Marriage panel members answer the question of what to do when your spouse bothers you.
This post is part of our ASK THE PANEL series where readers submit questions and our marriage panel answers them. As explained here.
Here’s the submitted question:
” . . . . I’ve been married a little over two years now and I still don’t feel like I’ve gotten down figuring out when I’m in the wrong and when my husband is. Our marriage is pretty good, but little things my husband does bother me all the time. Like, when he is oblivious to how messy our house is and leaves his stuff everywhere or when I want to just chill at home and he wants to go out or when he stays up really late and I think he should come to bed earlier. Stuff like that. I’m sounding like a real great wife right now . . . So my question is, is there a litmus test or someway I can gauge if something that bothers me is just something I should get over or something that I need to bring up and find a solution to? I know you guys do the whole companionship inventory thing, but whenever we have discussions like that I think my husband just feels like he’s under attack (maybe I’m doing it wrong?) and afterwards I’m always left questioning, “Gosh, am I the wrong one or him?” Like I seriously can’t figure out if I’m being selfish or if I’m justified in my thoughts and we’re just bad at communicating.
I started to type out a long-winded response about picking your battles and communication and compromise but then I realized I needed to go up a level.
Let’s talk for a moment about empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
We recently had a marital breakthrough regarding empathy. I am swimming in it (to the point where it’s exhausting and I can’t watch the news without crying because people are hurting) and my husband…is an engineer. Empathy comes naturally to some people and others have to really work at it. A lack of empathy can cause issues in marriage because it makes one spouse less likely to consider the feelings of the other, especially when it comes to the little things.
So when I read your email I see a lot of opportunities for empathy.
You need to let go of the idea of “right” and “wrong” because nothing in marriage is ever so black and white. Instead, focus on putting yourself in your husband’s shoes. Does he want to go out because date nights help him bond with you? Is that his way to unwind? Is he staying up late because school/work takes up so much of his time that he doesn’t have the time to pursue hobbies he enjoys?
He needs to put himself in your shoes as well. He should be able to understand that it’s hard for you to relax when your home is messy and that you miss cuddling with him at night because he stays up so late.
Our solution has been a nightly Empathy Inventory. When we go to bed my husband will ask, “How did I show empathy today?” and I give him credit for the things I noticed (he started the rice cooker for me when I realized I had forgotten a dinner ingredient and had to run to the store. He put the baby down so I could zone out on the couch for a few minutes) then he mentions anything he specifically did because he was thinking of me and my feelings (He took the laundry upstairs so I wouldn’t have to. He came out of his home office in the middle of the day to spend 5 minutes chatting with me because he knows I love that).
It’s really easy to empathize when it comes to big things- a broken leg or a lost job. It’s a lot harder when you’re talking about a dirty dish in the sink or a movie only one of you wants to see. The more you practice empathy for your spouse the more those little annoyances will fade. Either because he’s changed his behavior or because you don’t see them as annoying anymore. It’s not easy and it takes time but it’s worth it!
In a very concise statement, my answer would be: It’s not him. It’s you. I know that that sounds heartless and painful. When we’re bothered its not helpful to focus on what the other person can do, only on what we can do. I have been going through a very similar learning situation lately in my own marriage. I was (and still am at times) finding fault with my husband and feeling frustrated and irritated with him for certain things. And if you want to know why it’s you and not him, spend some time reading a few books (particular ones that I would recommend are Remembering Wholeness by Carol Tuttle, You can Heal Your Life by Lousie Hay, and Leadership and Self Deception by the Arbinger Institute.) Take the time to really reflect. It might be a painful process, like it was for me (and still is… it’s an ongoing process), but like William C. Hannan said, “I know this transformation is painful, but you’re not falling apart; you’re just falling into something different, with a new capacity to be beautiful.” And some other wise person (whom I don’t know the name of) said, “Sometimes when things are falling apart, they may actually be falling into place.”
1) Love him, and pray for him. Every day take note of three things you love about him, or find three ways to serve him. Every time you have a negative thought, turn it around and think three good thoughts about him, or do something for him. One of the best ways to get rid of negative feelings is to pray for help seeing the good in your husband. Take time to remember why you married him.
2) Spend time with him! For me, one of the biggest red flags that I need time with my husband is that I start getting irritated with little things.
3 ) Think about how you communicate with each other. I often think that I’ve told my husband something, but then realize that what I said and what I meant could be two different things. My husband happens to be a very literal person. Sometimes this is awesome. Sometimes it causes me to get frustrated. But learning how we each communicate has been incredibly helpful for our marriage.
Take marriage classes! We have been able to attend a few seminars on marriage, and even when we don’t totally agree with everything said, it at least gets the conversation going. If you can’t find any classes near you, read a book together! I don’t think it even has to be The Perfect Book about relationships – just read one and talk about what you agree/disagree with. That book about the four love languages is a pretty easy one to start with. I used to get frustrated on my birthdays and Christmas because gifts are a big deal to me. I spend hours coming up with the perfect gift. He would go and buy exactly what I asked for. As nice as that was, I wanted something he came up with. I never put this into words until we went to a free seminar about that book. All of the sudden I realized that he thought he was giving me the perfect gift because it was what I asked for. I, on the other hand, was frustrated because I expected him to just know that I really just wanted something he picked out, even if it wasn’t what I would have picked out.
4 ) Figure out what’s really bothering you. Not to get all therapist-y on you (because I am so NOT a therapist!) but when you see a messy floor, are you seeing more than just a mess? For example, do you see shoes and papers on the floor, or do you see evidence that he doesn’t care about you?
I used to get irritated whenever my husband would tell me he would “watch the kids.” It bothered me because that word “watch” made me feel like he was doing me a favor, when the kids are every bit as much his responsibility as they are mine. (I’m embarrassed just typing this. See – we all have our things that make us less than the ideal spouse!) When I figured out that was bothering me, I told him that I realized it was a silly thing, but that for some inexplicable reason it was important to me. The poor man was just trying to be helpful, not realizing that what I was hearing was “The kids are your responsibility, but since you are going grocery shopping for my food, I’ll do you a favor and watch them for you.” Once he understood my perspective, he tried to phrase it differently (again, poor man!) and I tried to remember that he really meant nothing more than exactly what he said: he would watch the kids.
5) Bring up the important stuff. If you’ve looked at why things bother you, and it’s because to you, a mess on the floor represents a lack of respect (or whatever) for your efforts to keep the house clean, then talk to him about it. I’m pretty sure he isn’t doing it to bother you. Find a compromise. For example, in our house, we have “zones.” If the kitchen and living room are clean, I can ignore almost any other mess. He understands that now, and knows that if I’m having a bad day, one of the nicest things he can do for me is to make sure those two rooms are clean. But in general, we both work together to keep those areas of the house clean, and then I try not to worry about the rest.
It is easy to turn that conversation into an accusation session, so do be careful there. Instead of the conversation having a nagging, “you always do this…” tone, focus on how you can work together to find a way to make things better. It’s not about who is right and who is wrong. That is a mine field you don’t want to get into! It’s about finding a solution together – something that works for both of you. And talk about things you love about him as well. I don’t think we can tell our spouses often enough why we love them.
On the other hand, if it’s just something irritating but nothing more, then really try to watch your thoughts. Negative thoughts can eat away at you, and they can kill your marriage. Do you love him, or do you love a clean room more? I love a clean room as much as the next girl, but I’d take my husband every time. I think I’m safe in saying that anyone reading this blog would pick their spouse as well. Focus on the good, and you’ll be alright.
Great advice – thanks ladies!
What about YOU, what do you think? What do you do when your spouse bothers you?