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It’s pretty easy to keep company with people who have similar interests and personalities, but there’s something to the “opposites attract” idea, too. The differences between us keep things exciting, adding spice to the relationship and depth to our conversations. But, as the saying goes, you can have too much of a good thing. Enter quirks. You’ve got ‘em. I’ve got ‘em. And sometimes, they drive our partners wild (…not always in a good way).

So, we should probably start by distinguishing quirks from bad habits. I’d consider a quirk something like scraping the bottom of the ice cream bowl, having an eccentric fashion sense, or not eating crackers or granola bars with any visible “holes” in them (*cough* my 3-year-old). Bad habits, on the other hand, can cause harm and jeopardize your health, relationships, or career. The stakes go beyond “that’s annoying” to “that’s unacceptable/dangerous/problematic.”

I’m often asked by well-intentioned people how they can address their partners’ quirks and shortcomings without being hurtful. Here’s my take…

If it’s a quirk:

  • Pick your battles. Some quirks (like my daughter’s, hopefully) run their course or are merely situational, and you don’t want to be overly critical. When we look for the flaws in others, we easily find them, and the nature of our relationships begins to change as a result of putting them under the microscope all the time.
  • Some quirks only come out around people we love and trust. If we tease our partners for getting all red-faced when they are angry or the way they look naked, they will stop being vulnerable with us, and the relationship will suffer. Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott explain in their book Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts“The deepest kind of sharing can take place only when there’s no fear of rejection.”

If there’s a particular habit that you really can’t stand, say scraping the bottom of the ice cream bowl, you could say something like this:

“Hey honey, the sound of the metal spoon scraping the ceramic bowl really grates on me. I know that probably sounds silly, but it’s a strong gut reaction I have. Could you please stop doing that?” (You could also present reasonable alternatives like drinking the melted ice cream from the bowl, or using a plastic spoon vs. metal, if they really insist on getting every last drop. Frankly, I’m in the camp that good dessert should never be wasted.)

If it’s truly a “bad” habit:

  • Use the soft start-up formula mentioned here. Maybe your partner put on a lot of weight recently and you’re concerned about their blood pressure, or their ability to stay active with your kids. Weight and appearance can be landmine topics, but if you frame them as concerns you have (because you care) and something you can address together, the talk may go over better.
  • If we view our partners as the problem and try to make them feel guilty or inadequate for their bad habits, our concerns will go over like a lead balloon, no matter how legitimate they are (e.g., “You’re always late to everything. You’re so irresponsible!”).
  • Remember, you are supposed to be a safe place for your partner to land. Dr. John Gottman explains our partners need to know we love and accept them as they are before they will be receptive to making changes. If we have a laundry list of complaints about our partners, they will begin to wonder why we like them or want to be together at all, making them more resistant to our feedback and requests.

In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor explains, “Common sense is not common action.” We can know the right thing to do in theory and still struggle mightily in the execution. He explains we often struggle to make changes in our lives because we are too reliant on willpower alone, which gets taxed each day by other demands like working on tedious projects, potty training toddlers, and other tasks that require a lot of energy and staying power. When we run down our willpower, we’re more apt to take the easy, automatic route in other areas, like mindlessly scrolling through social media, compulsively playing Candy Crush, overeating, or binge watching our favorite shows. These passive ventures rarely leave us happy or fulfilled. In doing so day after day, we form bad habits that are hard to break.

At the end of the day, we largely need to be accepting of our partner’s quirks (they are a part of the package deal and everyone has them), and recognize if we come after theirs too hard, many of our own could end up in the cross hairs.

When it comes to bad habits, we are accountability buddies and need to help our partners stay healthy and make responsible choices. However, we have to do so with love, in the context of an otherwise accepting, safe relationship where they trust us and know we care for them and appreciate their many strengths.

CHALLENGE: What are some quirks you give your partner a hard time about? Can YOU find a place for the more trivial ones and avoid getting caught up in criticism, sarcasm, and teasing that could tear your partner down?

It’s not our job to highlight all of our partner’s weaknesses. It is our job to acknowledge and appreciate their strengths. It’s probably pretty obvious, but we’re all more receptive to being built up and seen for the things we do right vs. torn down for the ways we’re less than perfect.

Disclaimer: Abuse and addiction would require different discussions and options than those addressed in the broad scope of this piece. Reach out to a qualified local therapist or counselor if you have concerns around these or other serious relationship or personal issues.