Why Couples Give Everyday Problems Significant Meaning

Why Couples Give Everyday Problems Significant Meaning

Zero-Sum Games

Imagine a New Yorker cartoon showing a couple in a therapist’s office. The husband is saying, “She leaves her dirty dishes on the counter,” followed by the wife saying, “Well, he leaves his dirty socks on the floor!”

The caption: Real life zero-sum games.

Anyone familiar with the zero-sum concept might appreciate the humor: Problems don’t necessarily cancel each other out. Especially in relationships.

But there’s an irony to the cartoon as well. Because it relies on juxtaposing the couple’s banal problems, with a sophisticated explanation the assumption is that their problems are a joke. This is emphasized by their seeking professional help for them. Yet, in actuality, they’re not too far off from the real problems a couple might bring to a therapist’s office, and with far more passion.

Why do couples bother with such inane problems?

The simple answer is couples give inane problems significant meaning. They more often are place holders for larger, unresolved conflicts. Unfortunately though, couples get stuck reacting to a problem’s significant meaning, but not where it’s coming from. This results in futility by trying to resolve something as significant as financial responsibility through something relatively insignificant, like dirty dishes, and continually arguing about the wrong things.

If dirty dishes were really the problem, why can’t the husband just ask her not to leave out dirty dishes, and the wife ask him the same about dirty socks?

They have, and probably more times than they can count.

The underlying problem is that partners rarely make clear requests of each other and then stick to the actual request. Instead, they get pulled into a debate at the first sign of push back to justify their request. Each argues what they believe are appropriate standards and firmly hold their partner to these—even though accepting that their standards differ doesn’t actually negate one’s request. But remember these are couples we’re talking about, intimate partners, liable to trigger and be triggered by their partner’s beliefs, or their standards. It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that these would understandably influence a debate regarding dirty dishes.

The key to making a request of a partner is to clearly state it and stand behind it. If there’s push back, simply set the request aside, and try to understand your partner’s reaction causing it. Consider whether your partner is bringing other matters into it, or ones you neglected or weren’t aware of. Try to bring some understanding to, or resolve these before bringing your request back up. If your request is accepted, discuss how you will see that it has, and how your partner would best like you to bring it up if they slip in doing so. Couples can think of requests, push-back, understanding and/or follow through as a way of continuing to learn more about themselves and their partners while minimizing problems.

The real humor with the couple in the cartoon is that they don’t have two problems but four: Dirty dishes, dirty socks, what these are a place holder for, and how to go about separating and resolving these.

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All responses, though professionally based, are intended as opinions, and are not a substitute for working with a therapist professionally.