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Emotion, Relationships and romance

Does your partner annoy you?

Emma Young digests the research on what to do about it.

06 February 2024

By Emma Young

As everyone who’s ever been in a relationship knows, it’s not exactly rare to feel irritated with your partner. One informal survey of 2,000 people in the UK even found that a third considered their partner to be the most annoying person they know.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of research to help us understand this common phenomenon, covering both the most common causes of everyday irritation and how to manage these feelings – for both your sakes. 

Common complaints

Some behaviours that are commonly identified as annoying can be quite tricky to avoid or modify. Take the sounds that we make while eating and drinking. These sounds are rarely appealing, but as we tend to spend more quiet time with our partners, they can become even more of a problem at home. This is especially true for people with misophonia, for whom eating sounds can trigger overwhelming feelings of anger and disgust.

Other irritating behaviours are easier to fix, however – such as using our phone while having a conversation with our partner. This is a common niggle. In one study by the Pew Research Center in the US, half of the participants felt that their partner was sometimes or often distracted by their phone when they were trying to talk to them. 

Research also shows that this can be more than just irritating; a study published in 2021 on couples in the Netherlands, by Camiel Beukeboom and Monique Pollmann, found that ‘partner phubbing’ during a conversation causes feelings of exclusion and a lack of intimacy, reducing levels of satisfaction with the relationship. However, the researchers also found that if one person uses their phone but explains to their partner why they’re preoccupied with it, this can reduce the negative effects on the relationship.

Is it really an issue?

If you find yourself getting increasingly annoyed with your partner, you might also want to ask yourself a few questions… 

Firstly, are their irritating behaviours actually getting worse – or are you just imagining that they are? Research shows that we can sometimes even be irked by things that haven’t happened. A 2014 study by Dylan Selterman and colleagues involving 61 students who’d been in a romantic relationship for at least six months provides some evidence for this. When these participants just dreamed that their partner had been unfaithful, they felt more annoyed with them the following day.

Another question to ask yourself is: have you been feeling more stressed recently? In 2022, a pair of researchers in the US published the results of a diary study of 79 newlywed couples. Lisa Neff and April Buck found that people who reported recent stressful life events, such as problems at work, were especially tuned into daily fluctuations in their partner’s negative behaviours, such as instances of being inconsiderate of their wants and needs – but, unfortunately, not into their positive behaviours.

This work suggests that stress doesn’t just affect our own behaviour, but also how we view our partner’s actions, making it more likely that we’ll become annoyed with them. The fact that these were newlyweds, who were presumably still in the honeymoon phase of their relationship, makes these findings especially striking. For longer-term couples, stress could potentially have an even bigger effect.

Handling irritation over the long haul

Most couples tend to enjoy several months or even a few years of that early, honeymoon phase, and the rose-tinted glasses it brings. As this wears off, irritations can become more apparent. You might even be discovering that they don’t have quite the same views on important topics, such as moral and political questions, as you. 

Despite the popularity of the maxim ‘opposites attract’, research shows that cliché isn’t true – or at least doesn’t characterise couples who enjoy lasting love. Couples tend to be more like each other than different, especially in attitudes, education and even substance use, according to a large meta-analysis led by Tanya Horwitz published in Nature Human Behaviour in 2023.

It’s inevitable that couples who stay together for the long haul will get irritated with each other at times. When it eventually happens, it’s worth thinking carefully about how you express this annoyance. Studies show that calm discussion and active listening are better strategies than getting cross for dealing with conflict in a romantic relationship. 

Though this is important to remember, especially when you feel annoyance rising, it’s hardly surprising. But some other studies have found more counter-intuitive results from research into how to build better relationships. For example, you might feel that complaining to a tired partner about a difficult workday might just annoy them. 

And indeed, a recent study of heterosexual couples in Social Psychological and Personality Science, by Antje Rauers and Michaela Riediger found that when a man told his partner about an unpleasant event that had happened during the day, though he felt better for telling her, her mood worsened.

However, the same study found that whether they’d been the one doing the venting or they’d been on the receiving end of it, both partners reported feeling closer to the other afterwards. In an extended, two-and-a-half-year study, published in the same paper, the researchers also found that couples who’d regularly shared stressful experiences felt closer to each other at the end of this period than couples who hadn’t. So, while complaining about getting stuck in awful traffic or your boss being grumpy again might temporarily irritate your partner, ultimately, there may be relationship benefits to reap.

If you can keep the relationship going, the good news is that your partner’s annoying behaviours may bother you less in the long term. As we get older, we do tend to get better at managing tensions in our closest relationships, whether that’s with a parent, child or romantic partner. Kira Birditt led a recent study of American adults in different age groups, ranging from 25-39 all the way through to 80-97, finding that although older people found their closest relationship to be just as irritating as younger participants did, this had less of a negative effect on their wellbeing.

One final message if you feel your partner has become more annoyed with your messiness, say, or your habit of talking through TV shows, or your failure to properly clean up after yourself in the kitchen, comes from that survey of 2,000 British adults. Though a third did rate their partner as being the most irritating person that they knew, a greater proportion – 41 per cent – said they wouldn’t change their partner’s annoying habits because they were part of what made them unique. So next time your partner complains about your behaviour, you could try telling them that. Good luck!