Your partner is a pain in the ass. You probably already know this, but what you may not know is that this is the way it is supposed to be. Sorry, it’s unavoidable. Everyone is difficult close up, even you. “But this is so unfair!” you might think. “My friends are easy.” Marry them and they won’t be. This is usually the first thing relationship experts Harville Hendrix and Stan Tatkin point out.
Commitment creates a unique environment with its own law of physics. What goes on in the rest of world doesn’t apply. Primary partners get close, very close, and this is the problem.
Of course, you didn’t realize this when you first met, and neither did they. You didn’t notice because you both were high on drugs. Your pituitary glands secreted love hormones and you fed off each other with high excitement and obsession. You have so much in common. You are so much alike. Everything is wonderful. But it doesn’t last. The hormones fade and what you are left with is a partner who knows exactly how to try your last nerve.
There are three reasons why your partner gets under your skin.
The first has to do with shared space. You are more likely to bump into one another, more likely to step on each others toes, to get elbowed in the eye in the middle of night. But this isn’t just physical space, it’s psychological space. The fact that you’re actually very different people comes as a shock. We each have preferences, moods, rhythms, idiosyncrasies, to say nothing of bad habits. The very fact that you are different and locked in the same room provides plenty of opportunities to clash. You are on a space station together, you speak different languages and there is no gravity.
The second reason has to do with a special kind of memory called implicit memory, the kind we don’t recall in the usual sense. The brain likes to pare down and simplify the past so it converts stories into automatic reactions. Another name for this is procedural memory. The vast majority of our brain architecture was formed before we had the verbal capacity to label and recall events, therefore a great deal of our experience cannot be accessed directly. Instead of recalling early events we act them out, or sink into the feelings they inspired.
The most important characteristic of these early years is that we were utterly dependent on someone. Problems always arise with one-sided dependency, even in the best of situations. These same problems resurface as implicit memory when we enter into a committed adult relationship. Like it or not, commitment is dependency and dependency is scary. And to complicate matters, we are taught from a very early age that dependency is bad. We live in a counter-dependent culture. Dependency is natural and necessary, yet we are shamed by it.
The third reason your partner is frustrating is because they perform the job we enlisted them to do — to help us finish growing up. Were your parents annoying? Same thing. We have to be told what to do or we won’t do it.
Your partner has the blueprint for your personal growth, but the very idea that someone knows us better than we know ourselves is inherently offensive. But it’s true. Partnering is two-way parenting. It is in a relationship that we learn and mature.
Here are three things you can do to turn things around:
The part of the brain responsible for processing vision is called the occipital lobe.
The strange thing is that the occipital lobe defers to the hippocampus, the seat of memory, to decipher what we see. This means that for the most part what we see is the past. The brain has an evolutionary bias toward the negative, so what we think we see isn’t good. We must compensate for this by consciously visualizing our partner in a positive light. Research has demonstrated that happy couples delude themselves about their partners qualities. Get delusional.
The next step is to take that positive visualization and express it. When your partner does something you like, tell them. Remember, this is in your best interest. If you don’t tell them they are likely to stop doing it. Tell them what you appreciate — often. The most radical way to implement this is to combine three fresh appreciations a day together with a commitment of zero negativity. No criticism. That means if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
Commit to radically reducing your partner’s displeasure by eliminating one by one the things you do that frustrate them. Be curious as to what it’s actually like living with you. Exploring how your partner experiences you can be a real eye-opener. If you can swallow the idea that your partner holds the blueprint for your personal growth you will soon discover capacities and talents you didn’t know you had.
Practicing these three points is guaranteed to turn a pain in the ass partner back into the love of your life. And when they do annoy you, you won’t mind so much.