Pick Your Battles
“Pick your battles.”
“Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
“Let the little things roll off your shoulders.”
It's all the same. I can see why it could be a good thing... why would you want unnecessary conflict in your relationship?
However, the problem with this advice, is that the majority of people don’t do it right. It’s not as simple as it sounds!
Let’s see how this advice usually plays out in real life.
Your partner comes home from work and, yet again, doesn’t take off his shoes when he comes in the house. Each step on your freshly vacuumed carpet feels like a dagger in the gut.
You’ve already told him that you’d like him to take his shoes off in the house. You even put up a cute little passive aggressive note by the door in bright red letters that says, “PLEASE remove your shoes” with a smiley face.
You take a deep breath as your Aunt Sally’s voice flows through your brain yet again, “Pick your battles, dear….”
You bite your tongue as he comes to give you a hug and a kiss.
“How was your day, honey?” he asks.
That’s about the only thing you can get out of your mouth without exploding in utter rage. He should know better. If he loved you, he would take off his shoes!
You’re pretty short with him for the rest of the evening, but you’re successful in not bringing up the shoes. It’s such a small silly thing. It shouldn’t bother you, right? No sense in complaining. It’s not a big deal. You don’t want to seem like a nag.
Weeks and weeks go by. Every time he walks in with his shoes on, you bite your tongue. You are polite to him on the surface, but secretly resent him every time he walks in the door.
You can feel the gap between you growing.
You have a lot of stored up anger inside you. But you’re really good at hiding it.
One day, your husband forgets to take out the trash and it's the straw that breaks the camel's back. You explode in a furious rage.
“You obviously don’t care about me!”
An argument ensues and the longer it goes, the more all of your pent up anger escapes in a rampage. It’s like a dam has broken inside you, and all the little battles you’ve chosen to dismiss come gushing out in full force.
You don’t stop there. You start bringing up the shoes, and the toilet seat, and the toothpaste, and the way he breathes funny.
It surprises you how upset you are. Your husband seems totally taken off guard.
“Where is all of this coming from?” he says.
What went wrong in this situation? Weren’t you doing everything you thought you were supposed to? You were picking your battles! You avoided stupid arguments!
Yet, you still ended up fighting…
Remember how I said that most people don’t follow this advice correctly? The problem with “picking your battles,” is that you often pick the WRONG battles to avoid. Something that seems “little” one person might actually be a pretty big deal to you.
What’s the solution?
A Low Negativity Threshold.
Your negativity threshold is the maximum amount of tolerance you have towards negativity before you actually say something.
You’d think that couples with a high negativity threshold, those who are really good at letting the little things go, would have the most success in their relationships, right?
According to John Gottman, author of “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” that isn’t the case.
It’s the couples with a low negativity threshold that are the most successful. After four decades of conducting scientific research on couples and relationships in Seattle’s “Love Lab”, he even has a mathematical equation to prove it.
I'm no scientist, but that looks pretty legit to me!
Hannah Fry, an author and mathematician, breaks down this equation in a TEDx talk entitled, “The Mathematics of Love.”
“In relationships [with a low negativity threshold], couples allow each other to complain, and work together to constantly repair the tiny issues between them. In such a case, couples don't bottle up their feelings, and little things don't end up being blown completely out of proportion”. - Hannah Fry
Think of it this way.
You spill something on the counter, and decide that it’s not that big of a spot, so you leave it there. As time goes on, you start drip or spill more things on your counter. The longer these spills stay, the harder and crustier they get.
If this goes on for a month, how hard is it going to be to clean up? You’re going to have to pull out every tool in the kitchen to remove mess you've made! And, you might even leave a permanent stain on your countertop…
But what happens if you clean the spill up right when it happens?
It comes right off… with no evidence left behind.
This is something that Nate and I have taken very seriously in our relationship. We’ve decided if there is ever anything we don’t want to talk to the other person about, it’s the first thing we need to bring it up with each other.
The result of this low negativity culture in our marriage has been phenomenal. We resolve issues quickly and then move on. We literally forget what we were even arguing about once the discussion is over.
It’s getting a clean slate over and over again in our relationship!
"So Angilyn, are you trying to tell me that complaining more in my relationship will help me to be more successful?"
Uh... Yes – that’s exactly what I’m saying.
But, there’s a way to bring up your complaints without seeming so… well… complainy. (Cause let’s be honest – no one wants to be married to their mother.)
Might I suggest the following script?
- I’ve noticed lately that you have been doing _______.
- I know you didn’t mean to, but I feel _______ when this happens.
- What I would love in the future, is if you could _______.
- That would help me because _______.
- What do you need from me to help you do ____?
Here is what it would look like for the situation with the shoes:
“Hey honey. I’ve noticed lately that you haven’t been taking off your shoes when you come in the house. I know you don’t mean to, but I feel really unappreciated and defeated when this happens, like all my hard work around the house has gone unnoticed. What I would love in the future is if you could take off your shoes at the front door before walking on the carpet. This would help me to feel appreciated and loved. What do you need from me to make this easier for you?”
In this script, you take responsibility for the way you are feeling. Your partner doesn’t MAKE you feel anything. It’s all about your own perception.
Also, you assume good intentions when you say, “I know you didn’t mean to.” Most of the time, your partner genuinely doesn’t mean to hurt you. It helps to soften the blow when you give them the benefit of the doubt.
Tell them the positive things you’d love in the future that they CAN control, instead of focusing on the negative thing that happened in the past that they CAN’T control.
Tell them all the positive things it would do for you if they follow through.
And finally – give them everything that they need to make it easy for them to give you what you need. (I mentioned this in the last article – it is soooo important!)
In the end, picking your battles isn’t terrible advice, it’s just pretty dang hard to do it right!
If you’ve thought about a situation and found that you can genuinely and sincerely let it go without becoming resentful, by all means, let it go!
You can evaluate whether you’ve really moved on if it happens again and you hardly notice. It becomes a non-issue for you.
On the flip side, if every time it happens you start to feel your blood pressure rise, it’s a good indicator that you need to bring it up with your partner.
When in doubt, it’s good practice to just “clean it up” fast!
Don’t let things build up so much that you give yourself an ulcer… life is so much more peaceful, joyful, and connected when you don't let negative emotions bottle up inside!