Relationship column: If you look at what you don’t like, you’ll be unhappy in a relationship
Dear Neil: Over the past two years, my lady has increasingly gotten on my nerves, and it has made me question whether I want to continue in the relationship with her. In a nutshell, she keeps her apartment cluttered and in great disarray, she talks way too loud (people stare at us in a restaurant) and she has a hard time warming up after we have had a fight.
But she is also a sweetheart: warm, affectionate and caring, and she has been very good to me. I have every reason to believe she is wild about me. But these annoyances have increasingly gotten under my skin, and I can’t let them go. Every time I think about them, they make me upset. She and I have never talked about these issues, because I don’t want to hurt her feelings.
So what do I do? It’s hard to be around her flaws, but she is also a great person, and I am reluctant to end a relationship with a lady who is so promising. Can you advise me?
— Torn in Vancouver
Dear Torn: You don’t want to talk about any of the things you’re irritated about because you don’t want to hurt her feelings, but you’re thinking of leaving the relationship over those issues? Do you think that leaving her will hurt her feelings less than telling her that something is irritating you?
You have a choice. You can either pay attention to (and even magnify) your lady’s negative traits and behaviors, or you can appreciate (and even celebrate) her positive qualities and the “gifts” she offers you.
Most of us have faced a similar choice: we either focus on the negative and grow more withdrawn, judgmental and critical, or we find a way to minimise the things we don’t especially like so we can instead focus on appreciating the positive and the hopeful. We can focus on the negative and be unhappy, or we can focus on the positive and feel fortunate, more at peace and more content.
But in addition to looking at the positives, you must address the irritations you have with her. If you don’t address what’s bothering you, you will never give yourself the opportunity of repairing what’s wrong. You could, for instance, tell her that the disarray and the sloppiness is bothering you, and you don’t feel comfortable in her apartment as a result.
If she were receptive to your feelings, you could then offer to help her get her apartment in order. Once that happened, you could lavishly compliment her on having such an attractive place, and every time you came over after that, you could tell her how good her apartment looks. In this way, you might help her to defeat the problem — or to greatly reduce her clutter.
Regarding talking too loud, perhaps you could tell her when she’s being too loud (she may have deficient hearing, and she may not know that her voice seems loud to you). You might try saying: “Do you know your voice is really loud right now?” or “I’m right here. I can hear you. No need to talk so loud to me.” If she is receptive to this feedback, you might be able to help her modulate her voice and make her voice easier on your (and other people’s) ears.
Perhaps not every problem can be dealt with and resolved this way, but it sure beats what you’re doing, which is building a case against her. Think of being in a court of law, and your lady is on trial. It sure appears as if you have been silently building a case against her, convicting her of her flaws and foibles, and creating a justification in your own mind for leaving her. This means that from time to time, you will look for evidence to support your feelings — in essence looking for things you don’t like. But looking at what you don’t like will make you unhappy in the relationship, and it’s ultimately self-defeating.
If you’re not careful, you will talk yourself out of the relationship without ever giving her a chance to address, fix or correct any of these issues. It is extremely unwise to leave a relationship without ever presenting what’s in your way, or what you would need in order to be happy and content with her. She may not do it, but she deserves a chance to know that something’s wrong and what she could do if she were wanting to fix it.
So again, let me offer you the choice: focus on the negatives (and don’t say anything) and be unhappy with her, or focus on the positives (and speak up) and give yourself the opportunity of happily ever after with her. Your call.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder. His column is in its 21st year of publication and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777, or email him through his website: http://www.heartrelationships.com. He is not able to respond individually to queries.