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5 Steps to Stop a Partner's Annoying Habit

... because little things can blow up relationships just as much as big ones.

Key points

  • Little habits that slightly annoy a partner at the start of a relationship can build to become intolerable with repeated exposure.
  • Annoying habits in a partner may range from uncouth (bad grooming habits, for example) to inconsiderate (such as being chronically late).
  • Dealing with a partner's annoying habits for the sake of the relationship begins with offering empathy.
Serg Zastavkin/Shutterstock
Source: Serg Zastavkin/Shutterstock

When people think of relationships that are unsatisfying, or that break up, they often blame big problems Perhaps someone is cheating and cannot stay faithful. Maybe a partner could never commit in the first place. Possibly someone is argumentative and cannot be soothed. Or some painful mistake is too big to forgive.

In reality, what makes many relationships miserable, and ultimately end, are not the big things but the little inconsiderate, annoying behaviors which build up over time and kill the exciting activities and grateful exchanges. In order to have a satisfying long-term relationship, it is important to pay attention to one's own daily habits—and help (lovingly) guide a partner's behaviors, too.

Annoying Habits and Social Allergies

Research by Michael Cunningham and the team evaluated the impact of repeated minor, yet annoying, behaviors on romantic relationships (Cunningham et al., 2005). The team discovered that such behaviors operate much like a "social allergy" on a partner within the relationship. As with the usual type of allergies, such behaviors produce a relatively minor response at first—but repeated exposure to them results in more hypersensitive reactions over time; in the case of a relationship, annoyance and disgust. Thus the little habits that slightly annoy a partner at the start of a relationship build to become intolerable with repeated exposure.

The team also classified such social-allergy behaviors into four types to avoid (in both yourself and a partner):

  • Uncouth Habits: Displaying poor grooming, failing to clean up after oneself, or showing poor manners.
  • Inconsiderate Acts: Expecting disproportionate attention, being chronically late, or being self-preoccupied in conversation.
  • Intrusive Behaviors: Being critical, acting jealous, giving commands without authority, or being controlling.
  • Norm Violations: Drinking to excess, avoiding work, or flirting with other people.

A second study by Cunningham and team (2005) explored the effects of these behaviors within actual dating couples. Their results showed that both men and women performed social-allergy behaviors with similar frequency—although men tended to be a bit more uncouth and norm violating, while women more often acted inconsiderate and intrusive.

Further, the more frequently an individual performed the allergic behaviors, the more intense and negative their partner's emotional reaction. At a one-year follow-up, these repeated behaviors were also related to relationship dissatisfaction and the decision to break up with the partner. Over time, then, these annoying habits built up into strong resentments—making partners miserable and even pushing them to decide to leave.

Dealing With a Partner's Annoying Habits

Given the above research, tending to one's own annoying habits could go a long way toward maintaining a romantic relationship. What happens, however, when a partner's allergic behaviors start to get on your nerves? Fortunately, there are ways of communicating and intervening—before things get hypersensitive and miserable. Try these five things:

  1. Be empathetic. Speak with your partner in a way that builds rapport and shows your understanding. Be genuine and warm with them, but also clearly state which behaviors are bothering you.
  2. Make a deal. Next, propose a mutually-beneficial exchange that satisfies you both. Share with them what you would like them to do instead of the behaviors that bother you while being open to some changes they might want of you as well. Settle on a strategy that works for you and your partner.
  3. Find motivation. Explore what might motivate your partner to change and stick with the new behaviors. Perhaps they see it as a bad habit as well, or it causes other difficulties in their life. Clarifying these motivations can keep you both focused and increase success.
  4. Avoid punishment. Nobody is perfect. Your partner will slip up on occasion (as will you). When that happens, try to avoid scolding or punishing them. Instead, redirect them to more positive behaviors that you both enjoy.
  5. Reward good behaviors. When your partner is successful, however, be sure to show your appreciation. This will help reinforce and motivate further positive behaviors. Over time, the annoying habits will be replaced by behaviors you both find more satisfying.

Overall, sometimes it is the little things that make a relationship miserable. Left unchecked, they can grow into hypersensitive issues that cause resentment and even end a relationship too. Fortunately, if caught early, problems can often be remedied. With this process in place, you both might just be happier, more likely to stay together—and less annoying.

© 2015 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Cunningham, M.R., Shamblen, S.R., Barbee, A.P., & Ault, L.K. (2005). Social allergies in romantic relationships: Behavioral repetition, emotional sensitization, and dissatisfaction in dating couples. Personal Relationships, 12, 273-295.