“It’s a preference!”

One of the more common complaints we hear as we attempt to sort out marital discord, is that he, or she, “isn’t doing it right!” “It” in these cases can be anything from loading the dishwasher (most common), to picking a route to someplace or other, to folding socks, and a thousand other potential annoyances.

Most of us never stop to consider why our partners’ actions trigger a response all out of proportion to the event. That being the case, let’s consider where these underlying, and usually unconscious, responses come from.

All of us have thousands of habits we have developed over our lifetimes, many of which we are unaware of. Most are benign and helpful – which pants leg, sock or shoe to put on first – because they mean we don’t have to waste time and energy “deciding” (if you want to check this out, try reversing the pants leg, sock, shoe example and see how uncomfortable that makes you).

Other are those we picked up growing up and assimilated as “normal” – how our parent organized drawers, or didn’t, and how we go about various “activities of daily living” – in my case, showers every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; underwear and socks are changed daily, shirts every other day, pants every three days; and so on.

Now for the problem.

None of us grow up with the same set of habits and unconscious beliefs so in the close proximity of roommates, partners, spouses, and so on, our habits invariably collide with others. Trouble is, we all pretty much think that our habit is a rule. But it’s not. Habits are not rules, they are preferences.

Here’s a concrete example. From our house to LAX there are two possible routes: The I-101 freeway to I-405 to LAX, freeway most all of the way. Then there is Topanga Canyon Blvd to the Pacific Coast Highway to I-10 to I-405 to LAX, about half of which is scenic canyon roads and the coastal PCH.

Now we have two drivers’ Judy prefers the freeway route and I the canyon route. Who’s “right?” The time and mileage are about the same. There are no significant safety concerns. We’re both, usually, fairly rational people, so which route do we take?

Now comes the actual, helpful, conflict avoidant, RULE.

“She or he who has the responsibility has the authority.”

In this example, it means that the driver, who is primarily responsible for the trip’s safety, gets to choose the route (and the music, if any). Problem solved, conflict avoided, pleasant drive enhanced.

And when you generalize the “rule?” The person who loads the dishwasher decides how. The person who manages the budget gets to choose between a spread sheet and a ledger (remember those?).

The real trick here is learning the internal refrain, “It’s a preference. It’s a preference.” When someone else’s “rule” bumps up against one of ours and then sorting out if it’s our problem, theirs or just a petty annoyance.

Sometimes there are also other ways to reduce the little annoyances we all always going to encounter unless we go live by ourselves in a cave somewhere. One such example is to just assume responsibility for managing things your way for yourself, remembering that responsibility confers authority. And stop trying to get others to adhere to your personal “rules.”

Need a Bit of Help Post-Covid?

As the pandemic winds down – hopefully – more and more of us could use a bit of assistance in reversing our understandable increase in alcohol use. If you want effective, confidential, research-based and affordable services, I note the following:

  • Services need to be individual (or a couple);
  • Professional staff (no one with less than a Master’s Degree);
  • Self-pay (insurance is not confidential);
  • No groups!
  • No AA/12 Step exposure;
  • Short term (not more than 12 weeks);
  • At least two professionals for you to work with, a woman and a man;
  • Comprehensive assessment (not the usual “you’re an alcoholic, or an alcoholic in denial” run around);
  • Research base (CBT, assertiveness training, habit breaking, diet, etc);
  • Choice of outcomes (abstinence, moderation, harm reduction);
  • 70%+ success rate (AA-based programs are under 10% regardless of what they claim).

Yes, we offer all of the above, but you are welcome to use it as a checklist when talking to other programs.