Why do little flaws in our partners bother us so much?
Sometimes an annoying habit from a partner is something to just grin and bear. And sometimes it's a dealbreaker. Husband and wife team; Pamela Weintraub and Mark Teich; take you through the ins and outs of personality allergens. Marthe*, an event planner for a New York City nonprofit, ended a relationship because of a laugh. “I met him on the tennis courts. He was smart, pleasant, and a good player who loved the game as much as I did,” she says. Bonded by their shared lust for the sport, a romance was born. But after about a year, she found a trait she couldn’t tolerate off the courts. “If we were at a party or out with friends and anyone told a joke, he’d burst out laughing—always louder than anybody else,” she says. “He’d bray, snort, and wheeze like some asthmatic animal. Everyone’s eyes would go wide.” Marthe hoped the quirk would fade in time. No such luck. Soon the intensity of her tennis partner’s guffaws began to affect his sex appeal. “I became repulsed; I had to break it off,” she says. “I never even told him my lame reason for ditching him.” Modern-Day Dealbreaker If Marthe’s story sounds funny, it may be because the things we tend to end relationships over usually aren’t. Typically, they’re big, dramatic romantic wrecking balls: infidelity, an addiction, or differences in opinion about a major life decision, like whether to get married or have kids. Few of us think that little things—loud chewing or, say, singing the lyrics from that Kit Kat commercial incessantly—could actually sabotage romance. Yet new research on such annoyances shows they regularly erode, and frequently end, relationships. Michael Cunningham, a University of Louisville psychologist, began studying the phenomenon in the context of intimate relationships and found reactions so intense he likened them to physical allergies. In fact, the behaviors could become so irritating they would cause stomachaches, rashes—even fevers. He named them “social allergens,” identifying four distinct behaviors: Uncouth (forgoing deodorant, peeing with the door open); intrusive (peeking in his inbox, criticizing her hair or clothes); egocentric (always insisting on picking the movie, or being right); and norm-violating (drunken partying, shoplifting). The allergens also proved a reliable litmus test for romantic success—or lack thereof. Too Close For Comfort So if allergens can spell the end, how do they begin? It turns out that pivotal moment when a couple settles into everyday love (when sexy, witty, and pretty take a backseat to easy, cozy, and lazy) is when they’re most likely to emerge. Cunningham describes this phase as being a transition from “front stage behavior”—when we’re always on, trying to make an impression—to “back stage behavior,” when we drop all pretense and share our “true” selves. Sometimes, all too true: After a year or two, he says, we tend to act freely—and that begets trouble. While an allergen may start as a mere irritation, over time it becomes “symbolic of larger things,” says Cunningham. Consider, for example, smelly feet guy: Each night he takes off his socks before bed, leaving them on the floor, where the odor wafts up to his partner. “She’s disgusted. She wants them in the hamper,” Cunningham says. “He’s tired. He wants to go to sleep.”The real danger, he says, is that “neither of [them] see the ‘sock issue’ as jeopardizing the relationship.” Yet this is when a couple first flirts with disaster: She complains; he dismisses her reaction as irrational and moody. The more he dismisses, the more she sees him as selfish and uncaring. Suddenly, stinky socks are grounds for couples therapy. “You do a slow burn,” says Robin M. Kowalski, psychology professor at Clemson University. “Anger accumulates over time and you wonder, ‘Why doesn’t he have more respect for me?’” What may have seemed cure and innocent during the first few months of dating starts to grate, until a tic is interpreted as a personal affront—and battle lines are drawn.