Friday, June 3, 2011

“Is This Normal?” – Yes, It’s Normal to Dislike Your Significant Other (Sometimes)

I had originally titled this “It’s normal to hate your significant other (sometimes)” but I felt that was really harsh. For me hate and dislike are hugely different and if you hate someone today you’re not going to love them another day, so “hate” really doesn’t fit what I want to talk about here. As a psychologist and a mom I have heard so many stories (so so so many stories) from moms who after the birth of their child thought about divorce often (and some even talked or threatened about it). Before I had my son I wondered why that was. I thought, “Shouldn’t having a child together bring you closer? You can watch it grow and develop its personality and share that love together…wouldn’t that bring you closer?”

In a simple answer, I would now say, “No.” Or “Not always.” I have met some amazing couples who transitioned from couple to co-parents easily it seemed. And I have met some people who went from best friends to not being able to sit in the room together without sighing or glaring (or hey, both, that’s fun). There are a couple possible reasons for that. The one that makes the most sense to me relates to talking about personality and identity.

Personality can be thought of as people’s typical ways of behaving. It can be traits, like we think about from personality tests, or it can be ways that they typically behave. Let me give you an example. As I grew up, I learned that when I got home from school I should complete all of my homework and then do my chores and then I had all the leftover time to do whatever I wanted. I’ve continued this pattern of behavior so that now when I get home from work I do work if I need to, do some cleaning, and then, if I have time, I relax. My husband, on the other hand, comes home from work and wants to relax after his day. When he’s done relaxing there may be some chores or cleaning done, but most likely it’s already 11:30 and he’s ready for bed (and I’ve been taking up what I think of as his slack).

Part of our personality is also how we relate to others and what we expect from them. If I expect that a significant other will do 50% of the housework and they don’t, my expectations are violated which usually leads most people to frustration. But here’s the funny part – you’re sitting there getting frustrated because your partner isn’t doing what you expect them to do, and they’re just happy as Larry (however happy he may be – Eddie Izzard reference), oblivious that you’re frustrated and maybe (most likely) oblivious to your expectations. Because they can’t read your mind. And they don’t hold the same expectations. Does that make them wrong? No. Does it make you wrong? No.

“Wait…you mean that neither of us are wrong?” you’re thinking. Yes, that’s what I’m saying. Relationships aren’t about right and wrong really. They’re two people with two different expectations and two different life experiences coming together to share a relationship (with two different expectations about what that means). It’s a wonder that anybody stays together really. Because most of us don’t vocalize our expectations. We assume that because this person knows us that they should KNOW what we want. Or they should KNOW that you do the dishes right after you have dinner (when that’s not a rule, that’s your expectation). See where I’m going with this? Your partner’s not pissing you off. You’re pissing yourself off by making the rules that your partner doesn’t know about. That does not sound like a “fair” game.

Ok so that’s how we piss each other off in general life. Then let’s add some stressors. Right before a baby is born we’re anxious about a lot of stuff. Is the delivery going to go ok, is the baby going to be ok, are we going to adjust ok, will we get sleep, will we be ok with money, etc. etc. Thennn there’s a baby (or any major life change really). It causes chaos to a maybe previously pretty calm (and clean and organized) atmosphere. It doesn’t have a mute button so it may still be loud when you want it to shh (and excessive noise adds to anxiety). It keeps weird hours. You’re sleep deprived. You may not know what day it is (or care really) because you’re so sleep deprived and “off your game.” You may be dehydrated and hungry (new parents frequently forget to eat and drink water – I made myself by setting a timer on my phone). All of these stress your body and your brain out.

Now let’s add to this chaos. Each person in this relationship has their own identity or their view of themselves and how they are (and how they should be – like an ideal identity). That identity for many of us has been around for a while and hasn’t really had to change much. We’re ourselves. We’re like this. We do these things. We are a sister/brother/wife/husband/paper carrier, whatever we are, that’s what we think of ourselves as (unless we’re lying to ourselves and telling ourselves we’re our ideal but that’s for another discussion). Changing your identity is…well…hard. Some people are more flexible and they “bend” better than others, but for many, identity change is a difficult period. And after a kiddo is born, you’ve got two people who have to deal with this change. They both have to go from being themselves to being someone’s parent AND themselves (which can be difficult to maintain if “themselves” involves behaviors that don’t jive with being a parent). Most people can’t verbalize how they’re feeling as they go through this identity change. So you’ve got two people sitting around thinking about how their lives are changing and it’s a pretty freaky thing. They’re both feeling anxious. Just about identity change.

So stress + identity change + chaotic experiences + unrecognized expectations = what? You got it, frustration (and that’s a nice way of putting it). “I hate you you lazy asshole” has been used to demonstrate this frustration by some new moms that I know. And that’s just a small sample of what you may think when your significant other does something that goes against what you expect to be done.

I know this is easier said than done (especially when you’re sleep deprived) but before you say something to your significant other that you may regret and before you go badmouthing them to your friends, stop. Take a break. Sit quietly (if you can – nap times are good for this). And think about what we’ve talked about here. Stress. Anxiety. Identity change. Chaotic experiences. Lack of sleep. While those all may describe you, they’re describing your significant other too most likely. If you do something “off,” you may think to yourself, “Oh, that’s just the tired talking.” But do you give that same justification to your spouse when they do something off? If not, how come? That would be the equitable thing to do right? This is not a one-person life raft. It’s now a family boat. And everyone in the boat should be given the same benefit of the doubt.


  1. This is an important post - I'm so glad you wrote it. I remember confiding in friends who had been married and had kids a little longer than I had, "Do you ever have the thought 'how am I going to be with him for the rest of my life?'" It was extremely validating to hear that all of my friends had felt this way. Having a house, family, jobs, etc. is a balancing act, so it's easy to get frustrated. I have had to teach myself not to take things personally (e.g. he didn't take the last paper towel and not replace the roll to piss me off). Parenting and marriage are always a work in progress.