Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us, by Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman. Copyright 2011 by Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman. This book is available at all bookstores, online booksellers and the Wiley Web site at www.wiley.com, or call 1-800-225-5945.

There are people who meet, fall in love, stay married for their entire lives, and never have an unkind word for their spouses. Then there are the other seven billion people on the planet.

Men and women frequently describe their partners as both “the love of my life” and “one of the most annoying people I know.” It is a baffling paradox. Consider the following scenario, which has played out a million times at dinner parties around the world. Think of it as a theme with endless variations.

Four couples are sitting around a table. Everybody is on a second glass of wine. One of the men at the table starts to tell a joke.

“So, three strings go into a bar. The first string says to the bartender, ‘I’d like a Tom Collins.’”

The man’s wife interrupts. “Please, not that joke again.”

He turns to her. “But they haven’t heard it.”

She avoids his look. “I have. A thousand times.”

“But it’s funny.”

“So you think.”

Now the incident has reached a turning point. The guy can finish telling the joke, which will tick off his wife. Or he can stop telling the joke, in which case he’ll be irritated.* When they get home, it is easy to imagine the conversation.

“Why do you always interrupt me when I try to tell a joke? When we started dating, you liked my jokes.”

“That’s all you ever do at dinner parties. Tell jokes. We were talking about politics, and you pipe up with your dumb joke about strings.”

“Can’t you ever let me finish a thought in public? Can’t you let other people decide what they do or don’t want to hear?”

And so on.

A reasonably well-adjusted couple will weather this contretemps. For a troubled marriage, it could take them one step closer to the end. Diane Felmlee, a sociologist at the University of California, Davis, has thought a lot about the circumstances that bring couples to this predicament. The answer first occurred to her in the 1980s, when she was starting her academic career at Indiana University Bloomington. She even remembers the day. She was having lunch with some of her women friends when the conversation turned to relationships. “One woman was saying her husband was never there on the weekends,” Felmlee recalls. “He was always working so hard, and she wished he was around more. So I asked her what drew her to him in the first place.”

Felmlee says her friend replied that she and her husband had been high school sweethearts, and what had first impressed her about him was that he was an incredibly hard worker. “It was clear he was going to be one of the more successful people in the class,” Felmlee remembers her friend saying. “Another woman said that her fianc never talked with her about his feelings. So I asked her, ‘What drew you to him?’ and she said, ‘Well, he had this cool about him, a kind of cool demeanor.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Cool, reserved men don’t emote. They’re not going to talk about their feelings.’” In every case, it seemed that the very quality that was initially attractive became an irksome characteristic later in the relationship.

Fatal Attraction
Felmlee decided to investigate. At the time, she was teaching a big lecture class. College sophomores are a common proving ground for new psychological theories, so it only made sense for her to engage her class. “I just had them pull out a piece of paper and asked them to think of their boyfriend or girlfriend and then write down what first attracted them to that person.”

When you are the teacher, and you ask your class a question, you run a high risk of getting the answers your students think you want to hear. So she then posed a few unrelated questions to disguise what she was getting at. “And then I asked them what they least liked about that person. And if their relationship had ended, I asked why it ended.”

The answers confirmed her initial suspicions. It was fairly common for the students to be turned off by the very thing that first attracted them to the person they were—or had been—dating. In the past few decades Felmlee has been conducting studies with couples to explore this problem of what she calls “fatal attractions.” “We asked one guy what he liked about a former girlfriend, and he listed every part of this woman’s body, including the most intimate parts. And when he answered the question ‘Why did you split up?’ he said that the relationship was based only on lust. There wasn’t enough love. I thought, ‘Well, he got what he wanted initially.’”

The list goes on. Felmlee says that someone who is seen as humorous at the start of a relationship can later be considered “flaky” or “immature.” One woman reported that she was attracted by her boyfriend’s sense of humor, but then she complained that he “doesn’t always take other people’s feelings seriously (jokes around too much).”

