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Picking your Battles

Ouch! You were wounded as a result of someone’s inconsiderate or neglectful behavior. Maybe he forgot the plans he made with you, left some socks on the floor, or didn’t give you the information you needed. You feel yourself getting irritated. Do you confront the issue – have a conversation – or let it slide? Maybe if you ignore it, it will go away. According to research, including some conducted by our own eHarmony Labs, confronting the issue can have benefits to your relationship and your health.

Early in a relationship, individuals may initially view their romantic partners in an idealistically positive light, each happily unaware of or ignoring the other’s grating details. As partners increase their exposure to each other, they may find previously innocent behaviors to be somewhat irritating. Research on dating couples has defined these as “social allergens,” annoying behaviors that are unpleasant to the partner. Although these behaviors are unlikely to cause outright conflict, they are related to lower satisfaction in relationships (Cunningham, Barbee, and Druen, 1997; Cunningham, Shamblen, Barbee, and Ault, 2005).

In a study conducted through eHarmony Labs, both members of 1,036 married heterosexual couples completed an online national survey that included measures of marital satisfaction, perception of their partners’ annoying behaviors in the previous 24 hours, and whether they expressed their annoyance to their partners. Results showed that 40% of respondents perceived their partners as annoying during the previous day, with wives more likely to perceive annoying behavior than husbands.

Those who perceived their spouses’ behavior as annoying reported lower levels of marital satisfaction. Interestingly, the offending spouses reported that their marital satisfaction was unaffected by being thought of as annoying. Wives who expressed their annoyance to their husbands reported higher levels of marital satisfaction. In addition, husbands who expressed their annoyance had wives who reported higher levels of marital satisfaction. In other words, wives experienced higher marital satisfaction when they expressed their own annoyance and when their husbands expressed annoyance.

In another study, Denton and Burleson (2007) investigated initiator styles in discussions of problems. They were interested in how likely married people were to start conversations about specific problems within the marriage. Although women in this study were more likely to initiate these discussions than men, both men and women who initiated the discussions were also more likely to be happier in their relationships.

Although problems and annoying behaviors can have a negative impact on relationship satisfaction, both of the studies suggest that couples who discuss their concerns with each other are able to stave off that impact. The research highlights the importance of open communication in a relationship. These findings are especially true for women, who may be more attuned to subtle changes in the relationship and are more affected by communication that could lead to behavioral change. Not only is it beneficial to talk about issues and areas of concern, but it can also be a sign that you are comfortable and open with your partner.

Moreover, being open and confronting issues with your partner can have an impact on your health as well. A recent study showed that married people who expressed their anger were more likely to live longer compared to married individuals who did not express themselves (Harburg et al., in press). In other words, those who “self-silenced,” or internalized the anger they were feeling, were more likely to die sooner than non-self-silencers. Over the long term, this is especially true for women who self-silence (Eaker et al., 2007).

While expressing concerns and anger is important to both your relationship and your health, it is important to note that how you say things can be as important as what you say. In the Denton and Burleson (2007) study, initiating problems correlated negatively to verbal aggressiveness. In other words, just because it is a good idea to confront problems, it is not an invitation to criticize or belittle one’s partner. In fact, starting a conversation with compassion and kindness, or having a “soft startup” in a conversation, can be important in getting your partner to hear and accept change (Gottman and Silver, 1999). As women are more likely to be harsh in their startups, it is especially important for them to keep this in mind.

The next time you find yourself getting irritated, bring up what’s irritating you. When couples perceive even low levels of annoying behavior, expression can operate as a release valve for that tension and prevent more serious problems in the future.

Are there behaviors in your relationship that you find annoying? Tell us about your most recent experience with annoying partner behavior and how you successfully or unsuccessfully confronted the issue.