The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.
Judd Apatow’s new movie This Is 40 depicts a couple trying to reboot their marriage, having reached the unofficial “over-the-hill” mark and realizing that their relationship has become almost entirely perfunctory. At best. Husband and wife obsess over each other’s faults and only-somewhat-jokingly fantasize about each other’s deaths. In one particularly memorable scene, Pete asks Deb to examine his butt, while she wonders whether they might hold onto just “a shred” of mystery in their relationship. It is gross and hilarious and perfectly illustrative of the place where intimacy and romance diverge.
I am happy to report that I’ve never been asked to diagnose anyone’s rectal maladies, nor have I fantasized about how I might off John, my boyfriend of 13 years, still I could definitely relate to the film’s central conundrum: That we often put our best selves out into the world, while saving our brattiest, least patient, least fun and most critical iterations of self for the one person we love the most. Would I ever, for example, freak out on a friend because she was late to pick me up, or nag a colleague when he didn’t do exactly what I wanted him to right when I asked him? Of course not.
The notion that someone out there loves you “warts and all,” is romantic in its own way, I suppose, but show those warts often enough and the person across the breakfast table may end up viewing you as a witch. With this in mind, I decided to go a week without criticizing and nagging John. And see if he even noticed.
How to be a better, better half
While keeping the specifics of Operation: Nix the Nitpicking to myself, I began the week by asking John whether he found me to be particularly critical. His take was that I am pretty supportive, but can get controlling and naggish when things aren’t going exactly my way (I added “be more flexible” to the week’s agenda). I should mention that this experiment played out over my Christmas holiday which I spent in Florida. On the one hand, what is there to complain about when you’re on holiday? But on the other, this meant 10 days of spending pretty much 24/7 together. And travelling, which can bring out the crankypants in all of us, right?
I’m not going to list the tiny complaints and critiques that I held back, first off because (like the wife in the movie) my boyfriend would appreciate maintaining a shred of privacy, and also because the specific nature of nitpicks is not nearly as relevant as the fact that I usually feel justified in making them. No one conflict is particularly significant, but death by a thousand paper cuts has put many relationships into the morgue.
In an article about the negative effects of minor, inter-relationship mud-slinging, Dr. Leon Seltzer explains that, “the moment we feel sufficiently secure in our partner’s bond to us is the moment we take our gloves off.” Our actions, says Dr. Seltzer, become dictated by the demands of our own egos rather than the warm, fuzzy feelings we have for the other person. When we feel like our needs aren’t being met, sometimes the knee-jerk reaction is to become more critical of the other person’s shortcomings, both relevant (tendency to forget about plans) and otherwise (tendency to start playing guitar just when we are supposed to be leaving the house).
Life’s a beach when you don’t kvetch
I confess that I thought this challenge was going to be tough – breaking bad habits always is, and besides how would we ever get things done without my necessary reminders (those comments that John files under incessant nagging)? But I was wrong – cutting out the kvetching was not hard at all. Not allowing myself to get worked up over tiny things was actually sort of relaxing and yet another example of the whole mind-over-matter philosophy that pops up in so many of these weekly challenges.
Dr. Seltzer explains that when we critique and complain about a partner’s behaviour, what we are really doing is trying to mould the other person into what we want them to be. One day at the beach I began pestering John to go for a swim as soon as we got there. I wanted to go in, so that must be the ideal sequence of events. And of course, a dip in the ocean is more fun with a partner in crime, but putting on the bossy boots is probably not the best way to get there.
Last night I asked whether he had noticed my exemplary girlfriend behaviour over the week. He had not, but said that he had had a really fun trip. I guess that’s sort of the point.
The next challenge
Feeling a bit like a stuffed turkey after the holidays? Devote a few days to the detox of your choice (try a juice-only cleanse or incorporate solids). Does this type of quick fix actually do you any good? Let us know at fb.me/globelifestream.