We Are Allowed to Be Irritated
By Jerry Sander
Winter is over. Birds, squirrels, foxes, and groundhogs are scurrying around my backyard as nature once again expands. But it is Week Number 5, 6, 7, or 8 (what difference does that make anymore?) of being cooped up with our spouses in the Pandemic-Protective isolation units of our homes. We are not doing the things we used to do as a matter of course—the things we did and called “life.” It’s hard to remember what the rhythm of those old lives felt like, isn’t it? One thing is for sure: our previous lives probably didn’t include being with our spouses 24/7, today, this day, tomorrow, EVERY DAY.
We are increasingly irritated. Frustrated. Pissed off. Sometimes we know why, but often not. We’ve read all the online advice columns: exercise, stress-reduction meditations, blah-blah-blah.
Often our irritation has something to do with what our spouse has just done (or not done). Sometimes we’re irritated by the way our spouses do things (we hadn’t been around to see this before). Dishes in the sink, dishwasher issues, bathroom habits, taking off shoes/boots before walking around newly cleaned floors, laundry, where things should go, etc., may be the presenting problems, but lurking just behind them are core issues of how we soothe ourselves as individuals (which often occurs when the other person isn’t around). Excessive drinking, smoking weed, pornography, masturbation, and other nonproductive lazy time may not have been what the World Health Organization meant when they urged people to use self-soothing strategies that have worked for them in the past, but as Americans we do what we believe we have to do to not lose our minds when we are receiving the dual messages that “this, too, shall pass” and “there will be a lot of deaths.” Which one should you get ready for? Both?? If I’m getting ready for death, my behaviors will probably look different from getting ready to return to work next month.
Reuters reports that market investments in the makers of chocolates, legal weed, and alcohol are being rewarded well, and the smart money is going to buying shares of Novo Nordisk, the world’s biggest maker of diabetes treatments. It seems that the stock market is banking on us coming out of this fatter and more substance-dependent than we went into it.
And couples are faced with the living reality of the words of an old Dan Hicks’ song: “How can I miss you when you never go away?”
The truth is that almost all of us are woefully unprepared for the idea of irritation being an ordinary, expectable part of relationships, rather than understanding that every relationship goes through phases of harmony, disharmony, and then repair—every week! Sometimes every day! Sometimes several times a day! We’ve been primed to see irritation and aggravation as a sign that something is seriously wrong with this relationship. Perhaps it is a “sign” that the End is Near, that divorce is up ahead. (A lot of speculation is circulating about what the divorce rate will be, coming out of these months. Or . . . the birth rate nine months from now.)
I know of one marriage that began years ago with one partner—from the first month of marriage—obsessively reading an old advice column called “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” She was focused strongly on “looking for signs” of failure. She was hypervigilant for things careening off the tracks. Sure enough, her marriage derailed, fulfilling her expectations. The things that were irritating and annoying about her spouse? They were all signs that it was a bad marriage that had to end. And it did.
Motorcyclists—and airplane pilots—are familiar with the idea of “object fixation.” If there is a dead skunk in the middle of the road and you are approaching it on your motorcycle, should you be foolish enough to stare at it and stare at it and tell yourself, “Oh, my God, there is a dead skunk in the middle of the road, right there! What if I hit it?” You will probably hit it. Why? Because we go where we are looking to go. This is literally true on a motorcycle. The lifesaving move on a motorcycle is to look for the safe path around the dead animal in the road. If you want to stare at anything, stare at that! The same thing is metaphorically true for a marriage, or relationship.
If you come to understand that being aggravated and irritated with your partner during this quarantine is as normal and to be expected as the sun rising in the morning and setting at night, you will understand that everything is going the way it is supposed to go. And that the small things can be talked about—laughed about, ultimately—if they aren’t made out to be “proof” of a failed, or failing, relationship. They are merely aggravating. There are ways of talking these things through and of sparing yourself the painful self-harm of accumulated resentments.
If there is a deep pool of love and affection between the two of you, beneath the aggravation and ordinary irritations of everyday life in close quarters, both partners will emerge from this with a more intimate connection than ever before.
Just don’t expect your partner (or yourself) to lose the irritation part. It might not be about what it was about yesterday. “It’s always something . . .,” the pessimists sigh.
Yes, it is. But so is intimate repair work. That, too, is always something. Something to celebrate.
Jerry Sander is a couples therapist in New York who specializes in Relational Life Therapy. He is the author of the novel, Convergence, and is at work on an episodic memoir titled “The Guyland.” For more information please visit www.rusa-ie.com and www.buzzsprout.com/987001.