How to Handle the Annoying Things Your Spouse Won't Stop

11:05 AM

What do you think is the most common question I get as a marriage and family therapist and professor of family studies? The answer: “What can I do to help so and so start (or stop) doing ___________?” The main point of this article is to answer that question in a way that will be helpful to all your relationships, but particularly your marriage. Also, this article is a bit longer than usual, so if you are short on time we've abbreviated the article in a video here. You can always come back for more if you need to.

Since I started teaching and doing therapy, I've received feedback that the Relationship Needs Circle is one of the most useful insights for students and clients. These ideas have changed the way I look at annoying behavior in my children, my spouse, my friends, strangers, and myself. Although I may present them in a way you haven’t seen before, the ideas I will share are not new and have foundations in both theory and research. Along with this article, I’ve also created a video that describes the Relationship Needs Circle in a meaningful way. I hope the visuals will make these ideas easy to understand. Before I jump into the Relationship Needs Circle, let me provide a little context.

Bad Behavior in Relationships is Annoying But Normal
In every marriage, there will be times when bad behavior surfaces. Unfortunately, bad relationship behavior is a staple in many marriages. At some point in the marriage, typically early on, bad relationship behavior begins to surface and often becomes the source of a lot of conflict. These behaviors often contribute to a decline in our loving feelings (check out our article about what to do if you fall out of love). Bad relationship behavior is different from other annoying behaviors; such as not doing the dishes or putting on the toilet paper roll the wrong way. While any annoying behavior can cause a little headache in a marriage (ask my wife about my bad dish habit), bad relationship behaviors are much more damaging. 

Top 10 Stupid Things We Do in Marriage
What are some common relationship behaviors that can damage your marriage? Here is a list to get you started:
  • Yelling
  • Criticisms
  • Nagging, badgering, or nit-picking
  • Being disagreeable
  • Passive-aggressiveness, such as giving the silent treatment
  • Withholding love or physical affection 
  • Avoidance in its many forms, such as being emotionally disengaged or intentionally distracted 
  • Micromanaging and other efforts to control people
  • Lying
  • Defensiveness
Now it is normal to fall into these behaviors on occasion, hopefully infrequently. However, just because something is normal, doesn’t mean it is helpful. In fact, if any of these behaviors become persistent in your marriage, it can escalate your marriage from a common cold to something more serious. And if that’s not enough, these behaviors are really annoying. So naturally, we do our best to help our partner change.

What you are doing to “help” your partner change is not working. It’s making things worse.
What is the natural response to getting your partner to stop nagging or avoiding conversations with you? For many people, it is to employ another bad behavior on our Top 10 list above. She nags, so he checks out. He checks out, so she keeps nagging. She lies, so he badgers her for the truth; but because he badgers her for the truth, she keeps lying! Sounds helpful, doesn’t it? Some couples will follow patterns like this for years, all the while their marital friendship and loving feelings are suffering.  For now, we aren’t going to tackle the foolishness of trying to change your partner (we will discuss that in our next common cold article); instead, we are going to focus on the why behind bad relationship behavior and how we can overcome it.

The Why Behind Bad Behavior
Most often, bad relationship behavior springs from deep and unmet needs. This is not to say that bad relationship behavior is excusable. It’s not. But the reality is that unmet needs make it more difficult to make good choices. Whether we realize it or not, we all strive to have these needs met. It's part of human nature. Here is a list of emotional needs that, if unmet, are likely to motivate poor relationship choices: 
  • Security
  • Love and connection
  • Autonomy (the ability to choose for yourself and not be controlled)
  • Respect
  • Competence 
  • Progress
  • Acceptance 
The Relationship Needs Circle
When these needs go unmet, they increase certain emotions. Initially, they trigger what we call primary emotions, such as fear, shame, hurt, disappointment, and loneliness.  These emotions are deep and often go unrecognized.  They are more vulnerable emotions that are more difficult to talk about. We tend to either be unaware of these emotions or ignore them altogether. One reason we ignore these deeper emotions is that they trigger more reactive emotions that are much easier to identify. These are called secondary emotions. The most common secondary emotions that I have seen in family relationships are anger and anxiety. These emotions lead directly to the bad relationship behaviors we mentioned above. The Relationship Needs Circle can help us visualize this process. Here is a little video to help explain the Relationship Needs Circle:

