Weeks into their marriage, Sam and Ellen (not their real names) were caught a bit off-guard as the differences in their perspectives about certain things became very real.
While they had discussed many of the big potential areas of conflict like money, career, children and how they wanted to deal with their in-laws, they were surprised at the impact the more "trivial" matters seemed to be having on their marriage. Things like socks on the floor, how to squeeze the toothpaste tube, how to do household chores, how to spend their downtime and even how to get to a certain location had become frequently intense conversations.
It baffled the couple that these seemingly little things could have such a stranglehold on their marriage. The conflicts were affecting their relationship, and neither one of them liked what they were experiencing.
The reality is: It is nearly impossible for two people with different upbringings to not have differences in perspective about many things. Truth be told, we are creatures of habit. In most instances, it is far less likely that a spouse intentionally leaves socks on the floor or squeezes the middle of the toothpaste tube just to get on your nerves. It's far more likely to be what they have always done.
The question is: How can couples keep these seemingly minor issues from becoming major areas of conflict in their marriage?
Many children were taught to stop, look and listen before crossing the street. Believe it or not, this is a really useful skill for managing conflict.
- Stop. Before launching into a lecture or hissy fit, consider these things. Ask yourself if what you are about to say or do will be helpful to your relationship. What is your current state of mind — are you stressed, tired or hungry? These things can impact how intensely you feel about something at any given moment.
- Look. First, look at your spouse and remember you are on the same team, not rivals. Then, examine the situation at hand, and ask yourself if this is truly a big deal or really a matter of different preferences. Whether it is folding towels, loading the dishwasher or the current condition of your car's interior, some things boil down to personal preference. You have to ask yourself if pursuing a conversation about these things is worth the cost. And in looking at the big picture of living life together, will you choose to place your focus on these areas?
- Listen. Instead of assuming your spouse couldn't possibly have a reasonable explanation for why they do something a certain way, seek to understand their perspective before telling them why your way makes the most sense. It could help you avoid a lot of unnecessary drama. Even in instances where you truly believe you are right, is it really necessary to prove it?
No doubt there are legitimate times for some hard discussions. Moving past those little irritations, however, will require you to think carefully about how you manage conflict around them.
After you have walked through stop, look and listen, think about these questions:
- Considering how much time we have together, is this matter worthy of consuming our precious time and energy?
- Why does this particular issue get under my skin?
- Am I willing to sacrifice our relationship for this issue?
Most couples say their relationship is what matters most to them. What tends to trip them up is mistakenly making the minor things the major ones. In many instances, it's better for your marriage if you agree to disagree and get on with enjoying life together.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.