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Cherishing a Lost Loved One's Irritating Habits

A Personal Perspective: Do you remember your partner's annoying habits?

Key points

  • A companion's irritating habits are what we remember best when we lose them.
  • Maybe those irritating habits help us survive their premature loss.
Max Power/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.
Source: Max Power/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.

Those Annoying Habits

When we first fall in love, every little thing that our significant other does seems precious. She sucks air through her teeth after flossing them. How cute! Yeah, it’s a little weird, but we take it in stride and think about how lucky we are to be in love. We grin each time she does this, but we never tell her how annoying it really is.

But as the years go by, those cute little habits begin to wear away our patience. That nightly sucking noise is starting to annoy us. Why can’t she just stop? Why do people do that? Is it a quality control step or something?

There comes a time when we can’t take it anymore. We let our frustrations out explosively, after having suppressed them all these years. Do you really have to do that? I just lost my job to some efficiency expert’s brilliant outsourcing idea. Can you just skip one night, dear? It’s bad enough our grandkids never visit us, and that we never got that fancy townhome on the hill you always dreamed of. Now, I have to look for a new job, too. Would you please stop that infernal sucking for a few nights?

When Those Habits Are Dearly Missed

I want to share with you, that I learned something very poignant about a beloved’s bad habits. The habits only annoy us when we thought we'd never lose her. But after she’s gone, we would gladly put up with those habits. In fact, we would give anything to hear that horrid sucking noise again—just one last time. That’s what I remember most about someone I loved very dearly for so very long—the thing I miss about her most is a habit that used to drive me crazy.

Nobody else I knew did that. It’s the one thing that stands out in my mind when I wish she were still here. My regret at having raised my voice after she sucked her teeth, helps me remember her. The science of regret shows the purpose of this emotion. Things that happen again and again, when paired with a sense of irritation, may act a lot like learned reinforcers.

Angels Watching Over Me?

I lost my second wife to cancer two years ago. She had some annoying habits, and you’d think I would have learned to treasure those annoyances while she was beside me (especially since I’m a psychologist). One particularly aggravating habit she had, was to give me explicit driving directions while sitting next to me in the passenger seat; she couldn’t reach the pedals herself. We have to drive through dark, forested areas in Arkansas, where the little roads twist and turn and go way up and down like a roller coaster for miles and miles. Driving can seem a little scary until you know the route.

After she passed away, I began to sense somebody next to me as I drove home alone from the hospital. I could hear her whisper: "Look out honey, there’s a turn coming up soon." "Please slow down here." It was at that moment I realized she had never actually meant to annoy me; she had been accidentally using learned reinforcement to protect me. More importantly, those same learned reinforcers helped me remember her, long after she was gone.

Almost magically, at just the right time and place, I knew when to turn. Like being nudged by an angel, I could feel what to do next. Those daily annoyances had become a magical residue, enduring whispers of tenderness from the empty seat next to me in my car.

Regret Is a Guardian Angel

I have a bad habit, too. I keep a doormat outside my front door. It’s so worn out it probably annoys my neighbors and the people who come to visit me. But it’s a habit I hold very dear. My late wife used to put that doormat there, even when it got soaking wet, and I had to practically leap over it just to go in or out the front door. That used to annoy me. Now it comforts me, as though she hadn't died after all but just hadn't come home yet. It soothes me, like the sound of someone in the darkness who has forgiven me, sucking air through a gingerly flossed tooth. And one day, when my neighbors remember my silly doormat habit, they too will recall me, long after I am gone.


Ludden, D. (2017, July 22). Coping with your partner’s annoying behaviors. Psychology Today. Retrieved from…

Roos, D. (2019, March 15). Regrets, we’ve had a few — but why? HowStuffWorks. Retrieved from…

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