Have you ever gotten into an argument with your partner that you later looked back on and felt shame or embarrassment over? You know, the ones we regret because they are over something so petty or small? From raised tension and stress within your relationship, to even questioning the reality of the relationship (and your sanity!), seemingly small yet frequent arguments can have a rather large impact on an otherwise healthy relationship.
As intimate partners in life, you and your spouse know exactly what buttons to push or how to get under each other’s skin. And sure, a little provocation can be playful and fun, but going out of your way to instigate conflict on a regular basis will only strain your relationship. What’s more, regular arguments with our partners can give us the impression that our relationships are destined to fail, or can lead us to falsely believe that our relationship is defective.
There are many reasons why we may pick fights with our partners, but this is most commonly a result of misdirected or projected anger. When this anger and frustration can’t be expressed to it’s true recipient, there are usually few other outcomes aside from holding it in until you eventually explode at an innocent person who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For example, have you ever had a boss that was constantly on your case or never recognized or appreciated your work? Not only can this be incredibly frustrating, but your boss’s position of superiority also makes it much more likely that your unable to defend your work or your actions the same way you could to a peer or subordinate. So instead, we may force a smile or “fake it ‘til we make it” through the end of the day while simultaneously burying anger and frustration. Fast forward to reuniting with your family at the end of the workday -you’re happy to see them, but that anger is still lingering. And because we feel the most comfortable around our loved ones, it is usually they who take the brunt of that anger when it boils over. The result is a -usually avoidable- fight that can get blown way out of proportion, and the start of which was something completely insignificant or sometimes can’t even be remembered at all!
A keen sense of self-awareness is required when it comes to recognizing a tendency to instigate fights and taking preventative self-care measure to redirect anger, but you can take other preventative steps to help reduce the overall frequency of your arguments by effectively picking your battles.
It’s important to remember that not every act that causes you displeasure needs to become the source of a new argument. Many clients tell me they wish they could learn to pick their battles, but they either don’t know how or believe it seems too difficult, especially when required to think on the fly and in the heat of an argument.
Sure, it can be common –and sometimes even considered normal–to fight occasionally, or even to go in between periods of less and more conflict with our partners. And fighting with our partners isn’t necessarily unhealthy. However, these sorts of arguments, you know -the petty ones over dishes or a misinterpreted text, can make it feel as if the relationship is unhealthy and having that impression of your relationship makes it that much easier to feel helpless, and that much harder to find the motivation you need to improve it.
5 Ways to Get Better at Picking Battles in Your Relationship!
- Ask yourself: Will this still bother me a few days from now? Take a minute to consider the severity of the action or event, and be honest with yourself when determining whether or not it will still be important a few days from now. Sure, it’s annoying that your partner left their socks on the living room floor, but will you truly still be upset about that by the time the weekend rolls around? More importantly, is it going to take more effort to initiate and engage in the fight than it would take for you to move past it? It’s similar to big-picture thinking, but self-awareness plays an important role here too in regards to recognizing whether or not the event warrants a specific reaction or further action via an inevitable argument. Remember to ask yourself: will this still bother me a few days from now?
- Really examine why the small, initiating event bothered you in the first place. Typically, when we are constantly fighting with our partners about the small things, it is actually a result of a lingering, larger issue that we’re unable to express. For example, maybe you’re upset because your partner bailed on their promise to do the dishes, or maybe they took a little bit longer to respond to a text than you would have liked. While both of these situations can cause anger and frustration, usually what’s really upsetting us comes from somewhere deeper. Your fight starts over the dishes piling up in the sink, but are you really mad about the dishes specifically, or are you mad because you don’t feel like your partner is holding up their end of the bargain when it comes to household chores, or because you don’t feel like you can count on them when asking for help or favors? Your fight starts over the amount of time it took for your partner to text you back, but is that truly the issue, or are you struggling to trust your partner and allowing your imagination to run wild during those minutes in the dark, waiting for a reply. Whatever it may be, try to identify and examine the underlying issue, and center the conversation around that, rather than argue pettily about the dishes or the text.
- Are you fighting more because of an increase in stress stemming from external factors?
If you’re trying to identify the underlying issue or cause of your arguments described in step 2, and find that there aren’t any real underlying issues contributing to your arguments, it could mean that an increase in external stress is taking it’s toll on your mental health as well as on your relationships. Remember the example above where a difficult boss contributed to a spike in tension at home? The boss could be considered the source of the stress/anger, and therefore could be misidentified as an underlying cause. This is actually an external factor because the relationship between the boss and the employee should not directly affect the relationship between the employee and his/her partner. All this is to say, that if work, school, kids, financials, or any other factors outside of your relationship start contributing to the way you behave inside your relationship, it can be a great indicator that you need to increase your self-care. Schedule “non-negotiable” time in your day to meditate, journal, read, go for a walk, or do whatever else that will help fill your cup and manage everyday stresses without taking it out on your partner. Remember, your partner is supposed to be there for you -and they want to be there for you! This doesn’t mean you need to avoid venting or complaining to your partner about these stresses. The difference is using your partner as a support system vs a verbal punching bag.
- Are Your Expectations Aligned with Reality? Sometimes we fight a lot because we feel our partner is not living up to our idea of what it means to be in a relationship. But, we can also be guilty of setting unrealistic expectations -making living up to them impossible for our partners, and setting us up for consistent disappointment every step of the way! Ask yourself this: Do you meet your own expectations for the marriage? Sometimes it’s not possible! Remember, people are not perfect, and this goes for you and your partner both! Sometimes putting yourself in your partner’s shoes and seeing if you could check all of your own boxes can be an eye-opening exercise on whether or not your expectations are realistic. Then, if necessary,you can adjust the expectations for your partner to a more realistic level.This will reduce feelings of negativity toward your partner, and improve the perception that they’re always failing when that may not actually be the case.
- Consider how relationship patterns and experiences from the past may be contributing to current actions. Sometimes the people who feel that a relationship needs fighting and tension only feel that way because that is what they are used to. While this can offer an acceptable explanation as to why we respond with certain actions/reactions, it is important to remember that it does not need to be a constant state in the relationship. Additionally, don’t forget to consider that something else might be missing. For example, a couple who is craving excitement can find other ways to spice up their relationship instead of putting themselves at each other’s throats. Zip-lining through the treetops at a local state park, or going on a haunted house tour are great ways to amp up your adrenaline without igniting a screaming match with your partner.