'Don't sweat the small stuff' vs 'the straw that broke the camel's back' - how do you determine what's important to fight for?

Are you in a relationship where you fight over seemingly trivial things? Or are you perhaps in a situation where one of you thinks the issue is trivial, while to the other it's anything but?

Or to put it another way - are you unsure whether you're just 'sweating the small stuff' (and need to learn ways to let go of things that are unimportant and cause unnecessary tension), or whether you're unable to move on because the issue is, in fact, very important to you?

Here are some of the issues that I frequently hear couples (or at least one partner) describe as unimportant, even though they may be causing ongoing conflict:-

  • one is not pulling her/his weight with household tasks
  • one behaves in ways that makes the other feel unsafe or at least acutely uncomfortable - e.g. driving too fast/aggressively; hanging out with friends who are sexually inappropriate etc.
  • one consistently refuses to tell their partner about where s/he spends time, and is unwilling to allow their partner to see their emails or phone text messages.

In general, if one partner is unable or unwilling to regard an issue as trivial, it probably represents something much more important, perhaps a value that is core to that person's sense of what matters to them, and what they need.

For example:-

  • when you don't pull your weight with household tasks, even though I've asked you repeatedly to help more, it's like you don't care about me. It's like your time is more valuable than mine.
  • When you go out with your friend who I know will flirt with you as soon as he's had a few drinks, I get worried that one day you might cross the line with him. I need to feel that you are choosing me over anyone else.
  • When you ask me all the time where I'm going, and to see my emails and phone messages, it's like you don't trust me. If we don't have trust, what sort of relationship is this?

Some very core values and needs are being expressed here - the importance of of being cared about and valued, to feel safe, to be chosen above all others, to be trusted.

If you or your partner are unable to stop 'sweating the small stuff' - it's just possible that it's not actually 'small stuff' at all, but may be the way in to a conversation about issues that are very important for the health of your relationship.

If you suspect this may be the case, try asking these questions:-

  • what is my partner telling me about that is of core importance to her/him about our relationship?
  • what are my core values and needs, that play out in the conflicts we have over seemingly little things?

My suggestion - assume the issue is NOT trivial until you are satisfied that both you and your partner have agreed that this is in fact the case! Try to have regular conversations about the core values you both have - that no doubt are part of what drew you together in the first place! From that perspective, it becomes possible to reflect on the life you want to build together - from the 'big picture' issues to the 'day-to day' minutae about who does what, agreements about privacy, or decisions about the friendships you continue to cultivate.

Until next post, Vivienne

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