Caring is another positive quality with a downside. Felmlee reports that one woman was attracted to a man who was “very attentive” and persistent, but she disliked that he “tries to be controlling.” Another woman described a former partner as “caring,” “sensitive” and someone who listened to her. Yet she did not like the fact that he also got jealous very easily, and “he hated it when [she] wanted to spend time with other friends.”

For nearly every positive quality that you can think of, the flip side can later become annoying:

  • People who are nice and agreeable can be seen as passive over time.
  • Someone who is strong-willed can, with repeated exposure, appear stubborn and unreasonable.
  • The outgoing, garrulous life of the party can also be the nonstop performer who will not shut up.
  • The solicitous, caring suitor becomes the clingy, needy partner.
  • An exciting risk taker later comes across as an irresponsible parent.
  • A physically attractive person can become a high-maintenance spouse.
  • Laid-back can also seem lazy.
  • The highly successful love interest can later be seen  as a workaholic.

In a way, fatal attraction resembles the inverse of a concept called hedonic reversal, which is when something that is intrinsically unpleasant—like eating hot chili peppers—becomes enjoyable with repeated exposure. We start off finding a quality of our mates attractive, and over time it becomes annoying. Felmlee has tested people all over the world, and the same pattern seems to hold.

The other thing she consistently finds is that the more strongly someone exhibits a particular trait, the more likely that trait is to become aggravating. Again, the dose matters. So, for example, a spouse will sooner become annoyed with a partner who is exceptionally funny and endlessly telling jokes than with one who makes a witty remark on occasion.

What’s going on here? Why do strengths become weaknesses and endearing qualities irritants? “I call it disillusionment,” Felmlee says. She believes the answer may be related to something called social exchange theory. “Extreme traits have rewards,” she says, “but they also have costs associated with them, especially when you are in a relationship.”

Take independence. “Independence can be valued in a partner, one who can stand on his own two feet,” Felmlee says. “But if you’re too independent, that means you don’t need your wife. And that can have costs in a relationship.”

Felmlee has thought a lot about how couples might get around some of these points. Self-awareness helps. She recalls one man who complained that his wife was stubborn. “On the other hand, what he really liked about her and loved from the beginning was her strength of character. And he said he was entirely committed to her and planned to be with her for the rest of his life.” This man, at least, seemed to be aware that positive qualities have an inherent downside. “And he seemed aware of his own limitations. He said, ‘I’m stubborn, too, and she has to put up with that.’”

“It’s not like you get this perfect person, and there are no downsides to his or her qualities,” Felmlee says. “It just doesn’t happen.”

Social Allergens
Even if your partner only occasionally leaves a clump of hair in the drain or talks while he is eating, spending a lifetime with someone creates ample opportunities for repeated exposure. “The same thing keeps happening over and over and over again in a marriage,” says Elaine Hatfield, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, “because we all have our goofy little quirks.” Hatfield says that these annoyances get amplified according to the principles of something called equity theory.

The idea is that social norms encourage groups and individuals to behave fairly with one another and that people are most comfortable when they feel they are being treated equitably. Equity theory says that if you feel your relationship is becoming lopsided, you will try to change that by restoring psychological or actual equity or by leaving the relationship. If the equity balance tilts toward you, and you are getting a good deal in a relationship, then you might be willing to ignore your partner’s annoying habits and do less dishing out of things that get his goat.

“But if you think, ‘That guy, he takes advantage of me at every turn, I’m stuck here with the eight children, I cannot leave, and he’s out having a great time,’ it would just grate on you more,” Hatfield says.

Michael Cunningham, a University of Louisville psychologist, has come up with four basic categories for the small things that do not elicit much of a reaction at first but can lead to emotional explosions with repeated exposure—what he calls social allergens. Uncouth habits are behaviors that are not necessarily intended to be annoying but do the trick anyway—noisy flatulence and nose picking are two examples. Inconsiderate acts affect a specific individual, but they are not done with the express intention of bothering that person. For instance, your partner says she’ll pick up the dry cleaning, and she forgets, time after time. Intrusive behaviors, on the other hand, are intentional. “This is a person who always insists on inflicting his opinion on you, whether you are interested or not,” Cunningham says. Norm violations, he says, “are not directed at you personally but violate some standard that you have. For example, you know somebody who is not paying his income tax. It’s not necessarily your business to supervise that person, but you pay your income taxes, and the fact that he doesn’t is annoying.”

