"This is so stupid. I can't believe we're fighting about this."
When couples in therapy explain to me a recent fight they've had, very often they are embarrassed to explain what exactly they're fighting about. Because emotions are running high, but the topic of the fight is...feeding the dog. Or which route to take to soccer practice. Or what to have for dinner. Sound familiar?
After the conflict is over, you might feel frustrated and confused you got so heated over something so trivial. When you try to explain why you were very annoyed or combative, your explanation might fall flat, because you continue to focus on the content of the fight (my route was better, you never want to try new food, why should I be responsible for the dog). Most often, although the specifics of this fight feel very important right now, they have taken on bigger symbolic meaning. You try to articulate that symbolism, and suddenly you are dredging up years' old history that may feel incredibly unfair to your partner - "we're just talking about dinner, why are you suddenly bringing up our honeymoon?".
These sorts of conflicts are sometimes compared to icebergs - the topic is up top, above water, but the majority of the history and context lives below the surface. The tricky task in navigating "iceberg" topics is that you need to both hold the current situation and the history without getting too stuck in either.
For example, imagine your partner comes home from work and plops down on the couch with a heavy sigh. You're in the kitchen making dinner. You also had a long day at work, and you'd love to sit on the couch too, but someone has to make dinner, right? After waiting a few minutes to see if they hop up to help, you let out a few pointed sighs and start to bang the pots and pans a bit louder. Your partner, zoned out on tik tok, doesn't notice. Eventually you say, "so are you going to help with dinner or what?". Your partner responds, "sure, what's with the tone, I'm happy to help." And the two of you are off to the races.
Let's zoom out. On one hand, this is about a very specific, narrow issue. In this moment, right here right now, you want your partner to help with dinner. The best way to get that need met would be to ask, very clearly, for what you want - "could you please come help with dinner?".
On the other hand, this is also probably about a deeper, broader issue where you might feel like you take more ownership for keeping your lives moving along than your partner does (called the mental load or invisible labor). So rather than trying to get your immediate need met, you try to demonstrate the deep problem (the submerged part of the iceberg). This probably sounds like "why am I responsible for getting dinner on the table?" or "I want to be the one who relaxes sometimes, why is it always you?".
Realistically, most partners do not respond well to these sorts of questions. The message is, "not only are you doing something wrong right now, but you often do something wrong, and I am ready to complain about it." They will likely launch a defensive stance and then the two of you are deep in gridlock.
So how can you address both the specific situation that inspired conflict and the broader context surrounding it?
Step 1: Solve The Problem In Front Of You
During typical day-to-day conflict, it is best to first solve immediate problems with a narrow focus. If you need help with dinner, ask for help with dinner. If you would like your partner to stop contributing their input on your driving choices, ask them politely to stop. Focus on the literal problem in front of you without bringing in the history or context. If possible, solve the surface level issue first.
Step 2: Clarify The Deeper Problem and Decide When To Discuss It
Once the immediate problem is solved, you can choose whether now is a good time to bring up the deeper problem. Often, right now is not a good time. If it's not a good time, don't talk about it. Pick a time that you are both available and not activated.
Before you can effectively discuss the deeper problem, you'll need to first clarify what exactly that problem is. Often your first attempt will sound accusatory. Although it's tempting to share accusations, saying "I'm responsible for everything around here," it is rarely effective.
To state the deeper problem, try to focus on being accurate, specific, and limited.
For example: "I have noticed recently that I usually start dinner by myself. Sometimes I ask you for help and you help, but I would prefer if you jumped in to help without me asking. Is that something you're willing to work on?"
How to stay accurate, specific, and limited:
Accurate - Start by making an observation. It is crucial that this observation is relatively objective. If you tell your partner that they never initiate making dinner, when they did once last week, they will probably focus in on that one time rather than hearing your point. Avoid hyperbole.
Specific - Although language like "I want you to carry more of the mental load" can feel very validating and describe your own experience evocatively, it is often unhelpful in the moment during conflict. If you're concerned about mental load, describe what you mean specifically - "I am in charge of meal planning, adding things to the grocery list, and grocery shopping. I want to divide this set of tasks up differently, are you open to that?"
Limited - Focus on one category at a time. You might also feel that your partner does not pull their fair share of weight in other areas. But it is understandably very difficult for anyone to take in feedback across multiple domains at once. By focusing on one category, you make it possible for your partner to actually see the pattern.
Step 3: Solve What You Can And Move On
Small, specific problems can often be solved relatively quickly (maybe your partner jumps up saying, "sure, I'm happy to help with dinner, sorry I was so spacey just now").
But all couples have ongoing, messy problems that will not be resolved from one conversation. You can think of these like a chronic condition that needs regular maintenance. Expecting to never have a division of labor conversation again is not realistic. Expecting to avoid hurting each other or getting hurt is a sure way to feel disappointed.
An important skill some couples struggle with is putting a band-aid on a problem and moving on for the time being. This is not avoidance or stonewalling or denial. Have a limited, focused conversation to address what can be addressed, indicate your commitment and love for each other, and proceed with your day. Getting in a prolonged fight about dinner will not improve your relationship - sitting down together and actually eating dinner just might.
For many couples, it is difficult to accept a partial solution and move on because there's a lack of trust that the other person will be willing to talk about the same subject again in future. But the way around this fear, the way to build trust that no conversation has to be the final on the topic, is to practice closing it up and then opening it later. Regardless of whether you are the one who might want to avoid the topic or the one scared you'll never be heard, practicing solving the small problems, naming the big ones, and then moving on will help you move toward a more fluid, dynamic way of responding to conflict.
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