Think about a recent fight you had with your partner. What was it about?
Most likely, it was about nothing. Marriage expert Dr. John Gottman says the number one thing couples fight about is “nothing.”
Why does that happen? Why do the tender amorous feelings we have in the beginning of our relationship turn into contempt, frustration and loneliness? Why is there a voice in our heads that point out all the negative things about our partner? Why do we let small things turn into big blow-ups?
Caralee Frederic, a couples’ therapist and weekend workshop counselor in Colorado, says conflict turns negative when the relationship lacks trust.
“Trust comes over time, after days, weeks, and months of consistently showing your partner that his or her needs matter,” Frederic says.
A person must trust that his or her partner is thoughtful and kind. This trust allows a person to give the partner a break. Take, for instance, Michelle and Dan.
One evening, Dan is emotionally distant as they decide where they should go to dinner. Because they are in a trusting relationship, Michelle translates Dan’s unkindness as “he must have had a bad day” or “his mind is just on other things right now.”
However, if their relationship was one riddled with sarcasm, disdain for other’s opinion, harsh words, lack of physical touch, then Michelle would likely read Dan’s detached behavior as “he’s so selfish and self-absorbed; dinner is going to be long and horrible; he doesn’t care enough about me to make tonight special.” Suddenly, Dan’s indecisiveness over picking a restaurant becomes a full-blown battle.
“I’ve worked with countless couples, either in private therapy or at weekend workshops, who admit the same thing: they fight over nothing,” Frederic says. It’s not uncommon to hear one or both say “This sounds so dumb…” or “I can’t believe we’re fighting over something so small, but if feels so important.”
After digging deeper, the couples realize the “fights-over-nothing” ultimately occur against a backdrop of a weakened friendship. There were efforts to connect that were missed or ignored. They have not been curious about updating what they know about their partner’s everyday world and they’ve grown “too busy” to express appreciation for the little things or to remember the positives about their partner and to tell them.
Sometimes, underlying issues – those pertaining to one or both partners’ past experiences which are separate from the relationship, as well as those within the relationship itself – magnify the misunderstandings between couples.
What can couples learn from these “small,” “dumb,” “nothing” fights?
Frederic, who is also the founder and owner of Principle Skills Relationship Center in Colorado, recommends that couples:
Assess the Relationship. A simple self-assessment through online relationship quizzes, such as ARE YOU A BEAUTY OR A BEAST IN YOUR RELATIONSHIP?, having a conversation with one another about what’s going well and what could be better, or a more thorough assessment with a psychologist or licensed therapist who specializes in couples counseling can provide an objective view of the relationship’s areas of strengths and weakness. Where are partners missing and connecting? Do partners express daily appreciation? Are partners giving each other their full attention? Do partners possess the skills to listen to and understand each other’s perspective?
Identify Underlying Issues. Seeking to understand your own past experiences, especially with emotions and how you learned to express them, will help you recognize whether your responses to conflict are healthy or misguided. Meanwhile, understanding your partner’s history will help you develop empathy and serve as a foundation for friendship and trust.
Learn Positive Responses. When a conflict occurs, partners can learn to replace negative, aggravating responses – especially criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling, which are the main predictors of divorce – with more effective responses. Couples who learn to accept differences, to accept influence from each other, and to compromise can use conflict as a springboard to strengthen their bond. For example, a disconnect over a sexless marriage can spur a conversation about your partner’s deepest desires and result in revitalized intimacy.
Remember, Frederic says, replacing destructive behavior with effective ones takes time, but little adjustments made consistently over a long period of time results in a new trajectory for your relationship and elevates it to a happier, healthier place.