When Jim Caudill’s first wife sat him down and explained that she wanted a divorce, she had a long list of complaints: He didn’t help enough with the kids. He didn’t do his share of the housework. They were more devoted to work than to each other.
Then she brought up the English muffins. “She said, ‘You never butter them to the edges, you just pat it in the middle,'” says Mr. Caudill, a 59-year-old winery marketing representative in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Mr. Caudill was stunned. But gradually, the message sunk in. “The weight of a small thing can be onerous,” he says. “It’s a symptom of a larger need.”
Don’t sweat the small stuff? Don’t kid yourself. Just as we often fall in love with the little traits or quirks of our partner—a crooked smile, a goofy laugh or the way he or she fawns over a pet—we can fall out of love over seemingly small things. Aggravation over the little characteristics we would like to change about our mate can build up over time and become much more than the sum of their parts. As any divorce attorney can tell you, a dirty sock left on the floor has a way of turning into: “You do not listen to me, you do not respect me, you do not care about me.”
The experts—marriage counselors and researchers who study why some marriages last while others crumble—can tell you that most unions that fail do so not because of big setbacks, such as a job loss or a sickness in the family. “When couples experience these big challenges, they actually come together and support one another,” says Terri Orbuch, a psychologist and research professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, who is the director of the Early Years of Marriage Project, one of the longest-running studies of married couples in the country. “Instead, it’s the seemingly small things that pull them apart.”
Mr. Caudill says he understands now that his wife was not really upset about a muffin; she was frustrated at having to repeatedly tell him what her preferences were—on many things. “She was telling me I wasn’t hearing her,” he says.
Discuss: What’s your pet peeve with your partner?
When I wrote a column a few months ago about the secrets to staying happily married for the long haul, a striking number of the couples I spoke with explained that a major key to their successful union was learning to cope with small annoyances before they escalate into bigger problems.
Wondering exactly what constitutes a small annoyance? Try this: Ask your friends and family what drives them nuts about their spouses or significant others. I did—and I could not shut them up.
My dad recently went on for eight minutes—I counted—about my mother’s proselytizing for sunscreen. Husbands told me about wives who “chomp” their gum or park the car crooked in the driveway, and wives griped about husbands who leave newspapers on the floor, refuse to put coasters under their drinks or walk around the house naked. One friend told of how her husband untucks all the sheets before getting into bed. A nonprofit executive said his wife has actually bickered with him while she was asleep.
Bathroom habits came up repeatedly. Working on this column, I’ve listened to tirades from men and women about toilet seats (up or down), toilet paper (over the roll or under it), hair left in the sink, bras hanging on the back of the door, dirty tiles and toothpaste tubes. “You cannot squeeze from the middle,” one woman insisted.
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The dishwasher was a sticking point in Vige Barrie’s first marriage. She says her husband often left his dirty dishes in the sink or on the counter, a habit that so infuriated her she even brought it up with their marriage counselor. “It was beyond me that he couldn’t get his hand in gear to deliver a dirty dish a few inches over to the dishwasher,” says Ms. Barrie, 57, who works in media relations at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. “Was I a maid?”
Ms. Barrie, who has since divorced and remarried, was dismayed to find that her second husband also leaves his dirty dishes in the sink. But she says she has finally learned to take it in stride. “By the time you marry a second time, you grow up,” she says. “I realized how important it was to have a partner for the big life stuff and that the little life stuff ruins the present moment.”
So how do you cope when your partner’s habits start to push you over the edge?
You could go to therapy. Tim Richards and his wife have done that every other week—for 19 years. “We avoid lots of conflict by simply deferring many dialogues that are starting to get heated by saying: ‘Let’s talk about it next time we see Patti,'” says Mr. Richards, 68, a small-business owner who lives in Lunenburg, Mass. He says they’ve often avoided arguments this way.
“Very often, at our next session with Patti we can’t remember what we were getting so worked up about,” Mr. Richards says.
Is long-term therapy too expensive? Then try something practical, as Liz Landgren did. She hates the sound of her husband smacking his lips when he chews. “It’s like someone is shlopping through wet mud with flip-flops on,” she says.
Ms. Landgren tried nagging to get him to stop. She tried not eating at home with him, instead taking him to loud restaurants that masked the noise. Then she hit on a solution: The fan on the stove, which she uses as a sound machine. “I had to come up with coping mechanisms,” says Ms. Landgren, 35, a stay-at-home mom in Birmingham, Ala. “He is never going to stop smacking, so the only way I can handle it is with yoga, prayer—and the fan.”
There are other proven coping mechanisms, according to the University of Michigan’s Dr. Orbuch, who has a new book out detailing the results of her research on couples: “Five Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great.”
• Set realistic expectations. Acknowledge that there are just some things that you will not like about your partner all the time.
• Focus on the positive. Dr. Orbuch suggests making a list of 10 characteristics you actually adore—or at least tolerate—in your spouse. “When you turn your concentration to what is going well, it motivates you to keep going in that direction,” she says.
• Discuss the behavior, not your spouse’s personality. This allows your partner to change. And be careful to use the word “I” and not “you.” (It is helpful to say: “I get upset when you leave your underwear on the bathroom floor.” It’s not beneficial to say, “You are a slob,” even if it’s true.)
• Find the right time and place to discuss an annoying habit. Right after work or as your spouse is drifting off to sleep is not it. You might want to send your partner an email during the day asking to discuss a certain behavior later.
• Be prepared to compromise. Didn’t your mother ever teach you that you can be right or you can be happy? Choose happy.
• If all else fails, go to bed mad. When you are tired you become irrational. You’ll probably have more perspective in the morning.
—Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at email@example.com and follow her column at http://www.Facebook.com/EBernsteinWSJ.