Here is the Relationship Needs Circle in a single image:

A Disclaimer on Needs
The Relationship Needs Circle should be used to understand bad behavior and become more compassionate, NOT as a means to justify our poor choices. Nothing justifies our bad relationship behavior. We can choose to act in accordance with our best selves, with who we really want to be. We don’t have to cave into the primary and secondary emotions that come because needs are not met.  In the therapy world, we call this capacity to act for ourselves differentiation. Someone who is well-differentiated can stay rational and keep a level head in the face of very intense emotions. This is really hard work, but it is something we should all strive for. If you struggle managing your emotions when you are confronted with conflict or unmet needs (which is most of us), I encourage you to start by clearly defining (as in writing down in detail) who you would like to be in those circumstances. This will give our minds something to hold on to when our emotions threaten to take us away.

In addition, we have a responsibility to strive to meet our own needs. This doesn’t mean that we can’t rely on others and work together to have our needs met, but whenever you work with imperfect people you are bound to be let down. As a religious person, I believe that we can have all of our significant needs met through a deep and abiding relationship with God. (Side note: I also believe God uses other people to help meet our needs.) Through our relationship with God, we can become more comfortable in our own skin, feel more accepted and secure, and get a sense that we are progressing in life. However, whether you believe in God or not, we need to develop realistic expectations for what other people can do for us.  Sure, we can and should learn to appropriately rely upon others, but we should never develop an attitude of entitlement. This will only hurt our relationships.  

5 Steps To Help Eliminate Bad Behavior
In reality, it’s not likely that we will eliminate all bad relationship behavior. We are humans and will continue to make all sorts of mistakes. However, there are specific things we can do to actually help our partner overcome their bad relationship habits, rather than feeding them with our own bad behavior.

First, remember that you cannot change other people; you can only influence them. This is a painful truth to learn, but the sooner we learn it, the better off we will be. When we try to change others, we lose our ability to have a positive influence on them.

Second, respond to the need, not the bad behavior. When bad relationship behavior bothers you, consider the Relationship Needs Circle and imagine what might be underneath the surface. Then respond to the need, not the behavior. When your wife nags, don't react to the nagging. What is motivating her anxiety? When your husband withdraws, don't react to the withdrawal. What is motivating his anger (or anxiety)? This doesn’t mean that we will always ignore the behavior; we may need to discuss it at some point. However, you’ll find better success resolving your concerns when you focus on what is motivating the behavior, rather than the behavior itself.

Third, identify the things you should stop doing, apologize for doing those things, and strive to be better. Ask yourself this question: “Are there small and simple things that I do that make it harder for my partner to feel secure, accepted, loved, respected, competent, and like he or she is progressing? Are there things I do to try and control my spouse?” Once you’ve identified some specific things, say you are sorry for doing those things and commit to changing those bad habits.

Fourth, identify something small and simple that, if done over time, would increase feelings of security, acceptance, love, respect, autonomy, and progression. The best way to determine what would be most helpful is to ask. I would encourage you to ask your partner what you can do to send a message of acceptance (or security, love, etc.). For those who pray, and perhaps even for those who don’t, I encourage you to ask God what you can do to help meet the needs of your spouse. I have found this to be particularly helpful. But just in case you are stuck, let me give you some examples that may be helpful:
  • Set aside time each day just to listen to your partner 
  • Initiate non-sexual physical touch at least once a day   
  • Say “I love you” in a meaningful way every day (to keep this meaningful, it can be helpful to mention specific things you love about him or her)   
  • Put your smartphone away for at least a couple hours each day
  • Hide simple love notes for your spouse around the house
  • Choose to serve your spouse daily in a small way, such as rubbing their feet, taking over the kid duties for the evening, or doing something around the house that your spouse typically does
  • Once a day, ask your spouse what would be the most meaningful thing you could do for them that day

These are just examples, but they may at least get you started. It will be most powerful to come up with something more tailored to your relationship.

