What Do Couples Fight About? You’ll Be Shocked by the Answer

By Greg Smalley
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Marriage Conflict
All couples fight. And it feels as if we're fighting about something. But when we look at our conflicts, they can sound pretty insignificant. Big things don't ensnare us as often as the little things.

My wife, Erin, and I were taking our 10-year-old daughter, Annie, to a soccer game. The park she was playing in was massive: 15 different soccer fields. Thousands (it felt like) of athletes and their families. And — by the time we got there — no parking. We searched lot after lot. Annie was becoming nervous and giving me directions from the back seat, and my frustration level was rising.

Finally, we found a parallel parking spot — the last on the street — and I started squeezing our car into the space. But every time I tried to maneuver, I would hit the curb. Cars behind us started honking. Annie was moaning in frustration.

And then Erin let out a little laugh. “Do I need to park it for you?” she said with a smile.

Erin wasn’t trying to be sarcastic or disrespectful. I know that … now. But rather than cutting the tension, her comment pushed me right over the edge.

I stopped the car in the middle of the road, put it in park and handed her the keys. “Fine. You do it!”

Not one of my proudest moments as a husband.

Understand why we fight

What do we husbands and wives fight about more than anything else? After studying 3,000 couples for more than 40 years, Dr. John Gottman found that we fight about … nothing. When we fight, it sure feels as if we’re fighting about something. But when we look at our arguments, they can seem pretty insignificant — for instance, how often you cut the grass or how your spouse cooks chicken that “always” tastes a little dry or which direction you put the toilet paper on the dispenser.

I think this is what King Solomon’s fiancee was talking about when she said, “Catch all the foxes, those little foxes, before they ruin the vineyard of love, for the grapevines are blossoming!” (Song of Solomon 2:15, NLT).

Notice the fiancee uses the phrase “little foxes.” She is distinguishing between the big threats — wild beasts like boars and lions — and the small, mischievous creatures that would slyly cause damage. She’s encouraging her husband-to-be to take preventive action to protect their love from little threats — the nothings — that could wreak havoc on their relationship. In essence she’s saying, “Protect us by removing whatever might harm our marriage — especially the small things!”

And so it is with us. It’s usually not the big problems like disputes about sex, money or in-laws that destroy a marriage; it’s the little arguments that multiply over the years that cause the most damage.

“Rarely do couples ever sit down, create an agenda, and argue over a specific topic such as finances,” Kyle Benson writes for The Gottman Institute. “Sometimes they do, but typically they hurt each other’s feelings in seemingly meaningless moments that appear to be about absolutely nothing.”

Sometimes, these “nothing” fights are caused by miscommunication. But frequently we fight over trivial things when something else is going on: The “nothing” is a stand-in for something more substantive. Maybe we’re exhausted from managing young children or stressed about work. We might be anxious over a friendship or resenting a disconnect in our marriage. We often ignore these other hurts or frustrations, and they build to a boil. Eventually, they explode — usually in the direction of our spouse.

Identify your little foxes

But you can tame these troublesome little foxes. The first step is to become self-aware. When you engage in trivial arguments, you need to look beneath the surface and find what’s really going on.

When I think about digging deeper — finding the real issues in play — I always come back to a scene from an old movie, Rocky III. In the film, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) is training to take on Clubber Lang (Mr. T), who beat him earlier. But Clubber is no pushover, and Rocky gets to a point where he seems ready to hang up his gloves.

His wife, Adrian (Talia Shire), is worried. “You’ve never quit anything since I’ve known you,” she says. And when Rocky starts firing off excuses — that he’s not hungry enough, or that he doesn’t want to lose what he has, Adrian doesn’t buy it.

“What do we have that can’t be replaced?” She asks. “What? A house. We got cars, money. We got everything but the truth. What’s the truth?”

Finally Rocky comes clean, “I’m afraid! All right? You wanna hear me say it? You wanna break me down? I’m afraid. For the first time, I’m afraid.”

You know what I notice most about the scene as a counselor? Rocky’s demeanor. As Adrian confronts him, Rocky is defensive and angry. But the moment he reveals that he’s afraid, he calms down. It’s almost like he’s finally at peace.

When I stepped out of the car at Annie’s soccer game to give Erin the keys, I wasn’t mad about Erin’s innocent comment — about nothing. I had been feeling overwhelmed at work. I was behind on some projects, and her remark was the final straw. I overreacted. It wasn’t about her; it was about me.

These little hurts, frustrations and the stress that we sweep under the rug will crawl out somehow. And it’s usually not pretty.

Catch the little foxes

Communicating is the best way to stop a relationship from being damaged. This seems obvious, right? But often we don’t talk through these small arguments. They usually happen fast, and then we quickly move on. But if we capture the little arguments, we can learn more about our marriage.

That’s why we shouldn’t fly past these arguments too quickly. The subjects of the fights aren’t nearly as important as how we manage the process.

Conflicts (big or small) create opportunity. Disagreements allow me to learn something — something about myself, my spouse or my marriage. This is the true benefit of conflict. We grow by facing our conflict instead of ignoring it.

After seeing my car half-parked, half in the middle of the road, I thought better of my actions, got back in the driver’s seat and finished the parking job. I gave Erin and Annie a halfhearted apology, and we started the long walk toward the park in silence. At one point, Erin asked what was going on. Like Rocky, I defended myself and blamed the crowds and Annie’s backseat driving. But I finally admitted to the stress at work — that I felt like I was failing at my job.

Revealing the real issue allowed us to have an honest conversation. It opened a door between us, too. Telling her about my work-related stress helped her to empathize with me instead of being disappointed at my temper tantrum.

Conflict can be the doorway into deep connection if you talk it through. But the focus has to be on the hidden issue that drove the minor conflict. These nothings we fight over can, if handled correctly, lead to something special. Something better.

Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author or co-author of several books.

How strong is your marriage? Find out today with the Focus on Marriage Assessment. This reliable assessment is based on the research and experience of Focus on the Family’s marriage experts Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley. Take this free assessment now.

© 2018 Focus on the Family.

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About the Author

Greg Smalley

Dr. Greg Smalley serves as the Vice President of Marriage at Focus on the Family. In this role, he develops and oversees initiatives that prepare individuals for marriage, strengthen and nurture existing marriages and help couples in marital crises. Prior to joining Focus, Smalley worked for the Center for Relationship Enrichment at John Brown University and as President of the …

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