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De-escalating at Home

Here’s the thing about the people we love: they are annoying.

I tell people this regularly and they laugh; sometimes a nervous laugh, but more often a knowing laugh. We laugh together out of relief, too. It’s not just you or me. Let's face it, collectively we are all pretty annoying.

A recent study of thousands of couples cited the most frequent cause of breakups and divorces were rarely about big issues, but rather the build up of small gestures or lack of them that caused people to leave their relationships. Certainly a look back through our collective human history is nothing if not a testimony to how incredibly annoying we all are, and how little things can turn bad and ugly on a big scale.

This has become more acutely true during this unprecedented time of COVID-19 when we are all more on edge and have collectively realized that we are not nearly as in control of our daily lives that we have so carefully cultivated. Our realization of our connection has come at the ironic cost of rampant fear and anxiety of a virus we have yet to understand.

Even within our own tribes and families, our similarities and genetic ties are challenging to grasp and hang onto. With both partners and children, appreciating how we are related is something that we have to learn and relearn. It takes separating the essential loveliness of the people around us from all of the incredibly annoying traits that fill the din. Overwhelming our sense of connection are the small things we are unconscious of – how people talk too loudly, or swing their knees in their sleep, or drip food from the corner of their mouth, or talk while they are chewing. Or the noises we make when we brush our teeth, or the crumbs we leave on the counter, or the socks we can’t turn right side out. In my house, these lists are infinite and trivial, and also weighty.

Learning to sustain our relationships and choosing to stay happens in all the small moments of the everyday mess of life.

I write this at a time when I am struck by just how often and how hard I have to work at loving people and accepting them as they are even when they are so annoying. This is coupled with the almost continuous chorus of people I know who can’t quite commit to their relationships – the old one foot out the door syndrome – because living with them is so excruciatingly trying. We all want our own space, and order to prevail as we would have it, but rarely is that the nature of living with other humans. It all comes down to admitting just how annoying the whole business is and realizing that we are just as annoying as the people who annoy us.

These issues surfaced frequently in the early years of creating a family and the most important takeaway lesson of our years in marriage counseling was this one: If you can hold what is deeply lovable about someone in one hand while holding what is most annoying about them in the other side-by-side, then balance, patience, and choosing to forgive and love in spite of the difficulty is possible.

I know that sounds like a platitude, but here are a few easy to try and practice tips that will deescalate almost any tense moment and give you the chance to accommodate the annoying and lean towards love:

1. Check your tone of voice.

When this belies our words we are not believable.

2. Practice reflective listening.

Repeat back what you hear your loved one saying and ask if you heard it right. It is amazing how being witnessed for even a moment takes us back to center.

3. Show up in little ways.

Offer a back rub or (my favorite) a foot rub. I will save reflexology for another time, but suffice it to say – you can reach all the vital organs through the feet.

4. Clean up after yourself.

Also offer to share what you are eating with people near you.

5. Be kinder than you think you can be.

Everyone will be surprised.

    One of these tips will take you to the next hour. And going forward, admit to how annoying and flawed we all are, so that we stop expecting it should be easy and we stop being surprised that living together is so challenging. We all go in knowing that we choose to get over it, so that we each can find these brief, yet life-changing, moments of holding on to what we all want the most- each other.