobriety, monogamy, chastity, integrity, and so forth. And our partners expect the same from us. How would you feel if your partner said they don’t care how you behave, didn’t expect you to be kind and loving, or didn’t expect you to come home at night?”

At this point the client perks up.

I then add, “It’s how we  behave when our expectations aren’t met that gets us into trouble. Unmet expectations often become an excuse to rage, explode, hit, scream, yell, throw, guilt, shame, manipulate, drink, control, act out, or leave.”

If the client is still engaged I’ll add, “If you expect your partner’s undivided attention 24/7, if you expect them to answer the phone ten times a day during work hours, if you expect your partner to look at you longingly in every aisle in every grocery store, if you expect him or her to turn in every receipt, account for every mile they drive, recall every conversation they have throughout the day with whom and what they were wearing, if you expect them to enjoy your hobbies and forsake their own, if you expect your partner to eat, exercise, and spend according to your plan, if you expect them to stare at the ground when they walk in public to avoid eye contact with the opposite sex, if you expect them to control their dreams, restless leg syndrome, or snoring, be my guest. But please respond calmly if those expectations are not met.”

Shifting the focus from spouse control to self control puts clients in a good place.

When that happens I then expect something—progress!

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. 

Five Comments That Made Me Laugh

  1. “My goal is to fail. If I fail I succeed, if I succeed I succeed. I can’t lose.”
  2. “How many passive people does it take to change a light bulb? None. They start a support group called Coping with Darkness.”
  3. A 90 year old man goes to the local nursing home looking for a girlfriend, sees all the hot 80-year-old white-haired women and says, “The fields are white unto harvest!”
  4. (true story) I was a tourist last year in Washington DC and as our bus turned the corner on to Constitution Avenue the hippie tour guide said, “This is my favorite corner in America. On the right we’ve got the United States Peace Institute and across the street we’ve got the American Pharmacist’s Association. In one location we’ve got institutions dedicated to both peace and drugs! It doesn’t get any better than this!”  Who says there’s no sense of humor in Washington?
  5. While doing research on Attila the Hun a few weeks ago this ad popped up. Nice to know we can do background checks on famous pillagers.  
Screenshot 2014-03-09 13.55.47

Good Control, Bad Control

water color mudOne of my daughters and I are taking a water color painting class at our local community college. Since I’ve been making black lines on paper with pens, pencils, and markers for decades I thought this class would be a breeze. Not true. Manipulating three variables–water and two pigments–is hard! I’ve never considered my self a controlling type of guy but I am now determined to control this unwieldy art. I’ve become a control freak!

This got me thinking about other types of positive control. Control is good when taming horses or testing prescription drugs with a control group. We know about arms control, birth control, volume control, pest control, and self control. We are grateful for air traffic controllers, the Center for Disease Control, and the Ctrl key on our computers. Society is safer when law enforcement officers control substances, criminals, and violence. 

However…..there are at least two ways control is not good!

Mind control. Cult leaders, authoritarian dictators, seductive manipulators, Jedi masters, and power hungry tyrants who prey upon the gullible, needy, and easily influenced are wolves in sheep’s clothing. C. S. Lewis called them omnipotent moral busybodies. He wrote, “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” 

Spouse control. I cannot improve upon the Power and Control Wheel published by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Program of Duluth, MN.


Okay, enough of this serious stuff. Back to blending ultramarine blue and alazarin red to make a puddle of mud.

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. 


Have You Ever Been Annoyed By a Family Member?

Built into the human body is an aversion to irritation. Scraping a fingernail on a black board makes our ears hurt, rancid tastes make us gag, pop up ads offend us, drippy faucets unnerve us, advertising jingles become ear worms and make us crazy, and pesky mosquitoes can drive us bonkers.

There are four ways to cope physical annoyances. For example, to minimize the irritation we feel when cutting onions we can either:

tupperwareQuarantine the onion by putting it in Tupperware

Insulate our eyes by putting on a gas mask


Let nature take its course and flush out irritating onion odors with cleansing tears


Re-frame the irritation by telling ourselves a new story.

“This is the price I pay for adding flavor to omelets.”

“My tears may mean I’m using too many onions in this dish.”

“Onions boost my acting career by giving me authentic tears for my stage performance.”

“Onion odors are natural, unavoidable, and an irreversible part of the universe.”

As a family conflict mediator it’s my privilege to coach couples, parents, and teens on ways to reduce family irritations. Just as there are four ways to cope with physical irritations, there are four ways to cope with psychological, relational, and family irritations.

Quarantine the irritating family member—put ‘em in a time out.

Insulate yourself by leaving the room (better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome family member, Proverbs 21:9).

Let nature take its course and process your irritation with cleansing tears.

Re-frame the irritation by telling yourself a new story.

“Irritation is the price I pay for living under the same roof with my family.”

“Irritations motivate me to develop patience, kindness, and tolerance.”

“My irritability alerts me to the possibility that I may be irritating to others.”

“Relationship irritations are natural, unavoidable, and an irreversible part of the universe.”

Please do not retaliate by returning irritation for irritation. This only causes things to escalate. Unless of course you’d like to come in for family counseling. I do have openings.