I’ve seen countless couples who come into therapy and say they need to work on their communication. If you’re reading this, maybe this is an issue you’re experiencing. In that case, you would come into your first session, and tell me that you and your spouse argue a lot; and the frustrating part is that it’s usually about “stupid stuff”. These issues are usually minor, but it’s perplexing to you why you both get extremely frustrated over things like dishes.
The easy answers to why you’re fighting are: 1) It’s how you talk to each other, and 2) You’re not expressing the real reason why you’re frustrated about it.
1) It’s How You Talk About it
As a therapist, it’s no surprise to me why many couples will argue about dishes (or the trash, lawn, laundry, etc) consistently. It’s not that these issues really have such a significant impact on your life, it’s how those conversations sound/look when they happen. For example, when you hear an attitude from your spouse that’s full of contempt you’ll feel angry about that. And If you expect that your spouse will react negatively when you bring up one of these topics, you’ll most likely present the issue in a more accusing and defensive way. And when both of these happen you’ll start to look at your partner as an adversary around these issues instead of a partner. These are all setting the perfect foundation for a fight.
How To Fix It
Now, assuming that you and your partner want to improve, you must both try to communicate differently. If there isn’t a conscious effort on both of your parts, you likely won’t go far in regards to improving. So what should you try to do differently?
First, be conscious of how you view your partner before bringing up an issue. If you see them as your opponent, it likely won’t end well. If you look at them as your partner who you want to find a solution with, it will give you a much better chance at communicating effectively. Second, explicitly state that you’re trying to present the issue in a non-accusing way (at least to start). This clearly communicates to your partner that you’re trying to bring an issue up in a different way. And this will inherently make them want to do the same – to try to communicate effectively.
2) You’re Not Talking About the Real Reason(s)
If you are following the first point but still find yourself frustrated, maybe you aren’t talking about what’s really bothering you. Onecouple that I recently had a session with – let’s call them Anna and John – had a great two weeks, but found themselves stuck on one issue. John has his own company and is essentially on call all week long. This was problematic because John needed to cancel dinner plans with Anna one night. Anna knew that John needed to go see his client to keep his business running, but was still frustrated. They were arguing about his availability to his clients; Anna wanted him to have times where he wasn’t on call, while John said this wouldn’t work for his business.
They Kept Going Deeper
Anna eventually stated that she wanted to know what to expect instead of having the disappointing surprise of John canceling last minute. This was the first step in going deeper. Anna went on to say that what she needed was to see that John was putting in effort to spend time with her. After she expressed this to him, the two were much more calm and understanding to each other. They were no longer frustrated about the surface issues (which both agreed couldn’t really be fixed). They were able to discuss the ‘deeper’ issues. John was able to see that Anna wasn’t unreasonable, or trying to tell him how to do his job. He realized that her distress came from not having enough quality time with him. She just wanted to see that he valued and appreciated her.
A lot, if not most, of your arguments boil down to basic communciation like this. If you find yourselves stuck, think if you’re trying to talk calmly and if you’re really expressing the most elemental reason of your frustration. Both of these will give you the foundation you need to communicate better and make it through the small things successfully.
Ben King is a Marriage and Family Therapist Candidate at The Marriage and Family Clinic who focuses on working with couples experiencing sexual difficulties. In his spare time Ben loves to cook and is secretly aspiring to be the next Iron Chef.