How to Overcome Annoying Habits

Letter #1

Introduction: The subject of this Q&A column is annoying habits and independent behavior, two of the six Love Busters. They are Love Buster because whenever you engage in it, you withdraw love units from your spouse's Love Bank. Over time an annoying habit or independent behavior can completely drain the Love Bank, leaving your spouse without any feeling of love for you.

Annoying habits are repeated without much thought. Personal mannerisms such as the way you eat, the way you clean up after yourself, and the way you talk are examples of habits that could be annoying. What qualifies a habit to be an annoying habit is that whenever you do it, your spouse is irritated.

If your spouse schedules an activity that you find annoying, I call it independent behavior, and it falls into another category of Love Busters. Independent behavior may include sporting events you attend, your choice of church or a personal exercise program. As is the case with annoying habits, these activities are also annoying, but I treat them differently than annoying habits.

Annoying habits and independent behavior can be overcome.

This week, I am posting letters from two women. One is stuck with a husband who persists in an annoying habit, and the other, an independent behavior. I hope my answers to their letters helps you rid your marriage of these Love Buster that are two of the most poorly recognized sources of marital unhappiness.

Dear Dr. Harley,

My husband and I have been married for over 5 years and we just had a baby a month and a half ago. I have a question that I am almost too embarrassed to ask. It's about my spouse's eating habits.

It may be my fault because I am probably too sensitive about the way people eat. I can't stand a single noise coming out of anybody's mouth or plate (i.e., stirring a bowl of oatmeal). It's gotten to a point that I know it's not reasonable for me to expect my husband to be considerate in that area, since he already is as careful as he can when he eats. However, any noise he makes causes me to resent him.

I find myself thinking: "I hope he finishes his meal soon" and at the same time I think "You're being ridiculous and you hurt his feelings when you make it evident that the noise is making you sick". We have talked about it and since he already has made the effort of adjusting to my dislikes, I agree that it's inconsiderate of me to still feel sickened at the smallest noises.

We do not know what to do, because I have admitted to him that it's hard for me not to feel this way, even though I wish I could control it better.

Since we have three meals a day together, this is a real problem because I collect negative feelings during those times and I become unresponsive and detached. He feels rejected and resents me, with reason I think. I feel stupid for having gotten to this point, but I can not help it. I have some other small irritations like this and I would love to either get rid of them or find a good way to cope with them.

What can we do?


Dear R. G.,

What you are up against is what I call an annoying habit>. It's one of the six Love Busters (look it up under Love Busters in my Basic Concepts section). When compared with the other Love Busters, it hardly seems worth mentioning. But because it occurs so often, it can often be the most destructive Love Buster of all.

Every time your husband annoys you when he eats, he withdraws love units from his account in your Love Bank. Since this has been going on for some time, this one bad habit may have caused you to lose most of your love for him. That may account for your feeling "unresponsive and detached." He may be the perfect husband in every other way, but unless he can learn to overcome this bad habit, the positive effects of all of his good habits may be squandered.

Your husband can eliminate any annoying habits that he has, including making noise when he eats. But you need to approach the problem the same way you would approach learning to drive a car. The habits you want him to develop must be carefully defined and monitored until they are replaced by good habits.

First, make it very clear what it is he does that annoys you when he eats. You say that it is making noise from his mouth or plate. As he eats, identify what it is about his eating that bothers you, and what it is you would like him to do instead. I assume that you don't make much noise when you eat, so you are probably eating the way you would like him to eat.

Then carefully teach him his new eating habits. Watch him eat, and correct him if he falls back into his old way of doing things. You may feel a little discouraged when his habits don't change right away, and he may feel uncomfortable trying to eat in a way that doesn't feel right to him. That's the way we all feel when we try to change our habits. But the alternative is a lifetime of unpleasant dining. Once his habits change, and they will within a few weeks, you can look forward to a lifetime of enjoyable meals together, instead.

There are other ways to solve the problem, too. For example, you may want to consider using paper plates and plastic utensils. They do not make nearly as much noise as ceramic and metal. Another thought is the food you eat. You may find that your husband makes more noise chewing certain food. Don't eat that kind of food -- that might be the answer. Or, you might have music playing in the background while you eat, which would mask any noises.

You expressed guilt over the way you react to his eating habits, as if you were somehow to blame. It's true that the problem is yours, because you are the one who is upset whenever you eat with him. But because you are married, every one of your problems is also your husband's problem. You need to work it out together.

Take it from a psychologist who has tried to help many others with problems just like yours: It's easier to change your husband's eating habits than it is to change your reaction to them. Unless you want to be perpetually irritated with your husband, and feel emotionally withdrawn, try what I suggest.

I'm sure that your husband's eating behavior is not the only thing he does that annoys you. If you are like most women, you will be able to make a fairly long list of annoying habits. But regardless of how long your list is, these are habits that should be eliminated if you want to be responsive to your husband. And I'm sure that he wants you to be responsive to him.

So, make a list of all the things he does that annoy you. Take a few days to complete the list to be sure you have as many of them as possible. You may have as many as 25 annoying habits on your list when you are done. One woman I counseled made up a list of over 500.

Then, go through your list and rate them from 1 to 6 according to how much each one bothers you. Give a number "6" to the ones that bother you the very most, and a "1" to those that bother you the least, and use the other numbers for intermediate amounts of annoyance.

Begin with all of those habits that have been given a 6, the habits that effect you the most, and select no more than three habits for elimination. Each of these three habits should be carefully described by you, and you should also describe what elimination means.

We already discussed how you would go about eliminating your husband's habit of making too much noise when he eats. With each problem you list, you should describe as carefully as you can what habits make you uncomfortable, and what new habits would make you feel better.

After you have carefully described habits that make you happy, then practice those habits. When he makes a mistake, you mention it, and he should correct his behavior. You continue to do this until he behaves in a way that doesn't bother you. It takes about three weeks to change most habits, and about three months before you will not have to think about correcting him any more.

None of us like to be criticized, so learning to avoid annoying habits can put a strain on the marriage. Your husband will find your corrections to be annoying to him, and he may tell you that your criticisms are as annoying to him as his eating is annoying to you. But the difference is that eventually he will be eating in a way that you do not find annoying and you won't be criticizing him about it anymore. Whereas, if he continued to eat the way he did, it would be annoying you the rest of your life.

After you have eliminated his annoying eating habit, go on to the second most annoying item on your list, whatever it is, and eliminate that habit the same way, then go on to the third. At that point, I would take a break. In other words, work on three annoying habits at a time, and then give up on annoying habits for a while.

Then, when your husband feels he can take the criticism again, pick three more annoying habits from your list.

Quite frankly, many of the habits on your list can be eliminated by just asking your husband not to do it any longer. You may find that after you have eliminated the three most important annoying habits, he will start eliminating many of the others on his own.

But annoying habits are like the drip, drip, drip of a leaky faucet. It can drive you nuts if you don't fix it. But once it's fixed, the annoyance is gone, and your relationship will be greatly improved.

By the way, you can learn to meet any of his emotional needs the same way, by defining the problem, setting clear goals, and then developing habits to meet his needs.

My book, Love Busters, has a chapter on how to overcome annoying habits, and my book, His Needs, Her Needs, has chapters on how to develop habits that will meet your husband's emotional needs. I suggest that you make a deal with him. Ask him if he would be willing to overcome his annoying habits in return for you learning how to meet his emotional needs. I think it will make the whole procedure much more attractive to him, don't you?

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