Nothing or Something
Couples researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., was asked in an interview what the number one issue is that couples fight about. His answer? Nothing. Couples, he said, fight about nothing. Listen to the 1-minute interview above and hear it for yourself.
Gottman has a point. It's not that we literally fight about nothing; it's that what we fight about — on the surface — is often not what's really bothering us. We're not always aware of what's bothering us, or we don't know how to raise the matter with our partner. We may be afraid of conflict and suspect that if we say something, friction will erupt. So we avoid raising the topic. The emotional energy tied to what's really bothering us then fuels the petty things we fight about: all the little nothings.
How do we get to those underlying issues? How do we bring them to the surface? It starts with noticing when the size of the energy about nothing seems bigger than it ought to be. Maybe it's a surprising amount of energy about who's not sharing the remote control or who left dishes piling up in the sink. Maybe it's the price of the new bottle of wine or the refrigerator door accidentally left ajar. When what ought to be relatively nothing — common sense dictates that the complaint shouldn't warrant such a fuss — suddenly has the energy of something, try saying, "You have a surprising amount of energy right now about _____. There's something fueling all that energy and I'd like to understand where it's coming from. Can we talk about it?"
Or make a date to talk later, and at the agreed-upon time, say, "I know you were bothered by _____. But you had more energy than the situation seemed to call for. I'm wondering what might be going on underneath the surface." Bring simple curiosity to the conversation — without judgment or blame — and just wonder together what might be simmering. It may have nothing to do with your partnership; it may be a reflection of a tough workday, a late payment notice or a puppy that refuses to "heel." Or it may in fact be about the relationship. Whatever it is, bickering about nothing sours the moment and rarely strengthens the partnership in the way that uncovering and effectively addressing the underlying something promises to do.