“He irritates me all the time. How can he be a good match if I’m constantly annoyed?”
“At first things were great with my girlfriend and everything flowed smoothly between us. But now all she has to do is laugh and I want to jump out of my skin. I guess she’s not the one for me.”
If we take relationship irritation at face value, we’ll likely fall into the dominant cultural message system that says, “If you’re that irritated, you’re probably with the wrong person. Love should have more flow and ease than this.” But, as you may know from following my work, I don’t take anything at face value. Provided you’re in a good, loving relationship, I’m interested in what lies beneath the surface. I’m interested in viewing reactions – like irritation or anxiety – as symptoms that point to thoughts, beliefs, feelings, or actions inside of you that need attention.
So let’s dissect the underlying components that lead to relationship irritation:
1. It’s part of being human.
There’s an element to irritation that’s simply part of being human. If you spend too much time with one person, even your most favorite person on the planet, you will likely start to feel irritated after a while. When my clients tell me that they’re worried because they feel irritated with their partner at times, I ask, “Do you feel irritated with anyone else in your life?” and they invariably smile and respond affirmatively. Not allowing for occasional irritation in an intimate relationship is setting yourself up against an unrealistic expectation.
That said, the more sensitive you are the more easily irritated you’ll feel around others. If you’re a highly sensitive person, you’re more attuned to gestures and behaviors that, for whatever reason, sit with you the wrong way and can even rub against the inner lining of your skin like nails on a chalkboard. It’s a real practice to learn how to breathe through that irritation, especially when it feels like a volcanic eruption inside, without saying anything or acting it out in any way. Over time you’ll discover that the less energy you give it, the less irritated you’ll feel. Growing your tolerance threshold is often the work for the highly sensitive person.
2. Irritation is a manifestation of fear.
Irritation is often a way to keep your partner a safe distance. A client shares her awareness of how irritation was keeping her boyfriend at arm’s length:
I remember early in my relationship with my boyfriend, he used to talk in a silly, playful voice. I felt so irritated and horrible things would go through my mind like, “He’s so lame. Why does he do this?” And then one day something loosened up inside and I started to play along with him. It was so much more fun to join him instead of to judge him! Since that day, talking in voices has become one of our favorite ways to play and has provided countless hours of silliness, closeness, and fun.
My client made a conscious choice to “loosen up” inside, which really means letting go of control. Even if you don’t understand why you have walls up, you can still make a conscious choice to move toward your partner at exactly the moment when he or she is irritating you the most – to join instead of judge. And the more the fear walls come down, the more the irritation will naturally lessen.
3. It’s a reflection of your own self-judgement.
If you’re intolerant of your own quirks and foibles and you hold yourself to an unrealistic standard of polished perfection, you’ll inevitably project that self-judgement onto others, especially your partner. So when your partner tells a goofy joke that you just don’t find funny, instead of smiling along with him or enjoying that he finds it funny, you feel irritated and withdraw. Your inner commentary may sound like this: “Why can’t he be more cool and smooth? Why does he have to tell lame jokes?”
Wrapped up in this judgement of him is not only your own self-judgment but also, quite likely, your propensity to care what others think. You may have learned early in life that to be liked you had to “be cool”, so anyone who isn’t “cool” grates up against your deeply internalized, although unhealthy, value system. When you can soften into these hardened places and allow yourself to just be, you will soften toward your partner as well.
4. Irritation is an indication that you haven’t had enough time for yourself.
Imagine that inside of you lives a Well of Self. When this well is healthfully full, you feel a sense of calmness and balance. We fill the well through being loving to ourselves in thoughts, feelings, and actions. The well can become depleted when any of these areas are neglected.
But the well can also overflow with “too much”: too much time with others, too much time at work, too much attention poured into someone else. When we direct too much energy outward, we lose the sense of spaciousness that defines well-being. And that’s when irritation ensues. So if you can see your irritation as a sign that you need to take some space to fill your well with nourishment, you will return to the situation with more space inside and your irritation will naturally diminish.
As always, when you approach your irritation with curiosity and openness – instead of self-judgment or as a sign that there’s something “wrong” – truly interested in what the message encased inside of it may be, you’ll be taking the first essential steps toward transforming it into something softer and kinder.