Annoyance Avoidance: I Couldn’t be Bothered

Peter Gibbons: The thing is, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.
Bob Porter: Don’t… don’t care?
Peter Gibbons: It’s a problem of motivation, all right? Now if I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime, so where’s the motivation? And here’s something else, Bob: I have eight different bosses right now.
Bob Slydell: I beg your pardon?
Peter Gibbons: Eight bosses.
Bob Slydell: Eight?
Peter Gibbons: Eight, Bob. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.
Office Space, Written by Mike Judge

What’s my motivation? For most domestic tasks, my motivation matches the Peter Gibbons philosophy. There’s so much I do just to avoid being hassled. Sometimes it’s just small things. For example, when I went to bed last night I heaved my marine mammalian maternal mass all the way over to the far side of our king-sized bed so that I could even out the blanket for Matt. He comes to bed late and if he doesn’t get covers, I hear a litany of complaints in the morning. Truthfully, if the covers favor my side, it’s rare that I’m actually hoarding them. Usually this phenomenon is a result of the covers’ initial placement – a condition that could be remedied by either one of us at any time of day. It’s also because I tuck my covers in at the bottom and Matt leaves his loose. In my opinion, if Matt’s going to complain about it, then he should fix it. But that task usually falls to me, and I do it for the sake of simple annoyance avoidance.

I’m not the only one. During a recent informal survey at a moms’ meeting, I asked for examples of annoyance avoidance and everyone offered up a contribution. And I think it’s safe to say that women, and maybe men, have been practicing annoyance avoidance for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

I know the practice goes back at least a generation. My mom had a great refrain that I used to hate: “I couldn’t be bothered.” To me, it indicated defeat, and it reinforced my mother’s status as a tragic figure. But after three and a half years of marriage and two and a half years of motherhood, I understand exactly what she meant. Further, I realize it’s just a fact of life. “I couldn’t be bothered” has to motivate at least half of the things wives and mothers do on a daily basis.

My husband has motivated so much annoyance avoidance that he should appear on the motivational poster. Sometimes the man complains so much that “I Used to Love Her, but I Had to Kill Her” starts to play in my head. The idea of burying him in the backyard has carried me through many a day. But, as the song laments, it’s very likely that I would still hear him complain.

I love Matt very much, and his countless good qualities far outweigh the bad or I wouldn’t be with him, but driving your partner crazy is an inevitable part of marriage. Here’s a perfect example. I would love to attempt a social life. I’ve heard that many moms can and do socialize with other moms and sometimes even regular people. In fact, I can prove it because I have a friend who goes out with the girls two or three times a week. Let me say that again. Two or three times a week. She’s raising a son who’s seven months younger than Rose but get this: Her husband facilitates her social life by offering regular babysitting services. Her kid’s quite a handful and I don’t begrudge her the breaks, but if I tried to go out even once a week, here’s what would happen:

“Honey, I’d like to go out Thursday night. The moms are getting together to learn how to put out house fires.”

“Thursday?” grave look, deep inhale, long exhale. “Let me check my calendar.” Pulls out Blackberry. “Well, I have a webex with Tokyo at 10 p.m. I can’t do that with her running around.”

“She goes to bed at 8:30.”

“She does for you, but if you’re out, she won’t go to bed until you get home.”

“I should be home by nine.”

Big sigh. Serious look. “Ok. (sigh) I guess I can reschedule.”

“Forget it. I don’t have to go. They offer it every five years anyway,” I’d concede. My husband should be an attitude consultant for Bridezillas.

He’s not the only motivator I’ve got. Rose — kids in general – are experts at motivating annoyance avoidance. Rose was supposed to quit using her pacifier months ago. She did really well for a while. We were able to limit use to bedtime only. But somehow we backslid and now she’s constantly seeking her paci. Her doctor and her dentist have repeatedly lectured me on this subject, and I want to get rid of the paci. I really do. But when I know it’ll shut her up or better, put her to sleep, I’ll tear the house apart to get to that little latex sucker, just to avoid her whiny complaints.

Maybe annoyance avoidance implies defeat, but it’s better than the alternative. My husband and daughter exhibit a kind of learned helplessness that absolutely baffles me. It’s unfathomable because they act like they’d rather remain unhappy and complain than correct an easily correctable situation. I guess what they say is true: happiness is a choice.

Matt exhibits this behavior in the car. He’ll be on the highway behind a car that’s slow, dangerous, moronic, or otherwise frustrating. “C’mon, jackass,” he’ll say. A few seconds later: “JESUS!” During this process, I will look around us and I must say, 90 percent of the time, we’re surrounded by open lanes. All we have to do is change lanes and pass or avoid the offending vehicle. Yet Matt remains focused on the bitching at hand, uttering a complaint roughly every 12 seconds. By the time I lose my patience and say, “God Honey! Just freakin’ change lanes already!” He’ll say, “I can’t. I’m boxed in here.” Sure enough, there are now cars around us but they do not necessarily impede our escape. If I was driving, I could easily change lanes. But he chooses not to.

Rose must get it from him. She will bang her head against the wall – literally – then cry and complain that it hurts. When we say, “Stop banging your head and it won’t hurt anymore,” she does it again. I know she’s only two, but she understands annoyance avoidance enough to tell everyone that she doesn’t like toys that talk, so what gives?

I grew up surrounded by complainers. My Yaya was one of those people who was never happy unless she was miserable. She’d sit in the living room and murmur “Och…Och…Och” until you asked her what was wrong. And then she’d let loose with a ten-minute laundry list. So I learned to ignore her. And I also learned that once she thought you were out of earshot, she’d stop moaning.

My mother constantly complained about my grandmother’s neediness and their mutual antagonism and about my father’s frugality, sneakiness, control, etc. My father complained about money, our over-dependence on luxuries like heat and electricity, my behavior and my mother’s opinions. Now his complaints focus mostly on how the liberals have ruined this country but even in the regimes of his chosen party, he was never happy.

So it was inevitable that I learned to complain. I’m pretty good at it and I can elevate passive aggressive behavior to an art form. But I wasn’t happy and I was never comfortable with helplessness. So I learned, first from therapy, then from a 12-step program, how to embrace the positive and reject the negative. I learned to look for alternatives instead of wasting energy bitching about the current situation. It’s not that I never complain. To the contrary, I was really tired yesterday and I probably spent most of the day complaining. I’m human and I enjoy a good bitch session as much as anybody, but once I’m done venting, I focus on changes I can make or make jokes to improve my attitude.

Reformed complainers are like reformed smokers. I can claim both titles. When a smoker tries to quit, smoking trumps every other desire. Once he’s got a few smoke-free weeks under his belt, he still dreams about cigarettes, missing them, wishing he could just have one, preferably with a drink, but he resists. After a few months, cigarettes still smell good but he’s glad he quit. And after a year, cigarettes become so repulsive that he can’t relate to the overwhelming desire he once had.

Once a complainer leaves the bitching life, listening to complaints becomes so abhorrent that the reformed complainer can’t stand to listen anymore. Of course we’re human and no one quits cold turkey. After all, who among us can resist the siren song of expressing discontent? But once bitching’s no longer our way of life, we have little patience for listening to others’ laundry lists. Yes, it’s a bit hypocritical but nobody’s perfect.

So we learn coping skills like annoyance avoidance. It takes a certain amount of resignation to accept that the complainer won’t change, but once we can successfully avoid dealing with the behavior, life becomes so much easier. It’s a self-reinforcing behavior. And we can’t change other people. That’s just the way it works. So we find a way to live with the things that drive us crazy and we survive to love them another day.