My husband and I have had a recurring fight since the Clinton administration. He has a habit of shedding his socks and leaving them, near — but not in — the hamper. I ask why he can’t seem to reach the hamper. He wonders why I turn this trivial matter into an issue. Cue fight; repeat for decades. Another involves our divergent approaches to loading a dishwasher.
Most people in relationships can name at least one similar skirmish that breaks out regularly. A couples therapist once told me that two of his clients had spent 20 years tussling over the “right” place to hang their kitchen towel. I wonder, sometimes, if they’re still at it.
I bring you the comforting news that even married Zen monks get in these silly fights.
Koshin Paley Ellison and Chodo Robert Campbell are the founders of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care and have been married for 16 years. (Soto Zen monks are allowed to marry.) Paley Ellison is also a Jungian psychotherapist and the author of “Untangled: Walking the Eightfold Path to Clarity, Courage and Compassion,” published last year. And he has a morning habit of making oatmeal, cleaning the pan and leaving the pan on the draining board rather than putting it back in the kitchen cabinet.
“I’ll call Koshin at work and say, ‘Hello, I’m throwing the pan away,’” Campbell joked, adding that his husband never closes the bathroom cabinet door, either. “For years. ‘Oh, my God! Why would you just leave it open?’”
Patricia Lamas Alvarez, a couples therapist from South Pasadena, California, said that these sorts of low-stakes but incessant fights were “often about the little everyday things, like house organization, shared labor, kids or chores, which can become a gridlock issue.” These squabbles can lead to a self-reinforcing negative loop in which both people become fixated on winning, she said.
How, then, do we resolve these spats? Maybe we can’t stop having them forever, but there are ways to meet at least somewhat near the middle.
Check Your Facts
The next time your partner does something that sets you off, Paley Ellison said, ask yourself: “What is the story I’m telling myself right now?” Follow up, he said, by asking: “Is it true? How do I know it’s true?”
The story I tell myself about why my husband doesn’t toss his discarded socks in the hamper is that he’s lazy. Or that he’s cackling at the thought of my disgusted face as I scoop them up. The reality is that he’s chronically absent-minded — the sort of person who once put a bag of garbage bound for the trash bin into the back seat of the car and drove off.
Sometimes when you share the story you’re telling yourself with your partner, Paley Ellison said, it is so wildly off-base that you both have to laugh.
What Is Bothering You?
Pick a calm moment “and ask what this is really about,” said Talal Alsaleem, a couples counselor from Rosedale, California. Both people should get a chance to share their perspectives without interruption.
Then, try to explore what is actually bugging you. Because often that fight is not really about the dishes. “It’s safer to fight about taking out the garbage versus all the other things you should be fighting about,” Alsaleem said. “It’s easier to focus on these issues because they’re a bit more tangible than talking about feelings. It’s more difficult to say, ‘I don’t feel we’re connected,’ or ‘I don’t feel that I’m valued.’”
Ease Stress Levels
“I don’t like it when people wear their shoes in my house,” said Dontea’ Mitchell-Hunter, a therapist based in Atlanta. “So I literally have to tell myself: ‘OK, if they do this, is this the end of the world? Can this problem be resolved? Yes, I can vacuum.’ So is it worth flipping out and yelling about a problem that can be fixed with less stress?”
Sometimes it’s easier on your mental health, Mitchell-Hunter said, to accept some of your partner’s quirks. “Look at the whole picture,” she said. “Surrender, and be like: ‘It doesn’t matter how the dishwasher is loaded, as long as the dishes get clean.” You can be grateful your partner loaded it, she added, so you didn’t have to.
Attack the Problem
You may think it’s ridiculous that your partner constantly gets upset over something that seems trivial to you, but recognize that the feelings it brings up are real.
When we’re angry with someone, “that anger often objectifies others, erasing their complex humanity,” Paley Ellison writes in “Untangled.” Remind yourself, he said, that this person you love is in distress.
Then work to solve the problem by finding something that you agree on, Alvarez said, even if your only starting point is “we agree that we shouldn’t be fighting about this thing.” Already, she added, that signals that you’re collaborating.
From there, tackle the problem together. Try and find an aspect of the issue that you both can be flexible about, Alvarez said. As you go through each point of contention, offer a concession.
If you remain coolheaded and collaborative, the answer might be right in front of you. If you can’t agree on the “correct” place to hang a kitchen towel, it may be as simple, Alvarez said, as “one person gets a towel their way for a month, and then the other person does.”
Maybe No One Is ‘Right’
In the book “Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship,” Terrence Real, a couples counselor, writes that many people waste time and energy squaring off over the “true” version of certain events in their relationships, when there isn’t one.
Being preoccupied with “ferreting out which point of view is ‘valid’ is a trap,” he writes. “There’s no place for objective reality in personal relationships.” He says there may not necessarily be one true reality, only two subjective realities. (The website for the appliance manufacturer Whirlpool, however, does feature an incredibly precise guide to loading the dishwasher.)
And as a friend of mine told me, “I’d much rather fight about how I leave my coffee cups all over the house than ‘Why are you sleeping with Linda?’”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.