6 Steps For When Irritation or Annoyance Arises

In my relationship coaching practice, I notice a recurring obvious pattern: 
Partners hurt each other when they are upset.

This pattern is tragic for so many reasons. 

First, I see again and again the more kind expressions when the partners are not upset.  When they’re upset, they don’t always mean what they say or do. Instead, those actions are ‘their pain speaking.’ 

Second, over time repeated incidents of partners feeling hurt from their interactions may erode the relationship’s trust, care, and safety.

Even couples in healthy relationships and who care about each other hurt each other when they are acting from a place of anger, sadness, or other forms of upset.  We need reliable relationship skills to call upon in those moments to manage our upset and to act in ways that create more opportunities for care & connection with our partner.

Let’s focus on the feelings of irritation or annoyance.

In a long term relationship, you spend a lot of time with your partner.  Maybe you live together.  You may share spaces such as your kitchen, living room, and bathroom (e.g., recently my wife and I started sharing a bathroom so I am speaking from personal experiences). 

There are going to be times when you get irritated or annoyed with something that your partner does or says.  Take a moment and think of a recent example now.  It’ll be helpful to have a concrete one to work through the steps I will offer next.  (Note: In the spirit of what is most effective for your practice, if the recent example brings up strong feelings even as you recall it now, please let that one go and select another one that is not so alive for you.  On a scale of 1-10 of intensity of the annoyance or irritation, something in the 2-5 range.)

For your selected scenario, begin by recalling as many of the specific details as you can remember: where you were, what was said and done and by whom, facial expressions, body language, sounds, smells, the sensations you felt in your body, etc.  Once you have recalled the scenario’s details, try walking through the 6 steps below.  The first few times it is helpful to walk through them by yourself offline (i.e., after the incident).  When you’re feeling more proficient with the steps, give them a try in real-time as the scenario unfolds to see what shifts and what’s different compared to how you have reacted in the past.

The sequential steps are:

  1. Notice.  Especially offline, now is a great time to become very intimate and familiar with what either annoyance or irritation (or maybe both?!?) feels like in your body.  Where do you feel the sensations? What do they feel like?  These sensations become the cues for you to choose to use the following steps, to choose to do things differently. When you feel them in real-time with your partner, these sensations are the indicators to proceed with the next 5 steps. (Note: When you focus on the sensations, if your associated discomfort feels overwhelming at this time, stop.  Take a break. Do something else.  You can always come back to this practice when you have more resources or when you have another scenario to work through.)
  2. Pause.  For a few moments intentionally choose only to be present to what is happening in you.  Pause from saying or doing anything.  This pause creates the space for (a) disrupting habits of reacting that you have developed over the years that may have become so automatic and immediate that they ‘just happen’, and (b) choosing a response.
  3. Soothe.  Once you have noticed the sensations and decide to pause for a few moments, next is to offer compassion to yourself.  Self-compassion includes naming the feelings arising in you, acknowledging if they feel uncomfortable, and offering a warm caring presence to yourself.  For example, you may say silently to yourself “I am feeling irritated now.  I feel uncomfortable.  These sensations feel unpleasant.”  The warm caring part often comes from your perspective and tone.  These statements can be said to yourself with a tone of care and acceptance.  You care about your well-being.  There is nothing bad or wrong with feeling irritated.
    A helpful tip:  If you have trouble with the warm caring part of self-compassion and judgments arise such as “I should not be feeling this way”, imagine what you would say to a dear friend or to a child who approached you to share their irritation.
  4. Understand.  Feelings are messages that something is happening now that relates to things that are important to you.  My clients report that even this simple pivot, viewing feelings as messages, shifts things.  Your tolerance for the discomfort may be bolstered by the awareness that the feelings have meaning and purpose.  They are there to get your attention.  “Something important to you is happening now”, they are saying to you, “pay attention.”  Once you sit with the irritation or annoyance as a message, it may be time to inquire:  what is important to me right now?  What’s important to you is specific to the situation.  For example, if your partner is cleaning up in the kitchen at the same time you are cooking, maybe what is important to you are space and ease.  The irritation is a message that you’d like more space to enjoy a flow about the kitchen as you cook (from cabinets to refrigerator to pot rack to spice rack to utensil drawer etc.) without navigating around your partner or worrying about messing up what they are cleaning.  If you come to an understanding for your scenario, you may notice your body relaxes and the sensations dissipate.  That’s your body confirming, “Yep, you got it.  That’s what’s important.”
    A tip: If you’re finding it difficult to focus on this exploration step because the sensations continue to be front & center, then most likely it would be helpful to return to the ‘Soothe’ step – more self-compassion will create more space for the exploration.
  5. Connect.  Now that you have an understanding of what’s important to you, most likely you’re in a place to explore what it’s like for your partner.  Why are they doing or saying what they are doing?  Just like you, your partner is a reasonable person, making choices about what to do based on things that they value.  In the example of cleaning the kitchen, it may be that they want connection with me.  They want to be in the same room as I cook.  A few important notes about this one:  (a) The shift to considering their perspective is much more important than guessing right about what is important to them. There could be many reasons why they are doing or saying what they are.  In this case, for example, their need may not be for connection but for order. (b) You have invested in the previous 4 steps that were all about you, your experience, and your needs, to get to this point.  This step is the 5th one for a reason.
  6. Propose.  This last step is where you choose to respond.  All the previous steps leading up to this one have been internal to you and in preparation.   Offer a proposal to your partner.  I mean ‘proposal’ in the widest sense.  It could be sharing what you are feeling and what’s important to you and then asking them for confirmation that they understand.  It could be sharing your needs and asking them if they would share what’s important to them.  Or it could be sharing your needs and proposing an approach that may allow for both of your needs to get met.  What’s most important in this step is that you’re coming from a place of kindness towards your partner and an openness to both of your needs getting met, if possible.
    For example, “Honey, it would feel good to me to be able to flow around the kitchen as I am cooking.  I am noticing that I am feeling awkward and self-conscious about my movements as I navigate around you as you clean.  Would it be ok if we both pause for a moment to check in?”  In this example, I share a little about my experience and then propose that we take a little time to explore options together.  Notice that there is no judgment in this proposal.  Neither me nor my partner are wrong for wanting to be in the kitchen at the same time.  Instead it is just something that is happening that needs to be navigated together.
    Notes:  A proposal is not ‘required.’  You could choose to stop at any of the steps above.  Self-compassion (part of the ‘Soothe’ step) will have a positive effect on your well-being & perspective.  Curiosity about your partner’s motivations (from the ‘Connect’ step) would shift your perspective to a more balanced one.  That being said, offering a proposal is a gift to your partner because it provides an opportunity for them to become aware of your experience, it invites them to contribute to your needs getting met, and it offers them an opportunity to share (often, to become aware of) what’s important to them.

Compare the above approach to what actually happened in your recent scenario…

Often I hear one partner express irritation as judgment of the other.  “Are you cleaning now just to annoy me?  How many times have I asked you not to clean the kitchen while I’m cooking?”  Often what happens naturally then is the person on the receiving end of the judgment gets hurt, gets defensive, and escalates. 

Another common pattern I hear from couples is one partner chooses not to say anything. They may “huff” and “puff” as they cook or they may stop cooking and leave the kitchen saying to themselves, “That’s another time when I don’t get to do what I want when I want.”  Both of those strategies, or some other forms of the general approach to withdrawal, miss the opportunity for connection & cooperation.  And they may breed resentment over time.

What do you do if you follow the above 6 steps and your partner says “No” to your proposal, judges you or calls you names, or reacts in some other way that you find surprising or challenging?  That happens sometimes.  You can’t control your partner’s behavior or always know how resourced they are to be receptive to a proposal.  I mention these potential responses here to let you know that there are no guaranteed outcomes. Following these 6 steps is a likely route to connection, care, and cooperation, but not always and not every time.

If you’re open to it, share your thoughts and experiences with others via the comments below.  Did you try these steps?  If so, how did it go?  How did you make them your own?  Do you use other approaches that work well for you?

If you find these steps challenging in any ways, supporting individuals and couples in developing their relational skills is a major part of what I do.  Please reach out to me to explore the potential to work together.