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Published: Sunday, 2/26/2006

That's so irritating!

BY ANN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

You may once have owned a pair of shoes that pinched more painfully with each step, until finally you couldn't take it anymore and kicked them off for good.

Or a rough tag on a shirt that started as an annoying little scratch on the back of your neck and by the end of the day had rubbed you raw.

Relationships can be like that: We put them on. We discover a flaw that grows more aggravating each time we experience it. We run.

That's what researchers at the University of Louisville say in a report published last year called "Social allergies in romantic relationships: Behavioral repetition, emotional sensitization, and dissatisfaction in dating couples."

In layman's terms, that means a romantic partner's annoying or obnoxious habits - what the study team dubbed "social allergens" - can sour and eventually even break up a relationship.

"Negative behavior increases and the negative reaction to them increases," lead researcher Michael Cunningham said in a telephone interview. Mr. Cunningham, a psychologist in the university's department of communications, said that while other studies have documented that process of disenchantment, he and his colleagues looked at specific categories of offensive behavior and how partners reacted to them.

Any of their categories sound familiar?

  • Uncouth habits: poor grooming, bad table manners, not cleaning up after yourself in the bathroom.

  • Inconsiderate acts: always being late, talking endlessly about yourself, refusing to do your share of the housework.

  • Intrusive behaviors: criticizing, controlling, threatening.

  • Norm violations: drinking too much, avoiding work, flirting with other people, and so forth.

    Men and women were equal offenders, by the way. Findings pointed to men as more uncouth and "norm violating," and women as more inconsiderate and intrusive.

    People such as Diane Patino of Holland know the power of aggravation from personal experience. She's living proof of the study's conclusions.

    "I once dated a guy who would read the names of the store signs out loud as we drove past them. Cute when you're 5, not when you're 35!," she wrote in an e-mail response to The Blade's request for readers to share their experience with romantic "allergies."

    "One Christmas Eve as we were driving back home from church, it really got to me. I yelled at him to 'Stop with the juvenile behavior and just be quiet.' I refused to accept his Christmas gift, because I knew that was the end of the relationship."

    Maybe if everything else had been going well, the sign-reading wouldn't have been so irksome. "It was the straw that broke the camel's back," Ms. Patino agreed later by phone. "You have behavior in people that puts you off and then that one thing that sends you over the edge, and it ends."

    The escalating yuck effect is similar to what happens physically when you touch poison ivy, according to the University of Louisville researchers. The first time is likely to trigger a small negative reaction which then increases with repeated contact. The itch may drive you mad.

    "The closeness and familiarity of a romantic relationship can create a range of emotions, from contentment to contempt," says the report published in the professional journal Personal Relationships. "Learning about the partner's hopes and dreams, and exchanging support, kindness, and affection, can lead to love and commitment. But the process of going backstage and learning everything there is to know about the other person's private self can also lead to some undesirable surprises."

    As Mr. Cunningham pointed out, "People put on their best face at the front of the relationship, and often let more unpleasant behavior come out later on as the relationship progresses."

    Although the researchers were working with college-aged men and women - with a mean age of just under 20 - Mr. Cunningham said he doesn't think the results would be different with older subjects.

    "You can acquire tolerance and coping skills the older you get, but irritation is still irritation," he said. Maturity doesn't necessarily bring acceptance: "Sometimes older people are crotchety about things," Mr. Cunningham observed.

    However, Valerie Liebert, a professional clinical counselor in Perrysburg, said she finds younger couples are more likely to sweat the small stuff. "They haven't gotten to the point of being able to overlook some of those things," she explained, noting that minor irritations exist in long-standing marriages but aren't usually the reasons why such couples seek her help.

    Ms. Liebert said the real issue may be lack of consideration and respect for the other person - both in people who won't try to stop doing whatever it is that makes their partner crazy and, on the other side, of getting bogged down in minor complaints. "You just have to learn to live with some of that," she advised.

    Likewise, Mr. Cunningham advised give and take: "Talk about these behaviors and focus on plans for changing what can be changed or tolerating what can't be changed."

    Maybe you two could make a deal, he went on. As in: I'll agree to stop saying "ya know" if you'll stop criticizing my driving. Or, I'll stop spitting in front of you if you'll stop slurping your coffee.

    The psychologist, who is now looking at irritating behavior in the workplace, advised that you speak up about what's bothering you about the other person - diplomatically, of course, and before you have reached the breaking point.

    These things don't magically go away, Mr. Cunningham said. "Habits tend to persist, and expecting the other person to pick up on subtle signs of irritation isn't realistic."

    So talk: nicely, not with food in your mouth, and don't interrupt. Stop rolling your eyes. And don't give me that look.

    Contact Ann Weber at: aweber@theblade.com or 419-724-6126.



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