Fighting Over Nothing

Being aware of the circumstances that trigger an argument can help couples understand why they bicker.

By Nando Pelusi Ph.D., published on October 6, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

My wife and I generally get along, but we sometimes get into fights over nothing. How can we prevent the fighting? It's not like we have major issues we disagree on.

If you find yourself sinking into a bickering habit with your wife, identify the triggers that precede these episodes. There are several common patterns in couples' arguments, and most are just habits or unconscious behaviors. Any number of things can precipitate an unwanted argument: a linguistic habit, resentment, or an emotional state such as boredom.

Phrasing can create misunderstandings, such as using the words, "you," instead of "I would like." For example, the words "You didn't take out the garbage," convey an indictment. But the words "I'd love the garbage taken out, please," convey a desire.

The way we talk sometimes tricks us into believing that communication is a game of ping-pong with words—I talk, you talk, and we each wait our turn. What often happens: You say something, and perhaps she reads it as criticism. Then, her response seems unusually harsh. So what do you do? You respond to her harshness and off you go! You're "arguing." And the original thoughts are buried and perhaps never addressed.

Be aware that anyone can misunderstand you or assume that you're criticizing—even someone you live with. I call this, "bypassing." When you bypass, you may be assuming criticism even when none is intended.

Sometimes you get impatient with your spouse, and expect that she understand you immediately. Thus, you risk a misunderstanding of what is said, and then, a response that causes further misunderstanding.

Another common source of friction is misreading the "tonal environment." That is: The words and behaviors "called for" in a certain situation. For you, an evening out for dinner might entail stuffing your face. But it might be a romantic opportunity for her. These are different environments for you both. Be aware of what circumstances trigger your arguments—this may help you understand why you bicker. A romantic opportunity can be dashed, as can playtime.

Understand the tonal environment, and try to align each person's perceptions, so that you are really together and experiencing the circumstance in a mutually satisfying manner.

You can discuss the tonal environment, and be flexible about where you are, and what you both expect. When you find the appropriate behavior, you're less likely to build resentment and the hurt that comes with dashed expectations.

Be sensitive to the tonal environment, watch out for bypassing, and keep a record of expectations during an argument. You may even find your way back to more mutual understanding.