Sure, there were things about my wife that gently pressed my buttons when we got together; annoying habits, odd turns of phrase and other minor stuff. Then we had children and what were once mild irritants began to drive me nuts!
I mean, seriously, who brushes her teeth after applying makeup? Doesn’t she know that brushing and rinsing can ruin carefully applied base? Then you have to reapply, whereas if she just reversed the order…. Okay, maybe that is minor.
But whazzup with, “Are you okay?” It was one thing for her—well, both of us—to be manic are-you-okayers when our head-bonking daughter was younger (she still reminds me of a drunken sailor when she races across a room and she’s almost 5), but we know from experience that she’s usually okay. Wouldn’t it be better for our toddler son, for his sense of self and independence, to not hear that question so often… especially because he’s too young to answer?
As challenging as I find some of my spouse’s behaviors, I wonder:
What if the things that bug me are also opportunities to get closer?
What if every time our spouses acted in ways that make us uncomfortable, we tried to understand more and judge less?
Take Mike and Tina*, for example: When they got together, Tina thought Mike’s special, individualized handshake for greeting friends was adorable. Adorable became irritating when Mike started doing it with Max, their son. By insisting that he and 4-year-old Max shake hands when Mike gets home from work (before doing anything else), Tina thinks he’s sending the message that Mike’s needs trump Max’s.
Let’s pretend Mike’s handshakes are hard-wired. Unless Tina likes being pissed off, how can she shift her view of Mike’s behavior?
1. Reflect: Other people’s qualities or behaviors get magnified when we think they negatively affect our kids. Yet, often, what bugs us in others reflects what we don’t like in ourselves.
When Tina thought about Mike’s behavior from this perspective, she realized she was terrified of putting her own needs before those of her child. Mike’s habit mirrored a fear she has about herself.
Once Tina recognized her fear, and admitted there will be times when she will put herself first, her husband’s habit lost its charge.
2. Understand: There’s a useful concept from Neuro-Linguistic Programming that goes something like this…
Behind every behavior is a “positive intention” that serves us.
Positive intentions include being liked, eliciting affection or staying safe. So if your spouse does something that drives you batty, ask yourself – What positive intention might be behind his or her behavior?
By trying to answer (even if we’re wrong), we usually increase compassion for spouses. We might not agree with their approach, but if we try to understand what drives them, we soften the impact of their behaviors on us, and substitute empathy for criticism.
3. Appreciate: What gifts might be hidden in our spouse’s behavior?
What did Tina discover? She’s comforted by the predictability of Mike’s handshakes and likes that he literally touches people he loves. Plus, she realized that, while handshakes aren’t her style, she wants to be more demonstrative.
The more we reflect, understand and appreciate, the more we strengthen our relationships. Not coincidentally, doing so expands our bandwidth for accepting and loving our kids… especially when they drive us crazy!
*Names and some details have been changed to protect privacy.