The problem with spending too much time with your loved ones…
Is driving each other crazy.
You love each other as long as the amount of time you spend together doesn’t exceed your emotional capacity.
Stay cooped up together for too long—at Christmas, in retirement, during quarantine…
And it’s war.
You get on each other’s nerves. Every little thing ends up being a debate. Things that never bothered you before, like the sound of someone breathing, drive you up the wall.
You’ve got to get some space, or you’ll do something you’ll regret.
Stuck Together FOREVER
In everyday life, we spend a lot of time apart from our loved ones.
We go off to work. Our kids go off to school.
We don’t reconvene until dinner time, when everyone is ready to relax and be together.
The less time you have with someone you love, the better your behavior. You don’t want to spend your precious time together arguing. You can let a lot of stuff go.
But take a week’s vacation together, or get snowed in for a few days…
And all bets are off.
The situation is stressful enough already. Your usual routine is all messed up. Unexpected surprises hit. You’re not sure what will happen next.
That’s when the fighting starts.
You don’t have the energy for your usual filters. You want everyone to do things your way. You go off at little things.
Even worse, you can’t take a break.
A time-out makes everyone feel better. You spend some time apart, and you come back feeling more centered.
But this situation doesn’t allow you to do that. You’re in each other’s faces. There’s nowhere to go.
What can you do?
It’s Okay – You’re Just Allergic to Each Other
Psychologist Michael Cunningham found that we become allergic to each other the more time we spend together.
Well, he didn’t exactly say THAT.
What he did say is that inconsiderate, uncouth, intrusive, or annoying things—like leaving wet towels on the floor, abrasive laughter, nagging—act like physical allergens.
The first time our loved one does it, we feel irritated, but we can let it go.
But over time, with repeated exposure, we become more and more sensitive to it…
Until we eventually get to the point that they do that thing we can’t stand…
And we EXPLODE.
No one else can see why we react like that. The behavior is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.
Just like pollen isn’t a big deal to someone who’s not allergic to it.
In Stressful Times, Be Nice
None of us are free from behaviors that irritate the people we live with.
We don’t think that what we do is a big deal. We don’t even notice ourselves doing it.
But during stressful times, when you can’t get a break from each other, you might want to pay extra attention to the little behaviors that cause irritation.
Be careful with your words. Pick up after yourself. Offer small kindnesses.
Cunningham found that romantic partners were more likely to tolerate irritating behavior if the other person built up “emotional credit” with kind, loving, thoughtful behaviors.
He also found that asking for forgiveness and trying harder went a long way.
Under stress, it’s difficult to be your best self. Everyone snaps at each other. Tempers are short. It feels like your loved ones are irritating you on purpose.
So talk about it.
Talk about the fact that you’re getting more and more irritated with each other, and you don’t want to do that.
Ask your loved ones if you’re doing anything that’s driving them crazy. Apologize often. Find at least one activity a day that makes you feel close, not cross.
I’m apologizing to my daughter frequently these days. Her school is closed for 8 weeks, and we’re each other’s sole company at the moment.
Her advice for people stuck in a small space with loved ones driving them crazy is this:
Stay in your own little world, but don’t stay in it forever.”
It’s okay to disappear into a book or a tablet, to get a break from each other. But keep resurfacing to connect. You do love each other, after all. You’re just sometimes allergic.