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Are You Unknowingly Repelling People?

The unpleasantness factor in relationships.

Key points

  • Unpleasant behaviors, which are often overlooked and minimized, can destroy what might otherwise be great relationships.
  • Unpleasant behaviors spike our cortisol, so it's difficult or impossible for us to feel connected with the person engaging in those behaviors.
  • When we recognize and appreciate unpleasant behaviors for what they are, we can stop repelling and being repelled and deepen our connections.

Body odor. Nose blowing at the dinner table. Loud talking in public spaces. Monosyllabic answers to open-ended questions. Toilet seats left up. Piles of crumbs lingering on the counter. Incessant chattering without taking a breath.

These behaviors may not seem like a big deal (they’re not infidelity or abuse, after all), but they can ruin an otherwise promising relationship.

Why? Because every encounter we have with behavior that irritates us spikes our cortisol. And consistently spiked cortisol puts us in fight-or-flight mode—and that's a relationship destroyer.

The unpleasantness factor

We tend to think of relationships as essentially “good” (or at least good enough), as long as the "Big Problems," such as addiction, cheating, or a general lack of integrity, are absent. We assume, for example, that as long as our partner doesn’t have a drinking problem and is an overall decent person (and is relatively intelligent and physically attractive), the rest shouldn’t really matter. Many people don’t believe they have the right to feel put off by the smaller problems, behaviors that are “only” unpleasant. But unpleasant behaviors are repellent behaviors: They drive us away.

The “unpleasantness factor” is the all-too-often-minimized dimension of an interaction or a relationship that drives people apart. Unpleasant behaviors tend to be overlooked or undervalued, or both. When we’re the person who’s being unpleasant, we can unwittingly drive people out of our lives; when we’re on the receiving end of unpleasantness, we can feel unable to connect with someone we want to be close to, without fully realizing or appreciating why. If a relationship is casual, the unpleasantness may simply prevent it from ever becoming anything more; if it’s more intimate, the unpleasantness can lead to chronic misery until it dies the death of a thousand cuts.

If we wish to prevent the unpleasantness factor from damaging our relationships, we need to be able to identify the behaviors that fuel it, appreciate their toll, and know how to manage them.

How unpleasant behaviors repel

I’m defining unpleasant behaviors as those we feel subjectively repelled by and that tend to increase the chemicals in our brains and bodies that cause us to feel distressed. Put simply, what we find unpleasant are behaviors that are likely to spike our cortisol (and trigger the release of other chemicals and stress hormones).1 Even unpleasant behaviors that we’d consider understimulating, such as being trapped in a boring conversation, can make our cortisol spike.

Unpleasant behaviors are, essentially, ways of being that disrupt our internal equilibrium and therefore sap our energy. Think about how you might feel around your sister with the ear-splitting laugh or your husband who talks with his mouth full. In order to prevent your sister from laughing, you might avoid saying amusing things; to keep your husband from opening his mouth while chewing, you might attempt to do most of the talking. Perhaps you also spend energy trying to manage your discomfort, attempting to shift your attention to block the sound of the laugh or to avert your eyes to shield yourself from the sickening display of partially chewed food. And even after the unpleasantness has ended, your body uses energy to recalibrate itself and restore your equilibrium.

Unpleasant behaviors condition us to associate the person engaging in them with distress. And each repetition of an unpleasant behavior reduces the chances that we’ll want to spend time in that person’s company. If, as is often the case, the individual also invalidates our experience—telling us that we shouldn’t be bothered or that we just need to learn to live with it—we feel even worse. On top of feeling repelled, we may struggle to trust or respect the person who’s blaming us for our suffering and telling us that our perceptions of our experience are wrong. We may even feel ashamed, judging ourselves for feeling as we do.

How to prevent and manage unpleasantness

How do we stop unwittingly repelling and being repelled by others? Following are 10 tips to try.

1. Use the serenity prayer as your guide.

Healthy relationships have wiggle room for people to be their messy selves—a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. If someone’s behaviors are unpleasant to you, ask yourself which of their behaviors you need them to change and which you can learn to accept as part of the package deal that comes with being in a relationship with them. Knowing the difference is key.