Lastly, remember that needs are not met in a day, so be patient and persistent. Although security, respect, acceptance, progress, and love can be lost very quickly, meeting needs take consistent effort over time. Bad relationship behavior is not eliminated in a day, even if both of you are trying to eliminate it.  It takes a commitment to do the small and simple things, day in and day out.  If we commit to doing something to send the message of acceptance (or security, love, etc.), but give up after only a few short weeks or months, we are not likely to experience the fruits of your labor. We reap what we sow. Only those who are committed for the long haul reap the rewards that can be had in marriage.

Remember: before you react to bad behavior, ask yourself what is going on underneath. Otherwise, you are likely to make things worse even if you think you are being helpful.

Do you know someone who could benefit from this understanding of the Relationship Needs Circle? Take a moment to share this with them via social media!

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  1. This was a great article! I really appreciated the video, it helped to summarize everything simply. This concept of how we may cause the very behaviors that we want to stop reminds me of Anatomy of Peace.

    1. Thanks for reading Thomas! It's amazing how often our efforts are unknowingly counterproductive.
      We are glad you enjoyed the video!

  2. Love this article! Thank you for sharing such great content in this website. This is the first time I came upon it, but I will make sure to subscribe and come back.

    1. Thanks for reading Bianca! Hopefully it was helpful :)

    2. Bianca, in case you couldn't find it-- there is a subscribe button near the bottom of the page, under the Facebook ad, titled "follow by email"! We are currently looking into creating a subscribe button that is easier to find, but that's where it is for now. Thank you again for reading!!

  3. Hi, I'm using a quote from this article in a paper. I can't find a date of publication to cite... and am I correct in assuming Dr. Radcliffe is the author of the article? Thanks!

    1. Hey Tracie! Yes, I (Cole Ratcliffe) wrote it based on what I've learned from emotion-focused therapy, attachment theory, self-determination theory, and working with clients. This was published June 2017.
      Good luck on your paper!

  4. That's amazing! Thank you so much for this great article!

    1. We are so grateful to know you found value here, Unknown! Thanks for reading!

  5. You have a typo after the list of 10 stupid things we do in marriage. The sentence "what are some common relationship behaviors that can damage your Marriage? Here is a list to get you started". This sentence repeats AFTER THE LIST as well.

    1. Thank you for pointing that out! Formatting can be really inconvenient and we appreciate the extra pair of eyes to help make our articles more accurate and digestible.

  6. Great article! Thank you for sharing it!

  7. This was so succinct and spot on! I so appreciate this! Thank you!

    1. Thank you for your feedback, B. HAPPY, we hope you continue to come back for me as well as share the insights you've gained with those around you!

  8. Why we need to spy on our partner? Will it get better or worse? I think it will be worse.

    1. Hi Unknown, that was a scam that posted about spying on your partner with the number to a private hacker! I have deleted the comment as to not confuse anyone, or trap them into calling the number.

  9. Thanks for sharing this article! This is very helpful to every relationship.

    1. Jen, thank you for reading and for the kind feedback! We are so glad you found value here to be applied to different relationships. I completely agree there!

  10. Really love this article. A friend of mine is going through hard time in her marriage. I might just share this with her.
    Thanks again.

    1. Hey Unknown, thank you for reading our article and considering sharing with your friend. We are glad to know that you found value here and hope that your friend does too. We all need support from friends like you. Thanks to you!


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