Diary of a Marriage: Dealing With Your Spouse’s Annoying Habits

Marriage means learning to live with each other’s nervous habits—or forcing them to break them.

Em, going for her thumbs, on her nerve-wracking first day of kindergarten.

I do this thing—I’ve done it for as long as I can remember: I pick at the skin on either side of my thumbnails. Gross, I know. But it’s just something I do, most of the time without even really noticing it.

There’s even a photo of me as a little girl—red smocked dress, dark-brown bowl cut with a thick fringe of bangs, huge pink bag over my arm, eyes wide with apprehension. I am standing in front of a yellow school bus on the first day of kindergarten. But what stands out is my hand, instinctively raised to my mouth. At five years old, I am nervously gnawing on my thumb. It’s proof that that I’ve been abusing my poor thumbs for 25 years.

My instinctive thumb-picking—which, at this point, I think can be attributed to habit more than to anxiety—bugs J. deeply.

“Babe, will you just stop?” he says when he catches me mindlessly fiddling with my hands or biting my nails. And then he’ll try to shame me by holding up one of my ravaged fingers: “Seriously? That’s awful.”

“It’s self-mutilation,” my mother says very dramatically. J. agrees with her; the two of them like to gang up on me sometimes. I don’t bother to tell her that it’s really pretty innocuous stuff we’re dealing with here.

“You know A. who used to work here?” my friend at work said to me the other day. “She used to pull out the hair of her left eyebrow when she got nervous.” She was watching me as I wrapped my thumbs in Band-Aids; I’d had a particularly stressful morning and they were looking worse for the wear.

“My wife does that,” said another colleague. He was perched on my credenza, watching with mild fascination as I screwed the cap back on my travel-size Neosporin tube. “What is with you girls? It drives me nuts.”

J. uses my thumbs as a measure of how stressful my week has been. It’s something those closest to me do; one of my dear college friends makes me show her my hands when I see her, just to check in. Pre-wedding, my friend (and the editor of this blog) gifted me a family-size box of Band-Aids, determined, as she was, that I would not walk down the aisle with my damaged digits—and I wore them on each finger for weeks, just so my hands would look decent for the Big Day. I wonder if J. ever thought he’d marry a thumb-picker.

These are the things that make me wonder how I ever managed to date in the first place. J. tells me now that, had he caught a glimpse of my wrecked thumbs on our first date, he would’ve been a little concerned. When was it, I sometimes wonder, that it all became normal to him? That the phrase “Stop picking!” became standard fare? Even as I sit and read over this, my hands are in prime picking position—index finger lined up with the side of my thumb to form a perfect “O,” digging into my flesh. What a weird habit. If J. were here, he’d grab my hands and hold my thumbs until I stopped.

“Would you rather me pluck out my eyebrows?” I demanded last night, as he looked at my battered thumbs in disgust. He just sighed.

And so that’s his plight: to hold my hands as we watch TV in case I start mindlessly picking my thumbs, to keep our medicine cabinet stocked with Band-Aids and Neosporin, and to remember that it could be worse. You can choose your spouse, he’s learned, but when it comes to nervous habits, that’s just luck of the draw.

Do you have a habit that drives your groom completely insane? Or does he have one that you can’t stand? Do you think the spouse with the bad habit should try to break it—or should the other just learn to live with it?





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