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Fighting About the "Small Stuff" & Why It's Not So Small

Do you find that you and your partner are continually getting into arguments about "little" things? Maybe it's reminding them to rinse their dish after dinner. Maybe it's asking them to roll the toothpaste instead of squeezing it (again!). Or maybe they become irritated with you every time you forget to close the cabinets.

A lot of couples come into my office wanting to know how to "fix" these conflicts. They want to know why they get so heated about "unimportant" parts of their lives together - this isn't even some of the "big" stuff!

But, this is some of the big stuff, and I'll tell you why.

First, I want to acknowledge how painful and confusing these arguments can be. It might seem that you or your partner are reacting in a large way to something that is logically not "that big of a deal," and neither of you are sure about why. Many times, it can feel like these arguments are cyclical, and that one slip-up can cause another avalanche of emotions. And you didn't plan to get into a fight over the toothpaste, did you?

There is a deeper meaning to each of these conflicts. It's not really about the toothpaste, or the dishes, or where you put the dog's leash after your walk. These arguments cause such large emotional reactions because of what they mean to you and your partner.

My clients Lindsay and Kat have had an ongoing conflict about cracking the window after someone showers; Lindsay has explained that it is important for the bathroom to air out after a hot shower, and Kat agrees. However, much of the time Kat forgets to crack the window after she showers, which is upsetting to Lindsay. At first glance, this might seem like a "small" issue, and both Kat and Lindsay are having a hard time understanding why Lindsay has such a strong reaction about this. "I just forget things sometimes," Kat notes. Lindsay nods, and I encourage her to figure out the narrative that happens in her head when Kat forgets to open the window.

Lindsay takes a moment to think, and then she quietly shares that she feels "unheard" when Kat forgets about the window. "Why does it make you feel unheard?" Kat wants to know. Lindsay explains that even more than unheard, it makes her feel unimportant, like the things she asks for don't matter to Kat. This is the deeper meaning. It's not about the window being cracked or not - it's about what that means to Lindsay.

Without investigating the deeper narrative, fights with our partners can seem confusing - especially when they center around things like putting things away or misplacing our keys. When Lindsay and Kat were able to recognize what the cracked window meant to Lindsay, they were able to collaborate on a solution to help Lindsay feel more important in their relationship. That doesn't mean that Kat remembers to crack the window every time, and it's important to note that it's not just on Kat to change her behavior. Understanding what the narrative was also helps Lindsay alleviate some of her pain around this action, and empowers her to be able to ask for her deeper needs to be met when she feels upset. It becomes about connection to our partners, and less about whether or not the window is open.

Next time you find yourself in conflict with your partner about something that seems "small" (and trust me, it's not), I encourage you to pause, breathe, and think deeply about what the narrative is for each of you. Talk through it together, and try to refocus your efforts on what the meaning of your partner's action (or inaction) is for you. Use this opportunity to deepen your connection to each other. Collaborate on how you each of you can get more of your needs met to experience an even more satisfying and fulfilling partnership.

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