Also, ask yourself if you’re creating a narrative around behaviors that might not otherwise be unpleasant. Are you, for example, assuming that your partner’s chronic tardiness means they don’t respect your time when, in fact, they may simply struggle to plan effectively? While a behavior itself may well be problematic, the meaning you make of it can determine whether you truly need it to change or can learn to accept it.

2. Apply the pleasantness equation.

When you’re trying to determine whether a relationship serves you, rather than reflect on it only in the abstract (thinking about whether you’re generally happy or unhappy in it), try to also determine the ratio of unpleasant to pleasant behaviors, taking into account the impact of each. Ask yourself: Is the sum of the behaviors’ impact on me net positive, net neutral, or net negative?

3. Notice your reactions to behaviors (and to events) and ask yourself: Is this spiking my cortisol or helping me feel internally balanced?

If it’s causing you stress, consider whether you want, or are able, to avoid being in such a situation again. You can still have experiences that stretch your comfort zone, that reflect “healthy” stress; you can just try to avoid the experiences that aren’t good for you.

4. Appreciate that behaviors that provoke disgust, such as having poor personal hygiene or bad table manners, are near-universally unpleasant.

We typically try to avoid anything that disgusts us, whether it’s because of a fear of contamination or because we are simply “grossed out.” People have different levels of sensitivity to disgust, and our disgust response is difficult (if not impossible) to change. So if someone tells you that something you’re doing disgusts them, it’s worth taking this feedback to heart.

5. Know that it takes time to feel reconnected with someone whose behavior has been unpleasant.

After exposure to unpleasantness, it takes a while for our stress hormones to be reabsorbed and for our bodies and psyches to “reset.” The longer you’ve been exposed to someone’s unpleasantness, the more time you’ll need in the absence of unpleasantness in order to recalibrate and reconnect.

6. Ask for feedback.

Just as we can’t tickle ourselves, we typically can’t see our own unpleasant behaviors. Approach people who you trust will communicate compassionately with you and ask them which of your behaviors they appreciate and which are unpleasant for them.

7. Give feedback.

Often, we avoid giving feedback about unpleasant behaviors because we feel it’s not our place, or we want to avoid feeling uncomfortable as the bearer of such feedback.

But when we withhold information that’s relevant to someone’s ability to create meaningful connections, we’re doing them, and those with whom they interact, a disservice. Some people, particularly those who can’t easily read microexpressions, need others to help them see the impact of their behaviors.

8. Don’t minimize the impact of someone’s unpleasant behaviors on you.

Even though you may love and admire your partner, you may nevertheless not be able to stop yourself from having cortisol spikes every time they walk around the house singing at the top of their lungs. Don’t tell yourself you’re being petty or “high maintenance”; your neurochemical reaction is real. If you don’t acknowledge unpleasant behaviors for what they are, you’ll likely continue to be hit with cortisol spikes until you’re no longer able to recalibrate while remaining in the relationship. Observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them; you’ll then be better able to determine which behaviors you can make your peace with and which you need to be changed.

9. Don’t minimize the impact of your unpleasant behaviors on others.

If someone asks you to change a behavior that’s unpleasant to them, and the request doesn’t reflect a dysfunctional pattern of control in your relationship2—and if changing the behavior is feasible—then simply do it. Even if that same person asks you to change multiple behaviors, consider that perhaps there are multiple ways in which you’re acting unpleasantly.

10. If you’ve tried but haven’t been able to change your unpleasant behaviors, consider talking to a coach or therapist.

This will help you develop insight and to explore the possibility that a condition such as ADHD may be the culprit.

With awareness of the ways in which unpleasantness impacts us and others, we’re much better positioned to cultivate and maintain the secure connections that are at the heart of the fulfilling, healthy relationships we all crave and deserve.

References

1 I don’t mean to oversimplify what is in fact a complex issue in which myriad factors, including a variety of neurochemicals, affect psychoemotional experience. I am using this general description merely due to space limitations and to keep the article reader friendly.

2 If you feel disrespected by your partner and/or intimidated by them, then it’s important to consider that any requests for you to change your behaviors may in fact be attempts to exercise power and control over you. You can learn more about controlling relationships in my book Getting Relationships Right or in Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft.

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