How Couples Turn Molehills into Mountains
Your partner didn’t wash the dishes, or take out the trash or fold the laundry. Maybe they forgot to pay a bill. Maybe they’re running late to your lunch date. Maybe they haven’t hung up the picture frames they promised to hang up (too many) weeks ago. Maybe they leave their clothes on the floor. All. The. Time.
These are seemingly small issues. And, yet somehow, they’ve sparked a fight. A big one. Or several big ones.
One reason we turn small issues into significant problems is that we don’t resolve these minor matters when they occur. Over time they snowball, leading to constant bickering and fighting, said Clinton Power, a clinical relationship counsellor in Sydney, Australia.
Couples often bring up all these issues when they’re supposed to be focusing on a single situation. So that before you know it, you’re talking about five topics and understandably getting quite overwhelmed.
For instance, you and your partner disagree on a particular purchase. Instead of focusing on that purchase, you start talking about past purchases and past problems, which triggers anger and defensiveness—and exacerbates the argument. “This then hampers your ability to resolve the initial issue because you’re in fight-or-flight mode and the higher executive functions of the brain (such as your cerebral cortex) are offline and cannot help you make rational decisions and solve problems,” said Power, founder of Clinton Power + Associates.
Small issues tend to go unresolved because we avoid talking about them. Maybe you don’t raise issues early on because you want to avoid tension or conflict, Power said. Maybe you grew up in a volatile family that fought all the time or in a family, where sharing a different opinion wasn’t OK, he said. Which means you might see conflict as a catastrophe, and thereby avoid it at all costs.
We also turn molehills into mountains when there are underlying issues. For instance, you don’t “feel heard, understood, loved or prioritized in the relationship,” said Julia Nowland, a couples therapist, qualified trainer and an experienced speaker. And your partner might have similar feelings.
Nowland shared this example: Your partner keeps promising to finish painting the house, while you’re tearing your hair out wondering why it’s not done yet. To you, a house is a sanctuary, and unfinished projects make you feel frazzled. You’re upset because your partner knows this about you—which leads you to conclude that they don’t care about your feelings. Your partner starts projects because they need to feel resourceful and capable. So when you keep harping on this unfinished project, they feel incapable and unappreciated.
Eventually, your partner will finish the painting. But if you don’t discuss the underlying issues for both of you, they’ll go unresolved and create disconnection in your relationship.
We also start seeing our relationship through a disappointed, frustrated or anxious lens. “Everything your partner does makes you angry or you use it to prove to yourself that your partner doesn’t care or love you enough,” Nowland said. We do this because of unresolved issues (like mentioned above). Or we do this because of issues that have zero to do with our partners. Maybe we’re stressed at work or sleep-deprived because of our newborn or devastated over a loved one’s passing, Nowland said.
Below are ideas on how you can stop exacerbating your issues by reflecting on yourself and effectively communicating with your partner.
Get curious about your feelings. Nowland suggested asking yourself these questions: “What is it about the situation that makes it so important? What are the conclusions I’ve drawn about this situation?” What is the real reason I’m upset? For instance, you’re upset about the dishes in the sink because you feel like you’re doing more in maintaining the household.
Be flexible with your perspective. “When we’re more flexible with how we see our partner, we look for other alternative motives to their actions or words rather than jumping to a conclusion,” Nowland said. This is key because often our conclusions revolve around seeing the worst in our partner, she said.
When you find yourself thinking, “Oh my god, he’s so lazy,” or “Wow, she’s so forgetful,” Nowland suggested asking yourself: “How else can I view this situation?” For instance, instead of calling your partner lazy, you might say, “I’ve noticed there are dirty dishes in the sink. I’m feeling frustrated; I keep thinking they’re left there for me to clean.”
“It may seem like a longer way to talk but if it avoids an argument and discord, then it’s worth it.”
Pay attention to your own behavior. Are you sidestepping certain issues? Are you complaining to your friends instead of talking directly to your partner? Are you pulling away from intimate moments? Do you feel uncomfortable sharing your deeper thoughts and feelings? According to Power, these are all avoidant behaviors, which can exacerbate your relationship issues.
Express yourself assertively. Power underscored the importance of using assertive communication when sharing your thoughts, feelings and concerns with your partner. Which is a skill everyone can learn and sharpen.
He suggested this format when talking to your partner: Share your observation; share the feeling that arises; take ownership of your interpretation; and request a change.
This can look like: “When you talk about buying that investment property, I notice I feel quite anxious about it and I imagine you’re not including me in the decision-making process. I would appreciate it if we could sit down and discuss this in more depth before you proceed.”
Discuss one issue at a time. If other issues come up during your conversation, note them, Power said. This way you and your partner aren’t overwhelmed by several issues at once. And you can return to these topics, and discuss them separately.
Give sensitive topics special attention. Power stressed the importance of anticipating sensitive topics and planning accordingly. For instance, he said, if you normally get into a fight about a certain family member, don’t mention them in the car. Instead, carve out interruption-free time to go somewhere quiet to discuss the situation. During that time, “Sit facing each other so you can see each other’s expressions and body language”; use a calm voice; don’t interrupt each other; and focus on being an active listener, in general, he said.
Smaller issues become boulders when we don’t talk about them and resolve them, creating distance between you and your partner. Strive to face these concerns by reflecting on your part and using calm, assertive communication. This way conflict actually becomes a source of connection, an opportunity to understand each other and grow closer.