Why Do We Keep Arguing Over the Little Things?

My couples ask me this a lot right now. With the increased stress of COVID and being around each other more than usual, they find themselves arguing over little things.  

They tell me their fights are “silly.” They know there are people with “much bigger problems.” They are typically a bit confused when I tell them I don’t see it that way. I tell them I don’t see their fights as silly at all. “Why?” they ask, “we know other couples have real problems and here we are arguing over dishwashing detergent!”      

I love the dishwasher fights. They give me so much intel about what may be going awry.

What do these fights mean?

For many of us, we are fighting with our partners more these days for two main reasons: we are more stressed and we are around each other more than usual. Building in some time for breaks from each other and seeking out healthy stress outlets can help couples rebound from these fights fairly well. But what about when that doesn’t work? 

If healthy outlets and much-needed time away doesn’t help you rebound, it may be because your fights about the little things are a symptom of something a bit deeper. This isn’t a hopeless position, I promise. The deeper things can be fixable, but not when you don’t know what they are. And the solution is not in the details of the fights.  

Oftentimes, couples don’t realize their little fights are a symptom of something a bit deeper. I describe this common couples phenomenon in depth in my new book, From Chaos to Connection. I’m sharing an excerpt today from chapter 9, called ‘The Problem is Not What You Think.” This chapter helps couples get to the root of their distress, and hopefully saves them from years of disconnection. I help you find the root and then . . . I help you fix it. You can read the full chapter when the book releases in a few short weeks (October 9th)!

Excerpt from From Chaos to Connection: A Marriage Counselor’s Candid Guide for the Modern Couple by Lori Epting, LCMHC

Therapists are masterful decoders. Sometimes I think I could moonlight for the CIA, helping decode secret languages. That’s how savvy I think I’ve become at decoding my clients’ words.

As a marriage counselor, you learn how to weed through all the arguing, accusations, ultimatums, excuses, complaints, and justifications, and get to the real root of the problem. You learn how to read between the lines, sifting through all the information about what happened last week, when a couple got into a huge fight about dog food, who left the garage door open, and why it was such a big deal that she was twenty minutes late getting home. Marriage counselors are like detectives scraping through a messy crime scene to find the one piece of DNA that will give us the culprit’s identity—looking for the tiny piece of hair or particle of skin that will give us the answer to this one question: what is the root of the problem?

During an argument, a partner may only hear, “I can’t believe you forgot the dog food again! You never listen to me!” Their spouse may only hear, “Oh, I listen, alright, but it’s always something with you. You always find something to complain about!” 

They are so caught up in the emotions of the fight that they can’t see much of anything except that they are in distress, and that fighting with their partner is making them miserable. They don’t look for the root of the problem. All they know is that emotional distance from their partner is unbearable. 

As a result, my clients often want the quick fix. The answer. The solution. They lay out all the information from every angle, look at me, and ask, “What do we do?!” But I can’t give you the quick fix, the perfect little communication tactic, the effective negotiation tool, because I don’t know the source of the problem yet. 

This much I do know: it’s not about the dog food. It’s not about the dishes, the garage door, or being twenty minutes late. It’s about something unseen, something often unsaid, something that has escaped one spouse, if not both. And this unseen thing is different for every couple, which is why I have to go into super-sleuth mode to find it. What is the root of the problem? 

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