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Raise your hand if your spouse does something that drives you totally bonkers. The wet towel on the floor. The toilet seat left up. The kitchen scissors that never end up back in the drawer. Marriage is chock full of these petty irritations. Sometimes we joke about them. Sometimes we gnash our teeth over them. Still, most of us would agree that putting the empty orange juice container back in the fridge is hardly worth getting ourselves all in a twist. But, what is?
The mortgage payment mailed late? The milk left out to spoil? Consistent lateness? A bad attitude?
Then again, maybe not.
While there are, of course, serious issues that some couples need to address, most of the everyday tussles I see my clients get into are about, well… a whole lot of dumb stuff. Stuff they may well find deeply important. Stuff that they’ve fought about for years without ever questioning its relevance. Stuff that is, nonetheless, a huge waste of time. I’ll be the first to admit that at least half of these issues have flushed many valuable hours of my life right down the drain. Beyond that, bickering is pointless and only ends up depleting a couple’s good will. Here are 10 dumb issues smart couples quit giving a second thought:
1. Being Right
In all honesty, I like being right as much as the next person. The problem, however, is that being right comes at a cost. If I’m fiercely attached to being right, then, by default, my husband will end up being wrong. Take my word for it, he doesn’t like that position anymore than I do. It’s been said that we have to choose whether to be right or happy, since we cannot be both. A variation on that is to choose between being right or being free — to cling desperately to our need to be superior to others, or to learn to let go. I suggest door number two.
2. Caring Who Started It
Okay. Chances are if you’re reading this post you’re not in third grade. Who started it counted back then, when the instigator got sent to the principal’s office and the innocent got a Kleenex and a pat on the head. The underlying issue for couples who get snagged on this one is that they believe there’s glory in being innocent. Far better to be the victim than the victimizer, they say. But, why? While the victim position makes it much easier to claim the moral high ground, the truth is that when conflict arises, we’re rarely as innocent as we think.
3. Who Said What, When
Wouldn’t it be great if we could play back the video? “Ha!” we could say. “I knew you said 3 o’clock and not 3:15.” I’ve seen couples attempt to recreate conversations they had in 1969, one or both of them insistent that they accurately recall every word. Sadly, most of us are no better at remembering what we said five minutes ago, especially if we were even slightly revved up. What does it matter, anyway? The who said what, when loop is like driving your car while looking in the rear view mirror. Better idea — say what you think now and leave the past in the past. Hard as it is to accept, truth comes in versions. And frustratingly often, when your version and another’s stand side-by-side, the twain shall not meet. Short of having a home stenographer record every word the two of you speak, you’re going to just have to accept that nailing down a consensus reality may be difficult, if not impossible.
4. Expecting Things to Be Done Your Way
This may shock you, but there is no right way to fold a dishtowel. The same thing is true about which way to hang toilet paper or squeeze toothpaste. There’s no superior parking spot to pull into, no optimal way to stir pasta sauce, shake salt, or arrange fruit in a bowl. Recently, in a discussion about dishwasher loading, one client said her dishwasher came with a map, with the numbers for where to place dinner forks versus salad forks, soup spoons versus teaspoons, eight-ounce glasses versus coffee mugs. She and her spouse regularly re-arrange the dishes after the other is done. I’m happy when the stuff gets into the dishwasher, period. Every couple has to figure out how they’re going to run things, and how much energy they want to put in having things go their preferred way. Life is too short to go bananas about where to keep the coffee filters.
5. Being Told What to Do
This one’s easy. If your spouse tells you what to do, you can choose to do it — or not. Why freak out? Yeah, I know, being “managed” is annoying and intrusive and it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that your spouse thinks you’re too stupid or incompetent to do things on your own. You probably aren’t. It’s wise not to put your self-esteem in the hands of somebody who’s simply anxious when not in control.
6. Who Made a Face, Rolled Their Eyes, or Used an Unacceptable Tone
Despite all the buzz about how eye-rolling is a clear predictor of divorce, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t do it occasionally. Even so, I agree that it’s no heartwarming move. My suggestion is this: Stop rolling your eyes, groaning, sighing, snorting, grimacing or doing any other obnoxious, judgmental and dismissive things that you do when your partner is talking. He or she will be deeply appreciative. However, until the two of you clean up your act on this one, you’re going to have to live with some crappy behavior. There are worse things in life. Bad enough that we’re not always kind and respectful to our loved ones. Why spend time and energy protesting that you can’t speak, think, finish a sentence, or keep your cool when your spouse groans or sighs or uses an unpleasant tone. Believe me, you can. I promise, you’ll be far better off once you stop letting your partner’s bad behavior throw you off-course.
7. Being Turned Down For Sex
Hoping for a yes, and you got a no? Bummer. It happens to all of us. Badgering, whining, pouting, threatening, claiming something awful will befall one of your body parts — none of these things are in the least bit sexy. When turned down here are your options: you can ask again, only this time put on the charm. Be more seductive or more inviting and see how it goes. If it’s not gonna happen, I suggest you go read. There’s always tomorrow.
8. Expecting Things to Be Fair
I’m sure this isn’t the first time someone told you life isn’t fair. Neither is marriage. The idea that things should be 50–50, that couples need to compromise, that they need to meet each other halfway, well… this sounds good in theory, but in my experience, that’s not how things play out. Relationships are messy. Sometimes things end up being 90-10 or 40-60. Sometimes we get the short end of the stick. Tolerating unfairness is part of growing up. Stamping your feet in opposition is a quick trip back to childhood, where you had a complete meltdown because your sister got the bigger and prettier cupcake.
9. Having to Ask
Asking is part of the human job description. When we want something, it’s our job to ask for it. I’ve heard people say that asking somehow demeans the thing they ultimately get, as if a mind-reading spouse is a more loyal or loving spouse, as if getting what they want without having to ask means their spouse really “gets” who they are. Why turn asking and receiving into a test? The kiss I get when I’ve asked is as sweet as the one given to me spontaneously. Asking requires courage and an ability to deal with the whatever comes our way: yes, no, or maybe, and the ever-frustrating yes that’s really a no in disguise. Asking is our best chance of having life go as we’d like. After all, who’s going to advocate for your concerns, if not you?
10. Misdeeds of the Past
Sh#t happens. And when it happens in your marriage, it can be heartbreakingly painful. Even so, unless you’re an archaeologist or historian, or you work at the Smithsonian, dredging up the past is a pointless activity. What’s the value of getting all fired-up about the time your spouse shamelessly flirted at the neighbor’s Christmas party… 17 years ago? While it’s true that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, most people drag out old grievances not to learn from them, but to hurt their spouse with them. Thank goodness many of us mature with time. Thanks goodness we grow. Since there’s nothing to be done in the present about things that happened in the past, why not seek to forgive? Forgiveness leaves the past in the past and makes room in the present for new and better things to come.
Reprinted with permission from The Good Men Project