Dirty socks left on the floor — the fifth time this week — texting during your dinner date, forgetting to take the trash out — again — and what seems like endless interruptions when you talk. These are just some of the irritations couples deal with on a day-to-day basis.
But while we’re taught not to sweat the small stuff and to pick our battles, it’s these tiny transgressions that can build and become big stumbling blocks in a relationship. (For instance, a longitudinal study of 373 married couples found that happy couples do sweat the small stuff and work to resolve these issues right away.)
So how do you resolve relationship annoyances without nitpicking, nagging or tiptoeing around your partner (and fuming on the inside)? Three couples specialists offer their tips for finding a happy medium and fostering a fulfilling relationship.
1. Get to the real issue.
All the experts emphasize that in most cases, it isn’t the texting, trash or messiness (or insert another “minor” issue) that’s the problem, it’s what the action represents.
In other words, “the crux of most conflicts in relationships” is what the irritation symbolizes in the relationship for each person, says Robert Solley, Ph.D, a San Francisco clinical psychologist specializing in couples therapy.
As psychologist David Bricker, Ph.D, says, “it’s never about the socks, it’s what you didn’t get from your father.”
But the underlying issues are easy to miss. Why? According to Solley, there are several reasons: Oftentimes, it’s tough to see our partners as profoundly different from ourselves, as “having different needs, wants, desires [and] ways of doing things.” We also use ourselves “as a standard of reference for how people should think and act.” Plus, instead of digging deeper, we’re more likely to focus on the “thing itself (or sometimes sidebars about what we meant, or said, or didn’t say, or did, or didn’t do) rather than the values and feelings.”
So what are the core issues? “At the heart of it,” Solley says, there’s usually the belief that our partners don’t accept or value us. “Or if they loved us, why wouldn’t they clean up the mess that they know upset us so much?” In a nutshell, it boils down to “unmet needs,” says Bricker, a Gottman Method Therapist, who works with couples and individual clients in lower Manhattan.
Getting to the real issue also gets couples closer to a solution. Bricker says that usually after about five minutes of arguing about an issue and its various details, the conversation becomes about something else entirely. That’s what you need to talk about.
2. Consider if it really bothers you.
It’s true that sometimes it’s best to pick your battles. But you need to make sure that this truly is a tiny thing. How can you tell? “Try to let it go and see how that goes,” says Michael Batshaw, LCSW, a NYC-based psychotherapist and author of 51 Things You Should Know Before Getting Engaged. It can help to ask yourself, “What’s this about for me? Why am I getting so upset about this?” he says.
But sometimes a sock is just a sock. What’s the difference? Your feelings about the issue just won’t “have that same energetic quality,” Batshaw says. When you can relinquish a minor issue without reservation, there’s probably nothing beneath the surface, he says.
Letting go of the battles that are not-so important means “recognizing that you and your partner are different people.” If how your partner folds laundry isn’t that big of a deal, tell yourself that you just have different ways of doing things and most importantly that “the connection between you will benefit from not jostling over something that really is relatively small for you.”
3. Don’t dismiss a key issue for you.
If “you’re dreaming about it, and you’re thinking about it, you’ll have to talk about it,” Batshaw says. For instance, he says that a partner might tell themselves that they’re probably too high-maintenance or they’re needy. But if you can’t drop the issue in your mind, then there’s something there you need to explore.
4. Use the softened startup.
When approaching their partner about an irritating issue, many individuals will use harsh startups, which just boost the chances of your partner getting defensive and getting hurt. Take the following example, Bricker says: He keeps leaving clothes on the floor, so she reacts by dropping them on his side of the bed, hurling insults at him, ignoring his texts all day or saying the place is disgusting.
Instead, Bricker suggests using a softened startup, which looks like this: “I know you’re working very hard, and you take care of the car and the backyard, which I really appreciate. But it upsets me when you don’t pick up your clothes. It’s something that takes just seconds.”
5. Be patient.
Picking up after yourself may come naturally to you, but it might not come that seamlessly to your spouse, Batshaw says. Whatever the issue is, your partner might need reminding here and there. Try to practice patience.
6. Push through the avoidance.
Couples get very anxious about conflict. Many avoid it altogether. How often have you heard couples proudly declare, “Oh, we never fight”?
But staying conflict-free isn’t a marker of a happy relationship. Conflict is inevitable; it’s how you handle it together that matters, Batshaw says. And when done right, conflict leads to growth. (Here are some tips for constructive conflict.)
If a fight does occur, another common reaction is for one or both partners to apologize profusely and say that everything is fine. “There’s so much anxiety that comes up in both individuals about what it means that they’re having a fight,” Batshaw says. “Like it’s the beginning of the end.”
But tiptoeing around the issues is a major reason why couples “don’t grow or move forward,” he says. Instead, they “stay fixated on these little things and then apologize without looking at what’s underlying them.”
7. Listen, don’t fix.
Experts agree that it’s important to empathically listen to your partner, and try to understand where they’re coming from. Before you talk about the solutions, make sure you both understand each other and your core concerns.
8. Collaborate on a solution.
Partners will often come to the table with solutions, except it’s their own solutions. And this isn’t helpful. Instead, Batshaw gives the example of a “conversation you can work from:” She says “I have to live in a neater place, you have to do this, that and the other.” “It’s one thing for him to say, ‘I’m messy, too bad,’ it’s another thing for the guy to say, ‘We can’t just do it your way. I understand we’re far apart, but I’m willing to compromise.’”
From there, you can begin collaborating. This means brainstorming solutions as a team, a key difference from the problem-solving people have done on their own. Batshaw describes this kind of brainstorming as relational, and “a new process, a new pattern of problem-solving” that involves both people. It’s as simple as saying, “let’s brainstorm about how we can try to find some solutions to this issue.”
This doesn’t mean that everything has to be collaborative, but you want to approach the talk with a “collaborative spirit” instead of “I’ve figured out how we’re doing to solve this,” he says.
9. Don’t focus on the fiery feelings.
As Solley says, in a conversation, “Anger, frustration or irritation may be there, but those are not the most important feelings. The more important feelings will be something softer and more vulnerable like anxiety, fear, hurt or sadness.” He describes anger as a shield that stops people from feeling the softer feelings.
Emotion can be used positively, Bricker says. He gives the following example: After a wife uses a softened startup, the husband says that he appreciates what she’s saying but he feels like he’s being taken advantage of, which makes him really upset. He might say, “I feel like you don’t care about my wants or feelings.” The wife might respond, “I do care about them, so tell me how I can let you know that I care about your needs.”
It’s no longer about the socks, Bricker says, but about meaningful conversation and connection.
If the conversation does get heated, take a break. Experts suggest taking a timeout, anywhere from a few minutes to 20, depending on how you’re feeling. If you’re really upset, agree to talk the next day, when you’ve cooled off.
10. Set up some structure.
Batshaw says that daily chores are one of the biggest “little” things couples who live together fight about. He suggests before moving in together that couples “set up some structure about who’s doing what because you’re shifting roles in the most significant way, he says. That is, your home becomes “sort of [like] running your business with each other.”
11. Get help.
“If you find that your conflicts are getting worse over what used to be a small concern and you’re not able to talk it through in the ways described above, it’s better to get help sooner than later,” Solley says. So consider seeking counseling.
In sum, when it comes to resolving the “minor” issues in your relationship, as Solley says, “decide what is really important to you and why (at the level of feelings and what it represents), and then try to have a civil conversation about it.”