Monday, July 10, 2006

Dismaying Story #3: What Is YOUR Account Balance?

Dear Andrew,

My husband and I went to dinner at a friend's house a number of years ago. On the way home both of us commented on how much she and her husband bickered at each other throughout the evening. Later they ended up getting a divorce. Just recently I visited an old college friend and saw almost the same thing -- she and her husband sniped away at each other repeatedly over seemingly unimportant topics. Is this an indication that my friend's marriage is in trouble?

Signed: Concerned for my Friend

Dear Concerned,

Such obvious and constant bickering is rarely a good sign. There may be underlying issues between your friend and your husband. It is incredibly common for couples to quarrel about anything and everything, when the real reasons for the discontent are entirely different. As an arbitrary example, she might say something like, "I can't believe you want to go out with the guys again tonight. You're just being selfish." The real problem might not be the night out with the guys, though. She may be reacting to a general lack of trust and closeness between the two of them resulting from months or years of neglecting the emotional side of their relationship.

Another common problem is for bickering to grow into a bad habit. Couples can allow tiny annoyances to bother them, all out of proportion with the miniscule level of importance that should normally be attached to such issues. Who among us has never left a drinking glass on the kitchen table or forgotten to pick up the drycleaning? Some couples barely notice these inconsequential speedbumps, while for others they become ammunition in a barrage of criticisms and snide comments.

I have a theory as to what separates these two types of relationships. Couples build up what I call a "balance of goodwill," which can be either positive or negative. By repeatedly sharing positive experiences, a spouse can develop deep faith that their partner is basically a good person and will generally do the right thing. In this situation, a small mistake is easily overlooked; the mistake is an exception, not the rule and is nothing to worry about. Conversely, some spouses come to believe that their partner is a blunder waiting to happen. They experience enough negativity in their relationship that they expect more to follow. In this case, any tiny gaffe by their spouse just adds to the frustration, proving once more that the negative expectations are valid. This often results in the kind of rebuke you observed with your friend and her husband.

If you find yourself bickering frequently with your partner, ask yourself:
  • Is there a deeper level of discontent? Are there real, consequential issues that we should work out? Or...
  • Have we fallen into a habit of allowing tiny things to bother us more than they should?

If it is the latter, you may want to start consciously overlooking your partner's imperfections for a while. This can help the two of you build up a positive balance in your goodwill account. Otherwise, your sniping can teach your partner to expect negativity from you, causing the whole situation to spiral downward.

Sincerely, Andrew

Do you find yourself quarreling with your partner more than you would like? Or perhaps you have found a way to ignore the potentially annoying things that your spouse does. Be sure to send in your story or question by clicking here.

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