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Annoying habits can dissolve relationships

May 24th, 2005

You’ve asked your significant other not to do it, he does it anyway and now you’re ready to strangle him.

Whether it’s dropping wet towels on the floor or leaving the toilet roll empty, the annoying habits of our partners can lead to a failed relationship, says a new study led by University of Louisville communication researcher Michael Cunningham.

There’s even a scientific explanation of why we get so infuriated, said Cunningham, who has studied human behavior and relationships for more than 20 years.

The study by Cunningham’s team, “Social Allergies in Romantic Relationships: Behavioral Repetition, Emotional Sensitization and Dissatisfaction in Dating Couples,” appears this month in the academic journal Personal Relationships.

No one has ever researched the fact that irritating behavior in a relationship becomes more irksome over time, according to Cunningham.

“We found that minor irritations that build up over time can result in one partner walking out on the relationship,” he said. “Annoyances early in a relationship tend to produce a small negative reaction, but sensitivity increases when they are repeated.”

Relatively minor unpleasant behaviors appear to direct a person’s emotions in a manner that resembles how physical allergens function immunologically, Cunningham said.

To investigate the problem, he and three other researchers charted the “deromantization” of 137 dating couples. Behaviors most commonly associated with the opposite gender were seen as particularly annoying.

For example, males were more likely to complain about their partner’s possessiveness, critical remarks and “giving commands without having legitimate authority.” On the other hand, females tended to complain more about uncouth behavior such as drunkenness, nose-picking or flatulence in their partners.

Similarly, men were more put off when they saw women as moody, sexually withholding and self-absorbed, but women were more irked when they saw men as sexually persistent, neglectful or emotionally cool.

“Learning about a partner’s hopes and dreams and exchanging support, kindness and affection can lead to love and commitment,” Cunningham said. “But the process of going backstage and learning everything there is to know about the other person’s private self can also lead to some undesirable surprises.”

Cunningham’s advice to couples is simple.

“If you know it bothers your partner, then just don’t do it,” he said.

Cunningham, who earned worldwide attention for his previous studies on human attraction and honesty in relationships in the 1980s and 1990s, has appeared on BBC and Oprah and has been quoted by The New York Times and many other newspapers.

His most recent study has drawn coverage from the New York Daily News as well as The The Guardian and The Mirror in London.

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