Relationship advice for the little things
Most romances aren’t killed by one bad move, but by repeated, minor missteps that add up over time.
It had to happen; after all, you and your partner are not going to agree on everything. At some point you’ll come to a crossroads, probably about some everyday dilemma. What will you have for dinner? What movie should you watch? How will you juggle competing events on Saturday night? You might be surprised at how humdrum the topics are and how annoyed you feel when you don’t get your way.
Consider this: most relationships aren’t felled by a single, large, fatal blow. Instead, they’re killed by repeated, minor missteps that add up over time. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to the little things if you want to build up the strength of your new relationship. But how do you decide what things are critical to agree upon, and which things don’t really matter?
From focusing on what’s at stake to understanding — and avoiding — each other’s personal triggers, these five strategies will help you avoid letting these small problems become an issue before they morph into those deadly, repetitive relationship killers:
1. Focus on what’s at stake early in the conversation
Acknowledging what you’d both have to lose is the first step in preventing either of you from fighting about small stuff from the very beginning. Over the course of your courtship — and amid the flirting, flowers, and smitten glances that characterize the first few weeks of new love in bloom — take time for a clear-eyed assessment of the reality driving any relationship disagreements. Talk with each other about how easy it is for small arguments to blow up before you know it. And if it’s an issue that becomes a “repeater,” the time between the triggering moment and having a full-blown fight becomes practically nil. Explore the things that you consider to be small that may actually be huge issues to your partner, and vice versa. “Conflict resolution isn’t about one person seeing the error of his or her ways,” says Dr. John Gottman, author, researcher and co-founder of the Gottman Relationship Institute. “It’s about finding common ground and ways to accommodate one another.”
2. Use how you each cope with conflict as a compatibility predictor
According to results from a recent study published in Psychological Science titled “Recovering from Conflict in Romantic Relationships: A Developmental Perspective,” how you and your date choose to “sweat the small stuff” can predict whether or not you’re going to remain compatible with each other over time. It turns out that the couples who reported greater relationship satisfaction after two years together were those in which both partners recovered more easily from conflict, which can be traced all the way back to childhood feelings of security and attachment to the parents and/or family base.
So what does this mean for your dating viability now? Watch for clues on how your new sweetie handles conflict. Does he or she freak out over little things and then take a really long time to recover? Does this person have strategies for coping when clashes arise between the two of you? Is he or she open to exploring ways to reduce both the severity of these reactions, as well as shortening the recuperation time needed after boiling over? How a couple argues matters — but how both partners move forward after a disagreement is important, too. The researchers concluded that recovering quickly from small spats could be a boon to your relationship.
3. Understand what each of your triggers are — and learn how to avoid them
All of us have traits and behaviors that bug us: dishes left unwashed in the sink; shopping at malls; clutter; talking in the morning before drinking that first cup of coffee. You know, the proverbial “dirty socks on the floor” irritants that couples have argued about since time began. Washingtonian Ginny, 57, is an expert at not sweating the small stuff in her relationship. She’s been married to Ted, her 63-year-old husband, for almost 30 years. They are an unlikely couple in many ways: Ginny is as messy and loud as Ted is quiet and tidy.
But when I asked what made their marriage work for so long despite their obvious differences, Ginny replied, “It’s simple. I learned early on what really annoyed Ted. Then, I stopped doing it. He followed suit. I learned to make sure I am on time, since being late drives him crazy. And because I disliked his unwelcoming attitude when we had friends over, he started putting himself out [there] a little more socially. It’s not like our personalities radically changed; we’re the same people — still different as heck — but we came to an understanding.” Terri Orbuch, psychologist and author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, agrees, saying that couples should “neutralize frustrations that are eroding your relationship. One trait happy couples share is that they have learned how to have realistic expectations.”