The Petty Irritations That Spoil a Relationship

Those desperate to make a relationship last tend to focus on the big issues: jealousy, infidelity, rows with in-laws, and so on. But the cumulative effect of petty, trivial irritations should never be underestimated. Indeed, they are not trivial at all. Infidelity may shake your relationship to its foundation, but petty faults and bad habits will gnaw away at it until the whole structure crashes to the ground.

Unpleasant Personal Habits

Every young man about to move in with his girlfriend needs to understand that this is different to living with a High School buddy or college roommate. Your friends may find it hilarious when you burp the national anthem or pass wind and lock them in the room, but your partner probably won’t. It isn’t funny and it isn’t sexy.

Poor personal habits also break the romantic spell. Obviously, human beings need to blow their nose, pick at spots, scratch, snore, and countless other things. But you can still make an effort to keep such acts to a minimum. Above all, avoid doing them in front of your partner. And if your partner asks you to stop, do not reply with a smug little remark like “it’s natural.” This will only irritate them even more.

As well as being unpleasant, such behavior is selfish and arrogant. It suggests that, deep down, you really don’t care how they feel. So don’t leave dirty socks laying on the coffee table or shaved hair in the bath. If you rip off a bloody bandage, put it in the bin, not on the chair. And if you wish to cut your toe nails, pick your nose, or floss your teeth, go and do so in private! You wouldn’t do these things in front of a work colleague or a friend, so why is it acceptable to do so in front of a lover?


The relationship with friends can also cause tension, especially before children arrive. For example, a man may distrust his girlfriend’s best friend. He may suspect that she is jealous and fear that she will get his partner drunk and then encourage her to get in touch with an ex. Or a woman may dislike her boyfriend’s friend because all he does is smoke, drink, and play computer games. When her boyfriend is with him, he reverts to his adolescent self. She wants a partner with whom she can build a family, not an overgrown teenager. Then of course there is the opposite danger – that your partner likes your friends too much and begins flirting with them.

Obviously, you should try to make an effort. This doesn’t mean you should tolerate obnoxious or dangerous people, but you do need to understand. Remember, people sometimes retain a friend not because they have lots in common, or even because they enjoy their company, but because they have been through so much together. Your husband may continue to see a school friend because he reminds him of long, hot summers playing football in the park. Or maybe that friend is the only one who remembers your partner’s dead father.

Lack of Interest in One Another’s Lives

Intimacy is a central part of any relationship and must be maintained. But intimacy depends on more than romantic meals and deep, meaningful conversations. You must also take an interest in the mundane events of your partner’s life. If you never ask them how their day went, or if you do ask but barely listen to the reply, you are likely to irritate them a great deal.

So make a point of paying attention. And, just as importantly, make a point of remembering trivial details. Imagine your partner is having problems with their new manager or work colleague. Ask what their name is and then memorize it (or even write it down). The next time your partner comes home tearful or exhausted, you can ask if “John” or “Sue” or whatever their name is has upset them. The fact that you have remembered will be noted and appreciated. The lack of interest some people have in their partner is astonishing. Do you know what color your partner’s eyes are, for example? Or what their favorite sandwich is? Or their favorite poem, novel or film?

Mocking Their Hobbies

Having lots in common does not guarantee the success of a relationship any more than differences guarantee its failure. The real problems begin when one partner becomes irritated. Do not make the mistake of believing that for a relationship to succeed you must do everything together. If he enjoys fishing or golf and you find them boring, that needn’t be a problem. Neither should it be a problem if you love amateur theater or book groups and he dislikes the arts. You don’t have to participate in your partner’s hobbies, but you must respect and support their right to do so.

People often ridicule such things when they feel jealous. Others do so out of insecurity or fear. For example, a man with poor literacy skills may ridicule his wife for going to a book group, or tell her it is a waste of time. But the real reason for his hostility may in fact be jealousy and fear. Deep down, though he will not admit it, he may be frightened that meeting other book lovers will make her realize how dull and uninteresting his conversation is.


Selfishness comes in many forms. For example, a wife may fail to support her husband through his cancer treatment because she is so focussed on her career. Or a husband may do nothing to help around the house after the birth of their child. These are quite extreme examples, of course, and ones that may fatally undermine the relationship. But selfishness can also be revealed in more petty, mundane ways. For example, one partner may wander into the room tired and bored, pick up the remote and change the channel, even though the other person was watching something. A petty squabble then follows:

“I was watching that”

“No you weren’t, you were reading a magazine”

“No I wasn’t, I was watching it.”

Some people genuinely cannot understand why their partner is upset by such things. The crucial point to remember is that it isn’t the TV show, or the failure to pick them up from work, or help them carry their bags etc. that bothers them. What upsets people is the selfishness and lack of care.

Thinking You Are Always Right

Some people can be incredibly arrogant and will assume that they are right even when they know nothing about the subject. This is irritating enough in someone you barely know. Imagine having to live with such a person!

In many relationships, one partner assumes the dominant role and establishes themselves as “the clever one,” or “the wise one,” the one the other must defer to. This can be irritating beyond belief. The reasons people do so vary. For example, one partner may have enjoyed a better education than the other, or come from a higher social class, or have travelled a great deal more. Even today, many men still assume they know more about politics or world events than their female partner.

If your partner does always think they’re right, begin by asking yourself whether you do the same. It may also be worth considering why your partner behaves in this way. Maybe they are compensating because you belittle them so much. Or maybe they lack confidence. An aggressive need to dominate and be right is often a sign of poor rather than healthy self-esteem.

All of these traits are not only irritating, they also reveal a basic lack of respect. If you leave dirty socks laying around, take no interest in your partner’s life, yawn at their hobbies, treat their friends with contempt, and constantly think you are right, what message are you sending? You are essentially saying “I do not respect you.” And someone who does not feel respected is unlikely to feel loved.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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