The smallest things that our partners do can upset us and lead us to go as far as contemplating divorce, writes OLIVIA FANE, but what’s your other half’s most irritating habit?
- Novelist Olivia Fane shares how her and her husband came close to breaking up
- She reveals how couples can fight and argue over things that seem to be small
- She now urges couples to share all of the little habits that they find irritating
The other day, as I was walking along with a friend, she told me she’s worried she no longer loves her husband.
I was astonished. I know her husband well. In fact, he’s one of a handful of men I’ve always thought I could happily marry myself: funny, hard-working and all the rest of it.
‘I can’t believe it!’ I said to her. ‘He’s a wonderful man. You always seem to get on so well. What’s he done wrong?’
‘That’s just it,’ she said. ‘He’s done nothing wrong. I know he’s a good man. But, Olivia, he’s just so irritating!’
Olivia Fane says that couples will always find things about each other irritating but should talk about it
She then proceeded to reel off a great catalogue of woes that will probably sound trivial — but which I’m sure will strike a chord with many.
‘The way he kicks off his shoes without bothering to untie the laces, the way he munches his toast, the way he flicks through the TV channels without even asking. I could go on and on.
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‘As soon as I hear his key in the lock at night — he always forgets to turn it twice — I find myself getting uptight. Oh, yes, and the way he slurps oranges, cutting them into quarters that are too big for his mouth and doing this silly smile he thinks is funny. That really bugs me.’
‘Have you always found him this irritating?’ I asked her.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but it’s never been this bad. It’s just so stupid, isn’t it? Cause of divorce: the way my husband eats oranges. Not exactly “unreasonable behaviour”.’
The novelist revealed how a friend told her that she was ready to divorce her husband over his irritating habits
This made me laugh — but then I told her I knew exactly how she felt. My husband and I recently celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.
But in our first year of marriage, I wasn’t even certain we’d make it to 12 months.
At the time, though, I was too ashamed to admit to anyone the real reason our relationship wasn’t working.
The real problem with irritation is that it is so irrational. How could I confess to friends that my wonderful, handsome, generous-hearted new husband was just so totally infuriating?
His worst crime? The way he kept using the word ‘pleasant’ — the weather was ‘pleasant’, his colleagues at work were ‘pleasant’, the view was ‘pleasant’.
I am not confrontational by nature, so I bore it, tried to rise above it, even training myself to think every time he said it: ‘How lucky I am.’ But still, every time that dreadful word landed, I felt my hackles rising and my heart thud.
She says that such issues are normal and revealed how her own marriage was struck by them (file photo)
And then there was the way he sliced bread. My husband has always eaten loads of bread, yet never did he slice it cleanly to the bottom — always half way — and then, next time, the other way, so that the bread ended up looking like a staircase.
Instead of nagging him about it, I tried to appeal to common sense with wifely comments such as: ‘The way you do it wastes bread, it makes it dry and unusable.’ I was promptly ignored.
But the most excruciating thing of all was sharing a bathroom. Before we got married, the bathroom was mine.
The small shelf above the basin was for my things only. I surveyed with horror the smears of toothpaste on the basin, the shavings from his beard. Who was this other person who was invading my space?
She says that, no matter how little the issue, you should share it with your partner and not let it fester (file photo)
And worse, what kind of person was I becoming? At times, he annoyed me so much that I didn’t want him to touch me.
Then, one Saturday morning, when my three boys from my first marriage were staying with their dad and the house was ours, I couldn’t find him. I ate my breakfast alone, feeling increasingly anxious.
There were stairs in our kitchen leading to a damp cellar. We’d put a bed in there for visitors who preferred the windowless room to a sofa upstairs. That was where I found him.
My first feeling was one of relief. I was honestly beginning to think he might have run off and left me. He was lying on the bed under some old blankets. When I came in, he looked at me coldly.
Then he said: ‘Olivia, do you know how irritating you are? I’m no longer in love with you.’
His words should have cut me to the core but, instead, I felt this kind of crazy joy. I laughed, got into bed with him and hugged him. ‘Our marriage is going to be so wonderful.’ I said. ‘I find you irritating, too.’
Even if it causes an argument, it is better to have it out in the open than to stew (file photo)
For the rest of the day, we lay in each other’s arms in the dark and the damp and it was weirdly easy to confess to all the petty little things that really irked us. Mark’s catalogue of my irritating habits was every bit as long: the way I ate yoghurt, the way I typed on a keyboard, the way I hogged the bathroom shelf and how I always forgot to put the lid on the depilatory cream for my legs, which stank to high heaven.
But I now consider that day to be the first day of my marriage to Mark proper.
We’d been so polite to each other until then. There’d never been a cross word.
But there was no real intimacy, either. When you confide in someone, you feel close to them — and when you feel close to someone, you cannot help but love them.
Learning to share your life with another person requires proper, negotiated compromise. When you give up on that for the sake of a quiet life, it’s like you’ve given up on a proper partnership.
From that moment on, we agreed to ‘have arguments if necessary’ and I told Mark he was not to hold silent grudges, but speak up the moment he felt even the slightest irritation.
He told me that I was no longer allowed to talk at length to friends on the phone and had to stay up till 10pm and not drift off to sleep at the same time as the children.
She says: ‘Sometimes, the only way to save your marriage is to clear the air, to be honest’ (file photo)
As for his incessant use of the word ‘pleasant’, he told me he hated it every bit as much as I did and hated himself for using it. He’s rarely said it since.
Yes, we still irritate each other at times — and we argue — but it tends to be the same niggles over and over, so we know the script and can have a laugh even while we’re shouting at each other.
Only last week, we managed to get lost at Gatwick Airport. Mark said he knew a shortcut to the taxi rank and we left by a door saying ‘Emergency Exit’.
Big mistake. We went down four flights of stairs and left via a subterranean door that banged shut behind us.
Not a person, nor a sign, in sight and, 300 yards later, carrying two heavy suitcases, we hit a dead end.
But Mark and I have a history of shortcuts going wrong. When his mobile phone went dead and we couldn’t even contact the taxi driver, all we could do was laugh.
Irritation is corrosive and its slow poison is more harmful to a marriage than any major row.
The big things that rock a marriage — such as being made redundant or a single, drunken act of infidelity — you can live through and learn from.
But the build-up of a thousand different irritations can slowly drive a wedge between you.
That’s why I think it really is this simple: talk, talk and talk, until there’s nothing more to say.
Sometimes, the only way to save your marriage is to clear the air, to be honest.
Certainly, that was the advice I gave my friend on our walk. A polite marriage is not a good one: it’s claustrophobic and you’ll want to escape.
Twenty-five years on, Mark cuts a clean slice of bread and we even share a bathroom. And when he tells me to stop typing because it’s driving him mad, I obey. And we both laugh.
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