How Couples Turn Molehills into Mountains
Your partner didn’t wash the dishes, or take out the trash or fold the laundry. Maybe they forgot to pay a bill. Maybe they’re running late to your lunch date. Maybe they haven’t hung up the picture frames they promised to hang up (too many) weeks ago. Maybe they leave their clothes on the floor. All. The. Time.
These are seemingly small issues. And, yet somehow, they’ve sparked a fight. A big one. Or several big ones.
One reason we turn small issues into significant problems is that we don’t resolve these minor matters when they occur. Over time they snowball, leading to constant bickering and fighting, said Clinton Power, a clinical relationship counsellor in Sydney, Australia.
Couples often bring up all these issues when they’re supposed to be focusing on a single situation. So that before you know it, you’re talking about five topics and understandably getting quite overwhelmed.
For instance, you and your partner disagree on a particular purchase. Instead of focusing on that purchase, you start talking about past purchases and past problems, which triggers anger and defensiveness—and exacerbates the argument. “This then hampers your ability to resolve the initial issue because you’re in fight-or-flight mode and the higher executive functions of the brain (such as your cerebral cortex) are offline and cannot help you make rational decisions and solve problems,” said Power, founder of Clinton Power + Associates.
Small issues tend to go unresolved because we avoid talking about them. Maybe you don’t raise issues early on because you want to avoid tension or conflict, Power said. Maybe you grew up in a volatile family that fought all the time or in a family, where sharing a different opinion wasn’t OK, he said. Which means you might see conflict as a catastrophe, and thereby avoid it at all costs.
We also turn molehills into mountains when there are underlying issues. For instance, you don’t “feel heard, understood, loved or prioritized in the relationship,” said Julia Nowland, a couples therapist, qualified trainer and an experienced speaker. And your partner might have similar feelings.
Nowland shared this example: Your partner keeps promising to finish painting the house, while you’re tearing your hair out wondering why it’s not done yet. To you, a house is a sanctuary, and unfinished projects make you feel frazzled. You’re upset because your partner knows this about you—which leads you to conclude that they don’t care about your feelings. Your partner starts projects because they need to feel resourceful and capable. So when you keep harping on this unfinished project, they feel incapable and unappreciated.