Does Your Sweetheart Drive You Nuts with the Very Qualities that Attracted You?

Are you driven nuts by the very qualities that drew you to your sweetheart?

A few days ago, I read Elizabeth Bernstein’s Wall Street Journal piece, How to cope when you and your partner are falling out of love.

It discusses the idea of “fatal attraction” — that the traits that drew you toward your sweetheart now drive you nuts. Often, we’re drawn to a quality in someone else because we somehow lack or desire that quality in ourselves — but then that very quality turns out to be a point of tension. An introverted person might be attracted to someone’s more outgoing nature, but then get tired of their constant desire to be sociable.

Bernstein cites the research of Dr. Diane Felmlee, a sociology professor at Penn State University, who has identified give situations in which this “fatal attraction” patterns emerges (I love these names):

Time Will Tell — you’re drawn to someone who’s putting best foot forward. You don’t see the downsides to a trait until later.

Sour Grapes — you’re in a tough relationship so you’re trying to distance yourself from your partner, by recasting traits as negative.

Rose-Colored Glasses — you’re attracted to a positive quality, but suspect there’s a downside — yet ignore it until it’s not possible to overlook it anymore

People Pleasing — a partner turns a positive trait into a negative trait, by laying it on too thick

Familiarity Breeds Contempt — there’s no change. You just get annoyed.

I can give an example from my own experience, though I’m not sure it fits squarely into these five categories. I’d call it the category of “Every upside has a downside.”

I’m an Upholder, and one disadvantage of being an Upholder is that I too readily meet expectations. It’s hard for me to know I’m “supposed” to do something, and then choose not to do it.

My husband is a Questioner. He has no trouble ignoring an expectation if he thinks it doesn’t make sense. I’m sure this is one of the things that attracted me to him in the first place.

In many situations, his Questioner nature is helpful to me. I often ask him, “I’m supposed to do X. Do you think I have to do it?” Or sometimes I just think to myself, “What would he do in this situation?” His Questioning provides a very healthy counter-balance to my Tendency. I admire this aspect of his nature.

But at the same time, his Questioner Tendency drives me crazy. I’ll say, “Would you do X?” and he won’t do it just because I ask him to. He’s funny that way.

Until I understood (or rather, invented) the Four Tendencies, I didn’t understand this dynamic. Now that I understand why we each of us behaves the way we do, and why his behavior really is helpful in many situations, I behave with much more patience. Well, I think I do. Maybe I should ask him if I’m acting with more patience. I feel more patient.

How about you? Do you recognize any of these patterns in your own relationships?

  • PolarSamovar

    Absolutely, yes. My marriage improved a great deal when I recognized that my husband’s worst qualities were also his best qualities. He was persistent — and stubborn. Analytical and creative — and could never do things the normal way. He loved excellence — and had trouble finishing things. He was an incurable romantic — and not very practical.

    My mantra then became, when he started to drive me nuts, I signed up for this. It was helpful.

    • PolarSamovar

      The same consideration is useful when I frustrate myself.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great mantra!

    • artie

      This helped me feel more affectionate about those little irritations even as I’m getting annoyed by them. It’s funny – I’ll kind of groan about it, then smile, shake my head, and chuckle. I tell myself that it’s what makes up his personality, and really I don’t want to change it – I don’t want him to be less hyperactive, less social, less glib, or less audacious. That’s what I love about him – he’s energetic and charming and funny, and I love that he can pull off insolence in a way I never could, or would never want to try. It also really helped to realize that he’s a Rebel, because sometimes his pushback just for the sheer joy of pushing back was something that I had a hard time reconciling to. As a Questioner, I assumed a logical explanation would have us on the same page and good to go. But he will persist in disagreeing even when I’ve thoroughly proven my case and he often doesn’t even have a good argument for doing so, which was infuriating. But he’s a Rebel! So of course that didn’t work. It really helped me define better, more functional boundaries within our relationship.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    My friend’s incredibly competence at mechanical, fiscal, electronic, and technical things dazzles the heck out of me. I don’t think I have ever felt resentful of his ability to say, in answer to my question or problem, “Well, you JUST dahdahdahdah . . .” Sometimes I understand the solution he is proposing. Sometimes it goes right over my head. I implement or not, depending on whether I can understand his directions and it seems worth the effort to me. I call him for ‘tech support’ all the time. He has never failed me yet!
    He is a Questioner too. He likes to research things up and down to the last detail, and he likes to win any contest of wills by beating his opponent–be it bureaucratic, familial, or work related–at their own game. The gamesmanship involved in this sometimes makes me raise my eyebrows. I would never put that much effort into ‘winning’. Since we are in a very long term friendship and we don’t live under the same roof, hiswill to win by hoisting his opponent on his / her own petard and by the rules of whatever the game is just seems to me like a personal mythology that plays out for him–usually to his satisfaction. I can maintain my detachment from it all. I think it might make me a little crazy if I had to be officially partner in any of these contests of wits and will.

  • Judy

    Yes! Some years ago I realized the things you love most about a person are also the things that sometimes drive you nuts. Trouble is, if they changed those traits, they wouldn’t be the same person you love anymore. Doesn’t drive you any less crazy, just helps make you more tolerant — sometimes 🙂

  • Jeanne

    I think some of that “he won’t do it just because I ask him” doesn’t have to do with being a Questioner. It has more to do with being a man. My husband occasionally does this too, and I think it’s a function of how men will sometimes, quite unexpectedly, unintentionally cast us in the role of scolding, demanding mother, no matter how gently we have posed our request, and dig in their heels. I’ve heard it said that women induce this behavior in their husbands by treating them “like one of the children.” Sometimes, perhaps. But we don’t have any children, and I don’t have the slightest idea how to treat children. This whole thing about men being trained (disciplined, restrained and scolded) in their most formative years by a woman makes this an easy trap for men to fall into. Story from a therapist: One day he was staring at his wife until finally she said, “Why are you staring at me like that?” He replied, “I’m looking at you until I realize that you are not my mother.” Such and insightful and self-aware man. Gotta love him!

    • Gillian

      What an interesting observation! I think you are right. And what a clever therapist!

  • phoenix1920

    I LOVE this post!! Yes, a resounding YES! I personally think we all strive for balance– and this is a part of that need. I was quite attracted to my husband, who has certain traits that I lack (for example, he has so much patience while I like to work quickly and he likes order while I find unpredictability fun). There are times when his traits drive me crazy, but I think I also need to be exposed to those traits because it counters my tendencies that are in the opposite direction. If I had chosen to be with a person who was as impatient as I, we would amplify this trait in each other. I TRY to remember this when I am annoyed that dh just spend WAY too long working on one task that wasn’t necessary at all, but it’s not always easy.

  • FredBOS

    When I am asked to do something by a friend, a neighbor or a loved one, I view it as one of the day’s greatest ‘opportunities.’ Is there a greater joy then helping when asked? Not many.

  • Judith

    I always knew my husband was unconventional and deeply stubborn to the point of cutting off his nose to spite his face and have loved and hated these qualities in equal measure when they made my life more exciting but also difficult. However, when I started reading your definition and explanation of rebel behaviours it made a huge difference to both the way I view his behaviour and how I deal with it. The podcast episode on rebels was especially helpful for me and hearing the rebel mantra “you can’t make me and neither can I” was such a revelation. I knew that I couldn’t make him but now I realise he can’t make himself do things at times accounts for his maddening shifts in approach to problems. I am looking forward to the new book Gretchen.