I was talking with a co-worker this afternoon, and she mentioned how after so much time with her S.O. she was beginning to feel that "everything you do irritates me" feeling. I know this feeling. Fortunately, and thanks in no small part to my wife, I also know what it's like when that feeling is conquered and begins to fade. While my coworker and I talked, I suggested two sort-of rudimentary ways to approach the issue. Now that I am home and have stepped away from the conversation I thought I would toss it out into the blogoshpere and see what comes back. The two approaches I suggested were fairly polar, and I realize that can be problematic, but a lot of relationship issues do tend to lack a wealth of approaches. I will comment on that more later, for now I'll recap:
In my opinion, she could A) Listen to her gut (meditate, force-conclusion, ego-mirror, etc) and decide whether or not the relationship she is in is one where the pressure to become a better person is not only there, but mutual. Or, B) Pick something she does which irritates her S.O., catch a moment when she chooses NOT to engage that irritating behavior, and remark out loud about it.
In the first scenario, I am basically suggesting she decide whether or not the relationship is even worth the personal dissection. If it is, then my second approach ought to be a good starting marker for how to recognize change in your partner. This is really difficult without a plan of action because when you spend day in and day out with one person, you don't see the ways they are changing. You may notice if you go to a party where a large number of people are your S.O.'s friends, many people that your S.O. hasn't seen in six months or a year may remark on how much your S.O. has matured, while you sit by scratching your head daring the old friend to go ahead and try dating your impossible S.O. for his or her self and see how they like. This thought should be a red flag, because it indicates that you believe you are best suited to meet your damaged partner's needs. Maybe you are... but the no-no is finding yourself in a place of moral or behavioral superiority in a relationship that should be built on mutual respect and appreciation.
My wife and I use the method I mention above. Even though we had some epic fights and misunderstandings at the get-go, we always have and always will talk about the things we are or are not satisfied with in the relationship in non-blaming (as possible) language, and then try to vocally express when we have acted alternatively to the problem behavior so that the other person knows, at the very least, that you are still thinking about it and still care. For example, my wife really hated it when I used to "help" in the kitchen, because what usually occurred, and I admit it now, was my domination of the whole project. She loves to cook as much as I do, and I was condescending her by jumping in too enthusiastically with my own ideas rather than getting a bearing on where she was headed first. This has changed, but it took time and the effort to point out small milestones for the change to be recognized. Now I ask her if she wants help, and if she does, I ask her specifically what she'd like me to do. Sometimes she will have me just chop some shit up, other times she will actually want my own input.
Over simplified? Sure. But nonetheless applicably sound.
Or, for a different scenario, let's say that one person in a committed relationship has a drinking "problem", and I put that in quotes because not everyone said to have one does. That can be somewhat subjective. So let's, for the sake of ease, say that one person drinks more than other. The one who drinks less would like the other to do the same or at least work towards a middle ground (ok, fine, this is based on personal experience), so the one whose drinking is problematic in the context of the relationship should make it known EACH time they are intentionally curbing a desire for a given quantity or frequency of alcohol; mind you, not in a whining or punitive way. And since I already admitted that I am just talking about my own life, I should also say that this approach has worked for my wife and I. She has a much healthier relationship with day-to-day drinking than I do, and through communicating each effort to reduce my own drinking down to a level that was more acceptable, she began to see that, indeed, even though I still require some wine or what-have-you to get ready for bed, the amount has decreased more than significantly. Of course, her insistence and my acceptance of the issue were key too, but there's just no reason I can think of to avoid such changes unless the change in question is a "deal breaker".
So as I savor my glass of wine over some blog writing tonight, I would encourage others in a similar spot to at least attempt this method, for even if it fails, you will have gained important knowledge either way: Possibly the knowledge that your connection wasn't that strong after all, possibly the knowledge that it can only get stronger.