#1273: “How do I stop making a big deal out of small stuff that turns into arguing?”

Hi there,

My husband (27M) and I (27F) have been married for 3.5 years and we live in the US. Generally, we click on just about everything major – kids, faith, goals, finances, etc. We have the same type of humor, can laugh together and all-around can just have a good time together.

To be frank tho, we argue almost all the time… about really dumb, insignificant stuff. Sure, we go through short periods of no arguing, but it always comes back around to bickering constantly. We’ve made great strides in the way we communicate with each other, me tending to be more emotional and working to overcome them as we work through issues, and him tapping into his emotions, but I just don’t understand why we argue so often.

There is one thing to note – my husband started taking anxiety meds about a year and a half ago, as well as ADHD medication a year ago (I won’t go into all the details). Overall, his mental health has vastly improved. The only downside to this, is that he has a very difficult time achieving orgasm during sex, and all around just doesn’t really have a strong sex drive. I can’t say that this isn’t a contributing factor to our constant bickering…

However, my husband feels that I make a big deal about everything – small and insignificant things – that lead to us arguing. He’s not entirely wrong… I do feel like that’s something I really need to get better at. Letting small things roll off my back and not letting stupid stuff affect me. This is where I need advice. I’m not sure how to get better at this.


– Stressed Wife

Hello Stressed Wife:

The changing sex drive thing is hard and is going to take time and patience to find a new normal that works for both of you. My advice about that is to remove pressure wherever possible, I wrote a ton about specific strategies for that here. Short version: Explore ways to have good sex with yourself, find a way to enjoy and share touch without expectation that it will always turn into sex, find a way to enjoy the sex you do have without being so goal-oriented around his orgasms.

The real reason I snagged your question today was your last paragraph and the shared assumption that the problem in your marriage is that you’re “too emotional” and that your concerns are almost always trivial ones. The assumption that whoever cares the most or feels the most strongly about something can’t possibly ever be the most right about it has got to go. It’s got to go on the macro level, it’s got to go on the micro level, it’s got to go when it shows up as racism, it’s got to go when it shows up as misogyny, today we fight it in your marriage so that tomorrow we can fight it in newsrooms that assume black reporters are “too biased” to cover protests about white supremacy (true story). (Oh hey, also, men aren’t naturally “more logical” than women, stop that).

Mismatched sex drives, a sudden change in your sex life with a beloved partner is a big deal, actually! One that requires a lot of patience and care and adaptation from everybody!

What if the other things that you need and the other things that bother you are also actually pretty important, and the fact that they are important to you is what makes them important? I’m not suggesting that you mine every possible activity of your shared life for conflict and an excuse to criticize your partner (pls. don’t), but I am suggesting an experiment where you stop pre-dismissing the things that are bothering you as automatically unworthy of mention, and where you stop automatically assuming that your emotions should be discounted as important information about what you need.

Most of us are taught some version of The Golden Rule (“Treat other people as you would wish to be treated”) and that is a very useful ethical guideline, until it’s translated as “I would be fine with this, so what’s wrong with you if you aren’t also completely fine with this?” Stuff that bothers you doesn’t have to bother your husband in the exact same way for it to be real, and the exact way he would approach a problem doesn’t have to be your way.

If you find yourself picking fights or escalating fights about other things because of your unhappiness at the change in your sex life, yep, that’s a problem, stop it. If you pressure a partner about sex and punish them (with sulking, silent treatment, fights, bickering) when they don’t want to or can’t have sex with you, it creates a very, very bad cycle. You’re smart to want to interrupt it now.

But is every argument you are having totally baseless or a proxy for something else? Are you ever allowed to say, hey, this is just really my preference, so can you do x/stop doing x as a favor to me, because it would make me happier this way, and have your husband say, “Sure thing, honey, that seems reasonable, I’ll do my best”?

If you can find a marriage counselor who does video/telemedicine, this is probably worth taking to an outside referee who can work with you both over time.

If you truly feel like the problem is that you and you alone are extra irritable right now, you know for sure that you’re picking fights about things that wouldn’t normally bother you, and you’re looking for ways improve your overall distress tolerance so that you can choose your marital battles better, then work on your own mood and emotional well-being to the extent you can.

If it’s somewhere in the middle (which I suspect it is), try an experiment for a couple weeks:

  1. When something is bothering you about husband/husband’s behavior, try taking a wee time out before you speak up about it. Walk around the block, comb the dog, wash your water glass, visit the rest room, count to 100. Is it still bothering you? It’s okay if it’s still bothering you, you can now know for sure that it is vs. beat yourself up for “over-reacting” in the moment.
  2. Can whatever is bothering you be expressed as a positive preference vs. a criticism? “I really like when you do x, more of that please!” vs. “Why don’t you ever do x?”  This doesn’t work for everything (nor are you obligated to only and forever express upset feelings as net positives and win-win situations, we’re just trying something out), but even when used as an exercise for thinking through how you want to talk about something, this can be a tool for both practicing assertiveness and for de-escalation.
  3. My art teacher stripes are showing here:  If you can’t express it as a positive assertion, can it be a question? “Is there a reason you’re doing x that way (instead of how I assume it should be done?)” can yield valuable information. Only do this if you can make it a genuine question, everybody knows that “Interesting choice with the lighting there, what prompted that?” probably means “Your lighting: not amazing.” 
  4. When you take your time out, think about what you actually want out of a conversation with him. Are you communicating a feeling? Are you asking for his input on how to solve a joint problem? Is there something you’d like him to do differently? Think of it as gently applying the thing you’d want from a good friend – “Do you want advice or are you just venting right now?” – to yourself.
  5. When you do argue or raise an issue, can you try not automatically taking the blame for overreacting or assuming that you are “making a big deal out of nothing” or whatever the prevailing narrative in your house is? Skip the part where you pre-apologize, skip the part where you start sentences with “It’s probably nothing, but could you just _____.” If you’ve made it through steps 1-4 and the thing is still bugging you, it’s not nothing, so you don’t have to apologize or set yourself up as a supplicant.
  6. Listening skills review! Sometimes when we get along with somebody really well and we’re on the same page about mostly everything and we’ve known them forever, we get into habits of assuming things about them, like what they really mean when they speak and what they’ll say next. When things get tense, it’s easy to start reacting based on our assumptions and stop listening to their actual words. If you’re arguing or having a tense discussion, before you respond to what your husband says to you, try mirroring it back to him before you add your input. “What I’m hearing you say is that you  feel _____/want ______. Is that correct?” [Then actually listen to the answer and adapt as necessary]. “Okay, in that case, what I really need is _____.” 

Is this just quarantine-close-quarters irritability? Is this a need to work on your own reactivity and anger and make an effort to be more intentional in your communications? Do you both just need a reminder to slow down and be really, really nice and kind and polite to each other? Who can say? Not me! But I do have some confidence that if you try these communication strategies for a few weeks, at very least you’ll have more information about what’s happening here* that can point you in the right direction for what to do about it. Good luck and thanks for the question!

*STRONG HINT: If you do get much more thoughtful about choosing your battles, and if you remove the automatic “it’s probably nothing but…” framing from your conversations but your husband keeps putting it back there? That’s not a you-problem. ❤







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