When our kids were young, we did some camping. One of the most irritating things was when a little mosquito found its way into our tent. Those little things can cause big problems. And the same is true when it comes to marriage: Often it’s the little things that can turn into large issues. Minor irritations may become major sources of conflict in part because of how we respond when we are frustrated.
He’s left his socks on the floor for the umpteenth time, despite repeated requests to use the laundry hamper. She forgot to tell you about the car needing gas though you’ve asked time and again to be warned of it. One of the kids has borrowed a piece of equipment and failed to return it to its rightful place once more.
No wonder you’re ticked. It feels like they don’t pay any attention, that they don’t respect you. It’s only natural that you sigh and say:
How many times must I….?
Why do you always….?
Why can’t you…?
You make me…!
Trouble is rather than getting them to change their annoying ways, these frustrated five responses are far more likely to reinforce their irritating behavior. Here’s why.
They are critical. Swatting people verbally when they bug you doesn’t help the situation. First, these are not really questions, they are statements in disguise that criticize and blame the other person—which leads to the second reason they don’t work.
They are parental. There is a belittling tone to these kinds of complaints. They make you the adult who knows what’s right and what’s not and the transgressor the child who needs to learn to be more responsible. This is not going to go over well with another grown-up—and, depending on their age or your attitude, it may not be best with a son or daughter, either. Rather than encourage them toward responsibility, it may drive them to rebellion.
They are confrontational. These kind of reactions are looking for a fight, not a resolution. They put the other person on the defensive rather than drawing them out. When we are accused, often our natural instinct is to protect ourselves or fight back, not seek to understand where we may have gone wrong.
They are judgmental. By zeroing in on the way they have not done something you wanted them to (or done something you didn’t want them to), you have already determined that yours is the right way in this situation or circumstance and that their way is wrong. But have you actually ever agreed on the issue concerned, or is it just your preference?
They are arguable. Even if your spouse frequently leaves the toothpaste cap off, once in a blue moon they will remember. So when they are told they never put it back on, they’re thinking, Oh yes I do. I remember doing it last Tuesday. Now they are more focused on where you have gone wrong, by exaggerating, than where they may have failed. Absolute statements don’t strengthen your case, they weaken it.
While you need to drop the frustrated five, that doesn’t mean that you have to simply suck it up and put up with things that drive you up the wall. Instead, look for how you can discuss things in a healthy way. You may want to listen to our podcast about How to Agreeably Disagree with Your Spouse.
Or, try these four steps:
- Start with “I” or “me” messages. Explain how the action affects you. When you leave me to pick up your laundry, it makes me feel like your maid or your mother, not your wife and your friend.
- Seek to grasp things from their point of view. Help me understand your thinking when you see the gas gauge is nearly on empty.
- Soften the ground of your spouse’s or child’s heart by making sure you offer frequent praise and compliments. [Tweet This] That way when you do have a gripe, it’s easier to receive. I’ve written before about How to Increase Your Compliment-to-Criticism Ratio.
- Suggest solutions or compromises. Perhaps this is an area where you can adjust your expectations, you can let go of the need to have things just as you would like. Maybe you can come to a win-win way of approaching the issue. Or you could take turns to “get your way.” Whatever you do, don’t let molehills become mountains.
Do you have any ongoing sources of irritation or frustration? What are they and how do you try to deal with them?