Taken together, these four categories of social allergens make living with someone else a challenge. But there could be more than mere repetition at stake here, Cunningham says. When a relationship starts and partners are in that dreamy love state, the other person is seen through rose-tinted glasses. It’s not that you’re unaware of your partner’s habit of cracking his knuckles; it’s just that it does not seem like a big deal. Later on, when what Cunningham calls deromanticization has taken place, the willingness to overlook these uncouth behaviors evaporates.

The second reason these social allergens become more annoying with time is they occur more frequently after the initial romantic blast. Psychologist Rowland S. Miller of Sam Houston State University has a good explanation: once a courtship is over and a partner has been won, people usually relax the crafting of their self-presentations and try less hard to make consistently favorable impressions. Thus it is that a suitor who never appeared for breakfast without his beard well trimmed and his cologne apparent becomes a spouse who shows up in his underwear, unwashed and unshaven, and then steals the last doughnut.

Men and women differ on which social allergens they are most likely to exhibit and which ones are the most likely to bug them. Men tend to see women as inconsiderate, intrusive, and increasingly domineering and controlling as a relationship progresses. Perhaps not surprisingly, women see men as more likely to exhibit uncouth behaviors. Women were more annoyed than men were with violations of societal expectations, such as smoking in no-smoking areas or ignoring parking tickets.

Most couples have noticed that the same behavior that drives you crazy when your partner does it can be (relatively) easy to ignore when someone outside the relationship does it. Cunningham sees two reasons for this. One is that if it is not your partner, you believe you are going to escape it. You can get through any dinner sitting next to an annoying person because you know that it will be over when you leave the table. Yet if your spouse has that same nettlesome trait, it will be present that night and at lunch the next day and on and on and on.

So what can you do? How can you prevent these social allergens from destroying your relationship? Cunningham says you should try to be accepting of your partner’s irritating habits, even though this advice is likely to have the same effect on you as the admonition to “eat more fruits and vegetables.” “This trait is a part of this person,” he says. “You’ve got to take this if you want all of the other good things.”

A slightly more practical approach is to try to reclassify behaviors. “You can see certain quirks that used to be annoying as actually endearing,” Cunningham says. Unfortunately, this reclassification usually occurs posthumously. Your spouse’s infuriating habit of snapping his bubble gum may seem oddly charming when the poor guy is remembered at his funeral. “If you can do that before the person has passed on, you’re ahead of the game,” he adds.

From Love to Loathing
Of course, we may be missing an angle here. There are times when, either consciously or unconsciously, we want to take a dig at our partners, says psychologist Arthur Aron of Stony Brook University. Aron says that sometimes we realize we are trying to get back at our partners for a transgression, and spouses know best what will get their partners’ goat. “You know when you hang out with someone, don’t bring up certain topics or, if you do, don’t push it too hard,” Aron says. “With spouses, we know that our partners know our hot buttons, and it’s even more annoying when our partners bring them up.”

Intentionality of action may factor significantly in the annoying quotient. A door slammed by the wind grates way less than a door slammed by an angry spouse. Aron believes that this intentional “pushing too hard” is not limited to adult relationships.

Aron says that children will deliberately not clean up their rooms, will drink milk directly from the container, and will not hand in their homework as a way to annoy a parent who sets a curfew too early or refuses to raise an allowance. Like Hatfield, Aron believes that many of these acts of defiance will be overlooked when there is commitment in a relationship and will be exaggerated when there is not. Growing annoyance can be a sign of trouble to come.

The good news here is that there are ways to tackle the problem. Aron says that one of the most important things you can do in a relationship is to celebrate when something good happens to your partner. “That’s even more important than supporting him or her when things go bad,” Aron says.

Another trick is to be sure to do novel, challenging and exciting things with your partner fairly often. Anything you do to make your relationship better will tend to make your partner less annoying. It’s a case of a familiar aphorism turned on its head: “Mind the pounds, and the pennies will take care of themselves.”