This article is part of the Why Couples Fight Series

Here is a classic fight about absolutely nothing.

A Fight About Nothing in a Supermarket

A couple is in the supermarket. The husband is walking past the vegetable section, and is approaching his wife, who has been on another isle.

W:   (sounding annoyed)  Aren't you going to pick up vegetables?

H:  (with defensiveness)  I haven't gotten there yet...

W:  (sounding more irritated)  What do you mean?  You've just walked past it!

H:  (in an angry tone)  If you want vegetables, go get them yourself!

W:  (angry and contemptuous)  Why is it you can never do a decent job of shopping for food?  You always pick up junk. You act like a 12-year-old sometimes, you know that?

H:   (raising his voice)  I'm tired of you telling me what to do!  I'm not your slave!  Do your own shopping from now on, will you?

W:   (sneering with contempt)  That's right.  Another job you are pushing off on me.  You make me sick...

H:  (looks away in stony silence).

What is going on here?

Imagine a waterfall of negativity tumbling downhill.  It is what scientists call "a cascading sequence of responses"  in which one partner (in this case, the wife) expresses criticism.  It might have been a complaint, except for her ("you idiot") tone. The other partner (the husband) responds with defensiveness, causing the wife to react to this defensiveness with contempt, sarcasm, and/or hostility.   Next, the partner withdraws from, or stonewalls, the conversation.

We know quite a bit about conversations like this, and how to correct them in troubled marriages.

Fights can be "catty" and small, but the meaning behind them are not.

Over and over, couples in problematic cascading sequences rehash their "point," their irritations with their partner, the tone their partner used that "set them off," or what the other person "really meant" by what they said:  ("That's not what I said." "Yes you did." "No I didn't!" "Yes you did, and what  you meant was...")

Gottman calls these types of interactions: “absorbing states of negativity.” When the pattern becomes chronic, he says, they end up “imprisoned in a roach motel for lovers:  They check in, but they can’t check out.”

John Gottman was once asked in an interview "What do couples fight about?"  His response was, "Nothing."

This is is an example of what he means.

This argument is not about vegetables.  Or shopping. The argument is not about food shopping at all.  In fact, if it weren't for the fight, both might say they enjoy going out shopping, and the wife might even tell you that she prefers to select the vegetables herself.

Now imagine this same conversation going more constructively.

Changing a Fight About Nothing: Husband Starts

Here's an example of the husband changing it around.

W:  (sounding annoyed) Aren't you going to pick up vegetables?

H:  (ignoring her tone)  I've just come from the deli.  I'm working the outside of the store, like you always say to do.

W:  (sounding more plaintive than annoyed)  But you've just walked past the vegetables...

H:  (smiling)  Yes, I did.  I was at the deli counter and was heading to the vegetables but turned around when I saw my lovely wife. You sound tired, honey.  Let's go pick out some veggies.

W:  (brightening, but weary)  I am tired. Let's get them and get out of here.

In relationships where there is an abundance of good will (what Gottman calls "positive sentiment override") a negative tone is often ignored or reframed positively, in this case as "tired."  Even a statement that a neutral observer would label as "hostile," is not understood that way.  The tone is, instead, heard as "emphasis." In positive sentiment override, partners give each other the benefit of the doubt most of the time.

Changing a Fight About Nothing: Wife Starts

Now let's see an example of the wife changing the situation:

W:  (sounding annoyed) Aren't you going to pick up vegetables?

H:   (with defensiveness) I haven't gotten there yet...

W:  (sounding more irritated) What do you mean? You've just walked past it!

H:  (in an angry tone) If you want vegetables, go get them yourself!

W:  (conciliatory tone)  I'm sorry, honey.  I snapped at you. I'm so exhausted.

H:  (softening)  You did!  I was working the outside of the store like you tell me to do, and then you yell at me for it. Look, I already got the deli meat.

W:  I love that kind of ham. Let's go get some lettuce to put on it for sandwiches.

So either one can stop the "fight about nothing."  Either one can recover from the downward spiral, and put the relationship boat into calmer waters.

Why don't they?

In this case, the fight about the veggies is a subtext for a deeper battle that hasn't been successfully explored and healed.  Dr. Gottman calls it a "betrayal," while Dr. Johnson describes it as an "attachment injury." It could be a single, damaging event that has left an emotional wound, leaving one or both feeling vulnerable and unsafe. It can come up in the vegetable aisle, in bed, or over dinner.

Dr. Johnson says couples ultimately have only a few key questions that must continuously and implicitly be answered:

  • Will you be there for me?
  • Can I count on you when I really need you?
  • Will you put my needs as equal to your own?

When the answer to any of these questions is "no," supermarket fights like this one become commonplace.

Perhaps in this situation, it was the wife learning that she had high blood pressure and needed to lose weight.  The injury was her husband's response to the news.  Each time the issue of "eating right" comes up, she sees it as a "test" of how much he cares about her health.

