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Relationships

Is Your Partner Quirky?

How to cope with quirks and tackle bad habits—together.

Key points

  • Quirks are eccentricities that make us unique, and while they may annoy some people, they generally cause no harm.
  • Bad habits are problematic, often adversely impacting our health, relationships, careers, and well-being.
  • With quirks, we have to pick our battles carefully and keep an eye on emotional safety.
Alex Perez/Unsplash
Source: Alex Perez/Unsplash

It’s pretty easy to keep company with people who have similar interests and personalities, but there’s something to the "opposites attract" idea, too. The differences between us keep things exciting, adding spice to our relationships and depth to our conversations. But, as the saying goes, you can have too much of a good thing. Enter quirks. You’ve got ‘em. I’ve got ‘em. And sometimes, they drive our partners wild (not always in a good way).

So, we should probably start by distinguishing quirks from bad habits. I’d consider a quirk something like scraping the bottom of the ice cream bowl, speaking in a strange accent at an inopportune time, or not eating “cute” foods like goldfish or Teddy Grahams (i.e., my daughter).

Bad habits, on the other hand, can cause harm and jeopardize your health, relationships, or career. The stakes go beyond “that’s odd/annoying” to “that’s unacceptable/dangerous/problematic.”

I’m often asked by well-intentioned people how they can address their partners’ quirks and shortcomings without being hurtful. Here’s my take.

If it’s a quirk:

  • Pick your battles. Some quirks (like my daughter’s) run their course or are merely situational, and you don’t want to be overly critical. When we look for the quirks or flaws in others, we easily find them, and the nature of our relationships begins to change as a result of putting them under the microscope all the time.
  • Some quirks only come out around people we love and trust. If we tease our partners for getting all red-faced when they are angry or for wearing an oversized Snuggie to bed, they will stop being vulnerable with us, and the relationship will suffer. Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott explain in their book Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, “The deepest kind of sharing can take place only when there’s no fear of rejection.” That's emotional safety in a nutshell.

If there’s a particular quirk that you really can’t stand, say scraping up the last drops of ice cream from the bowl, you could say something like this:

“Hey honey, the sound of the metal spoon against the ceramic bowl really grates on me. I know that probably sounds silly, but it’s a strong gut reaction I have. Could you please stop doing that?”

You could also present reasonable alternatives like drinking the melted ice cream from the bowl, or using a plastic spoon vs. metal spoon, if they really insist on getting every last drop. Frankly, I’m in the camp that good dessert should never be wasted.

If it’s truly a “bad” habit:

  • Use the three-step soft start-up formula mentioned in this post. Maybe your partner put on a lot of weight recently and you’re concerned about their blood pressure, or their ability to stay active with your kids. Weight and appearance can be landmine topics, but if you frame them as concerns you have (because you care) and something you can address together, the talk may go over better.
  • If we view our partners as the problem and try to make them feel guilty or inadequate for their bad habits, our concerns will go over like a lead balloon, no matter how legitimate they are (e.g., “You’re always late to everything. You’re so irresponsible!”).
  • Remember, you are supposed to be a safe place for your partner to land. Dr. John Gottman explains our partners need to know we love and accept them as they are before they will be receptive to making changes. If we have a laundry list of complaints about our partners, they will begin to wonder why we like them or want to be together at all, making them more resistant to our feedback and requests.

In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor explains, “Common sense is not common action.” We can know the right thing to do in theory and still struggle mightily in the execution.

He notes we often struggle to make changes in our lives because we are too reliant on willpower alone, which gets taxed each day by other demands like working on tedious projects, potty training toddlers, and other tasks that require a lot of energy and staying power. When we run down our willpower, we’re more apt to take the easy, automatic route in other areas, like mindlessly scrolling through social media, compulsively playing Candy Crush, overeating, or binge-watching our favorite shows. These passive ventures rarely leave us happy or fulfilled.

In doing so day after day, we form bad habits that are hard to break.

At the end of the day, we largely need to be accepting of our partner’s quirks (they are a part of the package deal and everyone has them), and recognize if we come after theirs too hard, many of our own could end up in the cross hairs.

When it comes to bad habits, we are accountability buddies and need to help our partners stay healthy and make responsible choices. However, we have to do so with love, in the context of an otherwise accepting, safe relationship where they trust us and know we care for them and appreciate their many strengths.

It’s probably pretty obvious, but we’re all more receptive to being built up and seen for the things we do right vs. torn down for the ways we’re less than perfect.

The next time you're tempted to dole out vinegar by teasing or criticising your spouse's habits, remember we all prefer the honey.

Disclaimer: Abuse and addiction would require different discussions and interventions than those addressed in the broad scope of this piece. Reach out to a qualified therapist or counselor if you have concerns around these or other serious relationship or mental health issues.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Achor, S. (2010). The happiness advantage. Crown Business.

Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work. Harmony Books.

Parrott, L., & Parrott, L. (2015). Saving your marriage before it starts. Zondervan.

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