Most couples argue. In fact couples that say “we never argue” worry me more than couples that say they do (but that’s for another post). What most couples say, however, is that they find themselves arguing about silly things. Why do couples argue about putting the milk bottles out, or who is going to drop the kids off at school, rather than the big things?
One way of understanding this is to look at how resentments build up in a relationship.
The metaphor I often use for this is hopelessly out of date … but I can’t think of a better one, so for anybody under 40 please bear with me! It used to be the case that petrol companies used to issue stamps every time you bought petrol. These ‘Green Shield Stamps’ had to be collected and stuck in a book. When the book was full, you could cash the book in for a reward. If you collected several books you could claim an even bigger reward.
What I want to suggest is that in relationships little resentments get collected in a similar way to Green Shield Stamps. Every time your partner annoys you, you simply swallow it and get on with life. Unfortunately that’s not the end of it. Most of us make a mental note and put a ‘stamp in the book’. Eventually these little resentment build up, and when our ‘book is full’; we cash all the little resentments in for one big argument. The trigger, in itself, might be quite small, but its significance is that your partner cops for all the resentment you have built up. The result: you have a big row over something rather small!
So what can be done about it? Well first it’s helpful to become more aware of all the little resentments building up. You might write them down in a book, or note them on your smart phone. You can then observe the pattern and intervene more strategically. For example, if the same theme keeps cropping up, you might choose a calm moment to discuss it rather than wait until your book is full. If both of you observe the little resentments build up, you could set aside an hour a week to go over each other’s themes.
An alternative thing you could do is cash in your book of resentments early! If you find that you cash in your resentments after, say, 5 or 7, have been collected, you might strategically cash in earlier, say after 3 or 4 resentments. The reason for this is because your book isn’t full; the chances are you will be able to talk about them with more head and less emotion.
Of course there may be other ways of intervening to stop these kinds of arguments. If you have any good suggestions, let me know by leaving a comment.
Dr Phil Tyson is a Men's Psychotherapist based in Manchester in the UK. He offers:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (cbt) for men in Manchester
- Counselling for men in Manchester
- Psychotherapy for men in Manchester
- Telephone and Skype counselling for men wherever you live
- Supervision and consultative support for therapists in Manchester
- Mediation for employment disputes in Manchester and the UK