Seemingly insignificant conflicts can represent larger issues in a couple’s relationship. Bickering over a brand of toothpaste or who takes out the trash—these pesky battles emerge in the life of a couple. As a therapist specializing in couples counseling, it’s my job to help a couple understand what’s going on. Are these picky details really so important or is something else afoot?
One couple who came to therapy was stuck over the placement of the kitchen measuring cups. During a marital separation, the husband, who we’ll call Bob, had moved the measuring cups to a new location in the kitchen. When they got back together, the wife, who we’ll call, Sally, silently objected to this rearrangement. Bob had purchased extra glass measuring cups and stacked them where Sally was sure they would get chipped. Thus, when Sally put the dishes away after Bob had washed them, she left the measuring cups sitting on the kitchen counter refusing to put them in the new spot.
Don’t Avoid The Discussion
Sally thought it would become a no-win fight if she suggested moving the cups to a bigger cupboard where they wouldn’t get chipped. She couldn’t bring herself to calmly and clearly bring it up. Meanwhile, the measuring cups sat on the kitchen counter. It irritated Bob that Sally was leaving the measuring cups on the counter, but he didn’t want to risk upsetting her by asking about it. After all, she was back in the house and the relationship had improved from where they had been. If she didn’t want the measuring cups in the new spot, so be it. Thus, the measuring cups sat out and were a constant, unspoken reminder that said, “We can’t even talk about the small stuff in our relationship! Things might get out of hand!”
Talking About The Small Stuff Is Good Practice
Finally, Bob became irritated enough that one day he came to therapy and let it out. Why in the world wouldn’t Sally put the measuring cups away? Yes! Bob was finally willing to raise a point of conflict instead of sweeping it away. He was taking a small step toward growth—being able to discuss something that was important to him—albeit a small thing. Practicing with this could lead the way to being able to talk about more significant things like affection and sex.
I encouraged him to tell Sally about it; they could handle this discussion! With effort, Sally was able to listen and understand Bob’s mounting frustration. She could see how it must be irritating that he felt he couldn’t tell her what bugged him. In turn, and with a good dose of self-control, Bob was able to hear about Sally’s experience. He saw that she didn’t feel she could offer a solution that he might take seriously. The couple was able to agree that the measuring cups was a symbol representing their need be able to talk about stuff, small and large. Once each partner had a sense of feeling heard, coming up with a solution became immeasurably (couldn’t resist) easier.
The happy ending? The measuring cups are off the kitchen counter and put away; no big deal. Like the measuring cups incident, household chores offer opportunities for couples to say and hear what is important. If couples can stick with a process of sharing before rushing to a solution prematurely, that’s a recipe for success.