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JONATHAN SMALL: When bad habits happen to good marriages

My wife has a terrible habit of leaving expired food in the fridge, which is not only disgusting but quite possibly a health code violation in several states. I've tried to say something to her about this, but she just counters with her own grievances about my habits. For example, apparently she doesn't enjoy it when I fart in bed.

Ah, annoying habits. We all have them -- yet for some reason, they seem to become more magnified during marriage. I've heard complaints about everything from the husband who never changes the toilet paper roll to the wife who always steals the covers. So what's the solution? Do we point out every irritating habit our spouse has? Or do we just shrug our shoulders and deal?

LET SOME THINGS SLIDE.

Not all habits are created equal. Some are easy to kick to the curb, but it's impossible to get spouses to change a habit if they don't want to, says Stella Resnick, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, and author of "The Pleasure Zone: Why We Resist Good Feelings & How to Let Go and Be Happy." For example, training your husband to stop misplacing his car keys -- doable. However, training him to stop passing gas loudly -- doubtful. You must also realize that habits are not personal! Just because my wife refuses to throw leftovers away, doesn't mean she wants to kill me. She just doesn't want to waste food. Once you realize it's not about you, the habit will become a lot easier to stomach (unless it's 4-week-old Chinese food).

COMPLIMENT, DON'T CRITICIZE.

OK, so you've decided that the habit is something you both want to change and it's time to take action. Here's a secret of the patented HabitBuster™ program: A good way to bust a habit is to reward its opposite. Don't ever complain, criticize or punish your spouse for the irritation. Saying, "I frickin' hate it when you leave dirty pots on the stove, so from now on we're only ordering takeout!" is not going to change anything. It'll just make your partner defensive and defiant. But what if your husband scrubbed the pots and you rewarded him with lots of praise? Chances are, he'd do it again -- and again. Another strategy: Strike a deal. You promise to try to leave for parties on time, if he tries to act like he's having a good time.

FIND THE HUMOR IN HABITS.

So why not just laugh at them? "Get a sense of humor about your relationship," says Dr. Gilda Carle, a relationship expert and founder of DrGilda.com. "You might just find that the habit was a lot more charming that you originally thought." This all sounds wise and true, but I know for a fact my wife is still trying to find the "funny" in my bedroom ballistics. As she said recently, "Our wedding vows said `till death do us part,' not fart!"

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