My husband’s clicking jaw and loud chewing makes me want to scream. I’m living with a horse. Meal times are impossible. Pre-lockdown I only had to endure dinner at the end of a day. But now it’s three freaking meals and everything in between. In a small apartment I’m going mad. He is someone who does not take on board personal criticism. Self-improvement is not on the cards. I love him but how do I navigate this situation?
Eleanor says: There’s something David-and-Goliath-ish about the way that the biggest things can be undone by the smallest. Strong friendships worn down by perpetually tardy texts, a mother’s love tested by the thousandth time the chicken isn’t defrosted, a marriage made difficult by the equine grinding of a jaw.
In the last few months I think everyone’s experienced something like this. Every tension in a relationship can kaleidoscopically refract and glint off one particular habit. Yours is not the only house where there have been glowers that could incinerate newspapers from across the room.
Some things just matter to some people in a way that’s completely unintelligible to others.
For me it’s objects. I don’t care if someone takes a piece of clothing from my cupboard without asking. If I lend a book I consider it given away. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realise this is not everyone’s relationship to physical things. I still think my way of relating to objects is better, but that’s not the point. The point is that once you learn what matters to someone who matters to you, repeatedly acting as though it doesn’t is a way of communicating that they don’t matter either. Your husband should care that this drives you crazy.
You have to tell him. We all have to tell them. We have to say we hate the half-empty glasses in every room, how heavily they tread, or that you want them to close their mouth when they chew.
You don’t need to make it feel like criticism. Don’t let it become a battle between “you’re insufferable” and “you’re too sensitive”. Make it “this matters to me”. You can even present yourself as though you were making a slightly unreasonable ask.
People are more inclined to do something when you dress it as a favour, instead of an obligation. “Please make this change for me out of kindness, even though I know it shouldn’t bother me” is a lot easier to hear than “you don’t do what I’ve decided you’re supposed to”.
And once you’ve said that, train yourself to notice every time he makes the effort, instead of every time he doesn’t. It’s easy to take big problems out on other people’s tiny transgressions. If what’s really bothering you is that you can’t control your home environment any more, that’s the problem, not your husband – and I fear the clicking might genuinely be beyond his control.
He is (or should be) on your side in the battle to keep these times bearable. If you put effort into not seeing these noises as every failing compressed into one, he should put effort into keeping it down at the table.
Don’t let him become like the man who got divorced because he left dishes on the counter, whose plaintive recollections are a warning to us all: “She wanted to be my partner. She wanted me to apply my intelligence and learning capabilities to the logistics of managing our lives and household. I wish I could remember what seemed so unreasonable about that at the time.”