Or perhaps the husband recalled a difficult incident at work with his boss, where his competence was questioned.  His wife, instead of taking his side, seemed to side with his boss, maybe pointing out his need  to be "more attentive."  Now, whenever she says anything, he hears it as "challenging his competence."

An attachment injury destroys the implicit agreement between partners to be there and nurture each other.

Why don't they let these types of things go?  What's the big deal?

Think of it this way:  each relationship has a backdrop, a subtext, like the news ticker at the bottom of the screen, that continues to inform our everyday actions.  And we don't forget them, because little things trigger us, and remind us of this hurt.

They call it the "Zeigarnik Effect," after a Russian psychologist watched waiters in a restaurant:

They never forgot orders that hadn't been filled.  Once the order was filled, they couldn't remember the order.

Think of it as a "cliffhanger" at the end of a TV series.  You remember it because the drama was never resolved.

Because partners tend to remember negative and unfinished emotional experiences more vividly than positive ones, an attachment injury, or a betrayal tends to leave them stuck.

Gottman uses the famous quote from Faulkner to sum it up:

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

“Betrayal is the secret that lies at the heart of every failing relationship — it is there even if the couple is unaware of it” writes Gottman.  Betrayal doesn't refer only to extramarital affairs.  It includes any breach of trust between partners, such as putting career ahead of relationship, ongoing coldness, selfishness, breaking things or violence.

Effective couples therapy does three things in situations like this:

  1. Therapy helps the couple recognize what the "nothing fights" are really about.  These are usually fighting about unresolved issues.  They are the "cliff-hangers" that need resolution.
  2. Therapy helps one partner tune into the other.  They learn how to pay attention to triggers that cause their partner to relive the betrayal, the hurt, or the injury again and again.  And they learn how to respond effectively.
  3. Therapy also helps the wounded partner give voice to their fears when these issues arise.  This helps their partner recognize why they are suddenly upset, distant, or angry.

This emotional attunement can help couples resolve "everyday misalignments," like when one partner is particularly tired or stressed. Enhancing the bonds of friendship can also help transform "negative sentiment override" into "positive sentiment override," so little hurts can be ignored or reframed.

One private weekend.  That's all it takes to learn new and powerful skills to stop the fighting and get along once again.

Want to learn more?  Contact us.

Why Couples Fight Series

Another Fight About Nothing

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It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. K

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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  1. My wife and I got married 23 years ago. 2 years ago I saw my life and everything around me as still pictures and feeling nostalgic about better times, only to realize those better times were of a time when I ignored the disdain coming from my in laws, the boxing me out of key moments by my wife’s family, and my wife’s refusal to hear, acknowledge, or say that I was the most important person in her life. I’ve always felt hopeless, angry at my inability to enact change and made lemonade oUT of the lemons I’ve been handed, but have handled it by reasoning my way through it. I’ve used the golden rule, thought about the importance to everybody involved of staying together, and with that I’ve managed to live one more day in constant inner turmoil.

    On a Christmas gathering 2 years ago I saw and recognized that I could no longer accept being somebody else’s doormat. My wife, as always was having the time of her life without me. I saw that she was still not sitting next to me and was dancing with others even as she rejected my offer.

    I have tried telling about the things that bother me, but it always turns out that I’m either at fault or she is really the victim. I find this impossible to get past. Her idea of talking is to say how she has been wronged. I would never be opposed to seeing things in that manner, except that it never goes beyond that and my side of the story never gets dealt with. As long as I don’t complain everything is alright for her.

    She always manages to pacify me when I talk about counseling /therapy. She doesn’t want to hear of it and I’m for it if we actually did more than put a bandaid on it.

    I feel she has never loved me and is afraid of it coming out in therapy. Help me understand what I can help move this process along. Thanks for any and all comments.

  2. Dear Concerned,

    Here is what I would say: The best investment you can make in your future and your career is your marriage. This is not just hype. Financially successful men have been with one wife throughout the 3 business failures they’ve survived before becoming successful.

    We have several new and talented interns who have joined us. Discuss your situation with us, and let’s see if he can help you, even with limited means. Some offer complete State of the Union assessments for as low as $300. That’s worth saving up for.

    Ask us about our “Bring Us Your Fight’ Program that we’re launching soon. We’ll be offering it at no charge initially, so this will be very affordable to you!

    Nip that in the bud early, so you can enjoy your lives together.

    Thanks for your comments.

    Dr. K

  3. This type of interaction describes my wife and I exactly. It seems as though we can never effectively communicate when I comes to actually doing anything. Whether it is agreeing on when to go shopping, want to go shopping for, or even how to get to the store. We have exceptional communication skills when it comes to emotional issues. But it seems like every time we try to accomplish a task together we constantly get into a fight. It’s becoming more than that lately though, I feel myself resenting her for everything. I think she hasn’t even done. I want to share this article and talk to her so we can try and move into a frame of positive sentiment. We are a young married couple with barely any money at all. We can’t afford couples counseling. How would you recommend to people who can’t afford third-party counseling go about resolving this issue on their own? I desperately want my best friend back. Please help if you can.

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