How to Sweat Less Over the Small Stuff

Living with someone is hard, especially if one of you is a slob.

Posted Aug 16, 2018

Soni Metz/FreeImages
Source: Soni Metz/FreeImages

I recently received an excellent—and knotty—question from a reader of this blog. As the problem she is having is a common one, I am sharing it in the interests of lowering the irritation level of everyone's relationships.

Dear Dr. Perry: I read a post from your blog about spouses who habitually leave doors open, as well as cabinets, cupboards, and drawers, and who pull chairs out and never push them back in.

I have been married to my husband for 43 years and have always had to deal with this. Now he is retired and it seems like I am reminding him constantly to close the door, close the drawer, shut the cabinet, or did you push your chair back in the dining room. Is there a better way to address this?

My Answer

Your question is especially challenging because you have been with this man for 43 years. That means his habits are deeply ingrained.

I suggest you begin by thinking through, on your own, why these habits are so annoying to you. If you're like me, you hate having to be on guard all the time so that you don't trip on chairs left blocking a walkway, and you would hate to hit your head or eye against an unnoticed wide-open cabinet door. And so on for all your mate's other thoughtless and ill-mannered behaviors. Sometimes our irritation is about being forced to see things "out of place" over and over throughout the day.

If your disgruntlement is mostly about having a tidy home, that's important for you to recognize. It means your long-time habits are in conflict with his.

Now nicely ask your husband to sit with you to talk about something that has been bothering you since his retirement. Let him know that these behaviors have become much more annoying to you since he is home so much now, and that you want the rest of your lives to go smoothly without these constant—and avoidable—little stresses.

I used to say something like, "You may not notice these things, and sure, I probably learned this from my parents. Still, these unthinking behaviors actually cause me anxiety. Sometimes, when I'm feeling stressed by other things, they even make me a little angry. I'm sure that's not your intention, right?"

Assume Goodwill

Always assume goodwill, as many counselors and relationship researchers and experts recommend. Specifically, in your case, always assume what your mate does is due to bad habits and obliviousness and forgetfulness, rather than taking his slothfulness as a personal attack. At least it's a good starting point.

Try to get his agreement on the most important changes you want from him. It's even possible to blame your own aging eyes and reflexes for your fear that you'll smash your skull into an open cupboard door. If it's a matter of your habits versus his habits, you may be able to compromise on the most annoying ones.

Worse comes to worse, if he agrees to try to do better, and then fails, stay out of the kitchen, for example, and read a book through your normal dinnertime. When he asks what's up, tell him he needs to live up to his promise not to make your home into a death-trap (or an unappealing place).

Use humor whenever you can. My guy would leave his shoes anywhere and everywhere, including once (only once!) at the top of a stairway. I put them on his pillow, which he couldn't help but notice, and as something like that indicated strong feelings on my part, he remembered to be more careful.

These little things can truly cause major harm, and adding up all those irritations can harm you and your relationship. It's okay to say something negative now and then, just so long as your positive comments far outweigh the ones your mate will feel are critical. And use "I-messages" routinely: "I just don't feel warmly toward you when I have to keep nagging over the same simple things."

There's one last point I need to make: My husband of 34 years died a year ago, and now when I think back to those lists of crazy-making habits of his that I compiled (with a sense of humor, mostly), I am sad that a minute of our time was occupied with such trivialities. I did stumble at times on a hose left uncoiled or shoes left in a doorway, but still, I feel only sorrow now.

Whenever possible, I believe, we ought to try to behave in ways that will not cause regret later. That goes for your mate, and that goes for you. So have that heart-to-heart with him, and good luck.

(c) 2018 by Susan K. Perry

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