Conflicts — 13 November 2005
Why ‘small stuff’ matters in relationships?

Many couples are amazed at how intense they become about conflicts regarding what they call “little things”. Some are even embarrassed to bring these issues up with a therapist, because they seem so trivial. Couples discuss it only because of the ongoing emotional drain these recurring problems cause.

Some very compatible mates proudly report how well they handle most of the important issues in their lives. They see themselves as good partners, who love and respect each other, make decisions well, parent effectively, share the load and handle crises with courage and dignity. They wonder why despite this, some “little things” do get their ire?

Let’s look at some examples of the “little things”. One individual is aggravated because his partner opens his mail. Another person gets disgruntled about her spouse not putting things in the right place. Yet another pair argues regularly about one of them letting the gas in the car get very low. Not reporting phone messages promptly, forgetting to buy one’s favorite snack, repeating behaviors that were promised to be changed, are a few seemingly little events that may evoke big negative reactions.

It is not the events themselves, but the MEANING assigned to these behaviors that produces the hurt and angry feelings. Labeling a mate who reads one’s mail without permission disrespectful of one’s privacy and individuality, causes the individual to feel violated. A spouse who does not put things in the right place may be viewed as intentionally attempting to inconvenience his mate, or being inconsiderate and unloving. The mate who is left with an empty tank of gas may define this behavior as intentional affliction of fear and being unprotected by the other. A mate who does not report messages may be viewed as demeaning the other. Not remembering to purchase a partner’s favorite snack may be seen as non-nurturing. Repeating behaviors that were agreed to be extinguished may mean that this mate needs do not merit acknowledgement and heeding.

The common meaning assigned to all these behaviors leads one partner to feel devalued by the other. This is obviously NOT a small thing. Any perception of our diminished worth evokes anger, which is a normal and healthy response for self-preservation.

Another form of small, yet hurtful behavior is of omitted appreciation. When we take the kindness and small gestures of help and consideration of a partner (and other people) silently, we invalidate their contribution to our lives. Partners often see the absence of appreciation by a partner as a lack of respect and regard. It is essential to notice and express gratitude even for those tasks that are part of your mate’s role. If your spouse does most of the cooking, he or she should be thanked and praised daily. It does not require an extensive monologue; a simple heart felt gratitude suffices.

Some partners take issue with the need to be affirming of their mate’s ordinary contributions to the relationship. Or, they are reluctant to give praise because they are not receiving it often enough. Please consider that anything that your partner does, as minor as it may be, relieves you from having to do it yourself, and this is praiseworthy. A healthy relationship is based on the voluntary use of loving actions and words, not in response to another’s behavior.

Any way that shows how much you value your partner should be done as often as possible. Mutual regard, respect and loving acts and words help all couples thrive. It applies to both the large and small things in life.

• Remember, if you feel hurt or anger about your partner’s actions or lack thereof, it is never a small thing.
• Speak of the meaning that your mate’s behavior has for you. You may become assured that the intent is not hurtful – and your mate will learn what implication this behavior has for you.
• Challenge your ascribing negative meaning to your mate’s conduct that may not be there. Understanding the meaning assigned to each other’s ways may help both of you change to spare each other future pain.
• The more appreciative you are of your mate’s large and small actions, the more positive energy is generated and the less likely you are to assign ill intent to your mate.
• Shakespeare said it best: “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Think positively toward and about your partner for a better relationship for both of you.

November 13, 2005

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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