Q: I understand that I can’t control what someone else does, but my husband’s really been irritating me lately, and I don’t like it. How can I make things better?
A: Well, you’ve probably just asked a question to which everybody can relate (including my significant other). You’re halfway there just by realizing that you can’t control what someone else does, even someone as close to you as your husband. However, there are things that you could try to make you relationship smoother and help you be closer as a couple.
Before we go into that, though, I want to emphasize that I’m not assuming that you need to change or that you’re “the problem.” Blame doesn’t do anybody any good in a family; it just gets in the way of making positive changes that benefit everyone. Each person plays a role in supporting the status quo, even if that status quo doesn’t make you happy.
A family (and every relationship inside that family system) is made up of predictable patterns of communication and behavior. For example, a husband might leave his socks on the floor, and his wife is likely to complain just like she did the last hundred times his socks missed the laundry basket. He has a pattern (leaving socks on the floor), and she has a pattern (complaining about it). Predictable, comfortable status quo.
Often, the best way to change your partner’s behavior is simply by changing how you react. (Again, this doesn’t mean you’re to blame; it means that you can only control what you do.) If you respond differently to his pattern, his response has to be different as well. For example, if he normally snaps at you when you lose your car keys, you can make the choice not to respond to the snarking, thus avoiding the normal argument.
Instead, try using the attention principle. If you give attention to a behavior, positive or negative, that behavior will increase. If you ignore a behavior that you don’t like, the behavior should eventually diminish or vanish altogether. There might be an uptick in the negative behavior at first, but that’s normal. It’s called the extinction burst, which happens because your partner needs to test whether you’re really determined to ignore the behavior.
It’s not enough to ignore a behavior, though. You also need to praise behaviors that you like. For example, if you lose your keys and your partner helps you look for them, thank him. If he complains the entire time, ignore that part. Instead, just say something like, “I appreciate you helping me find my keys. It was nice of you.” You’ll be tempted to say something about his attitude, but if you do, you’re giving attention to something you don’t like, thus feeding the negative behavior.
You also need to accept that it’s ok for you and your husband to get irritated, even mad, at each other from time to time. Often, this is when big fights happen; you’re already stewing, and then an argument over something like socks or keys sends the conflict over the top. Give your partner – and yourself – permission to be angry. When things start getting out of hand, simply call a timeout by saying, “Look, I’m feeling angry right now. Let’s take a break until I calm down.” You need to let your partner do the same thing, though. It’s tempting to try to have the last word, but it’s more important to recognize the emotion of the moment and take that break.
One last thing: Often, couples stop talking before resolving their differences. They develop a pattern where one partner just throws up his or her hands and says, “Forget it!” This often is a protective pattern because it’s scary what might happen if you try to resolve an issue but can’t. In these cases, couples therapy is useful. The therapist’s office is a safe place where you can have those conversations and learn to resolve disagreements without having your relationship fall apart.
(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)