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Relationship Rescue: How to Negotiate the 'Small Stuff'

When couples spend more time together, little annoyances become magnified. These 6 tips can get you back on track.

By Terri Orbuch, Ph.D.

Amy came to see me as a relationship therapist last year. She and José, her husband of 40-plus years, were both 68 and still working full-time. Amy enjoyed her job as a receptionist at the auto dealership down the road from their house, and José was a banker in the city. They'd met at college when they were sophomores at Michigan State. They were big football fans and went to all the home games, proudly wearing their team colors.
Over the years, they had weathered more than their share of challenges and survived. José lost his job and was unemployed for many years when their three children were young. Amy’s mother became seriously ill and lived with them for six years, and a few years ago their house caught fire and they lost everything. In times of great hardship, José and Amy had leaned on and supported each other all the more fiercely.
“Even though we were stressed to the max at times, I really think the life-changing crises made our marriage stronger,” Amy told me. The stability of the relationship and the support of her husband were very comforting. The one constant over the years was that she loved him deeply.
Naturally, I was waiting for the “but … ” And of course there was one. After sharing all that, Amy felt almost embarrassed to admit that some of José’s habits that used to merely annoy her were lately driving her “absolutely crazy.” I asked her why now. “I think when I was younger I was able to ignore stuff more easily. Maybe it’s because we’re both working a little less and are at home together more? I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve become crankier lately. I hate myself for that, but sometimes I want to strangle José.”
Amy told me she couldn’t stop herself from snapping at him. “The second we’re together, I light into him — and then I feel guilty,” she said. “I know it’s not fair, I feel like a mean person, but he’s an absolute slob.”
I asked her to tell me what he does that is so egregious. “How do I count the ways?” she said with a laugh. “He tosses his clothes off in a walking strip tease through the house on the way to the bedroom. He always turns the lights off behind me, and he won’t throw away the bathroom reading material, and all those newspapers and magazines are stacked up more than a foot high.”
We discussed the importance of these habits relative to her deeper feelings about José. Amy acknowledged that these issues weren’t deal breakers, but she felt they were starting to chip away at her love for him.
Amy was smart to come to me when she did. Contrary to popular advice to “not sweat the small stuff,” it isn’t a good idea for partners to sweep little things under the rug. While to an outsider the issues might seem so minor as to not be problems, they're the very things that affect the quality of day-to-day life with a partner.

In my long-term study of married couples, I found over and over again that these seemingly inocuous behaviors are what created more troublesome marital rifts than monumental events. If you ignore the petty things, which is what Amy had been doing for years, they can begin to accumulate and affect the overall happiness in your relationship.

(MORE: Relationship Rescue: Getting Your Needs Met)
So how can Amy begin addressing José’s habits that are driving her crazy while preserving their otherwise solid relationship? I offered Amy these strategies.

  1. Talk your issues out. Get into the habit of discussing these complaints as they come up. If Amy hates the way José leaves his sweater on the couch and his socks on the floor next to the bed, she needs to tell him how it makes her feel. Silent fuming will lead to you eventually blowing up about something entirely unrelated. You want to release the anger, so you don’t explode.
  2. Choose the right time and situation. Expressing your feelings is fine, but finesse is required. Pouncing as soon as he gets in the door will sabotage your efforts. It’s important to pick a time to deal with these annoying habits when you can be alone together and relaxed, without distractions. For instance, make an appointment to talk things out more formally, so he’s mentally prepared. Emailing, texting, IMing and phoning are OK ways to initiate (though not resolve) prickly conversations. Talking while doing something, even walking, is also a good option, since men tend to find communication easier when they’re engaged in an activity.
  3. Address one or two specific behaviors at a time. If the underlying issues appear to be too large to tackle (e.g., He expects me to clean up after him, or he can’t throw anything away), break it down into small, actions. When you bring up a conflict-riddled topic, be sure you address just one or two of these annoyances, rather than attacking your spouse or his/her personality traits or giving him a laundry list. This makes it easier to focus on realistic solutions.
  4. Use “I” statements. When talking about the offending behavior, emphasize and take responsibility for your feelings rather than dumping blame on your spouse. Remember: There are always multiple ways of wording something. So instead of saying, “You are such a slob,” Amy might say, “When you throw your clothes on the floor, I get upset because our house feels chaotic to me.”
  5. Make it a give-and-take. In any relationship, compromise is important, but make sure there’s some reciprocity, too. Amy asked José what habits of hers got on his nerves. “Hair in the shower drain!” And, according to Amy, he said it so quickly that it “blew me out of my chair.” So now she had something to work on as well; a quid pro quo: If you do this, I’ll do that.
  6. Keep things light. Humor can help defuse almost any situation. Since you’re talking about small stuff, it’s really not going to be the end of the world if he puts the toilet roll on backward or she never closes the closet door. A little wit can alleviate much of the frustration couples feel. I asked if she could find anything amusing about their situation. Amy told me that she had TIVOed the reality show Hoarders as a joke. After they had watched it — “half laughing, half horrified,” she said — José went upstairs and wordlessly brought his stack of magazines down from the bathroom.

Like all couples, Amy and José won’t be able to resolve every little issue that pops up. A healthy and happy marriage requires skillful negotiation: Sometimes you do it your way, and other times you do it your spouse’s way. Or you can also end up with a solution that’s somewhere in the middle. You can even agree to disagree about how to resolve an annoying behavior and just let it go.

Amy has learned to grin and bear it when José turns the lights out before she’s stepped out of a room. José has gotten better about throwing things out, and the Hoarders joke has become one of their favorites, but “he’s still a slob,” Amy said. 

Terri Orbuch, Ph.D. (aka “the love doctor”), is a relationship therapist, professor and an author of five books, including Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship. She is also the project director of the largest and longest-running NIH-funded study of married and divorced couples ever conducted. Read More
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