10 Dumb Relationship Issues You Need To Quit Getting Worked Up About

marriage, relationships

Winifred Reilly sees couples giving these issues too much air time … and thinks we’d all be happier if we’d quit letting them dictate our behavior.

Raise your hand if your spouse does something that drives you totally bonkers.

The wet towel on the floor. The toilet seat left up. The kitchen scissors that never end up back in the drawer.

Marriage is chock full of these petty irritations. Sometimes we joke about them. Sometimes we gnash our teeth over them.

Still, most of us would agree that putting the empty orange juice container back in the fridge is hardly worth getting ourselves all in a twist.

But, what is?

The mortgage payment mailed late?
The milk left out to spoil?
Consistent lateness?
A bad attitude?


Then again, maybe not.

While there are, of course, serious issues that some couples need to address, most of the everyday tussles I see my clients get into are about, well… a whole lot of dumb stuff.

Stuff they may well find deeply important. Stuff that they’ve fought about for years without ever questioning its relevance.

Stuff that is, nonetheless, a huge waste of time.

I’ll be the first to admit that at least half of these issues have flushed many valuable hours of my life right down the drain. Beyond that, bickering is pointless and only ends up depleting a couple’s good will.

Here are 10 dumb issues smart couples quit giving a second thought:

1. Being Right

In all honesty, I like being right as much as the next person. The problem, however, is that being right comes at a cost. If I’m fiercely attached to being right, then, by default, my husband will end up being wrong. Take my word for it, he doesn’t like that position anymore than I do.

It’s been said that we have to choose whether to be right or happy, since we cannot be both.  A variation on that is to choose between being right or being free — to cling desperately to our need to be superior to others, or to learn to let go.

I suggest door number two.

2. Caring Who Started It

Okay. Chances are if you’re reading this post you’re not in third grade. Who started it counted back then, when the instigator got sent to the principal’s office and the innocent got a Kleenex and a pat on the head.

The underlying issue for couples who get snagged on this one is that they believe there’s glory in being innocent. Far better to be the victim than the victimizer, they say.

But, why?

While the victim position makes it much easier to claim the moral high ground, the truth is that when conflict arises, we’re rarely as innocent as we think.

3. Who Said What, When

Wouldn’t it be great if we could play back the video?

“Ha!” we could say. “I knew you said 3 o’clock and not 3:15.”

I’ve seen couples attempt to recreate conversations they had in 1969, one or both of them insistent that they accurately recall every word.

Sadly, most of us are no better at remembering what we said five minutes ago, especially if we were even slightly revved up.

What does it matter, anyway?

The who said what, when loop is like driving your car while looking in the rear view mirror.

Better idea — say what you think now and leave the past in the past.

Hard as it is to accept, truth comes in versions. And frustratingly often, when your version and another’s stand side-by-side, the twain shall not meet.

Short of having a home stenographer record every word the two of you speak, you’re going to just have to accept that nailing down a consensus reality may be difficult, if not impossible.

4. Expecting Things to Be Done Your Way

This may shock you, but there is no right way to fold a dishtowel. The same thing is true about which way to hang toilet paper or squeeze toothpaste. There’s no superior parking spot to pull into, no optimal way to stir pasta sauce, shake salt, or arrange fruit in a bowl.

Recently, in a discussion about dishwasher loading, one client said her dishwasher came with a map, with the numbers for where to place dinner forks versus salad forks, soup spoons versus teaspoons, eight-ounce glasses versus coffee mugs. She and her spouse regularly re-arrange the dishes after the other is done.

I’m happy when the stuff gets into the dishwasher, period.

Every couple has to figure out how they’re going to run things, and how much energy they want to put in having things go their preferred way.

Life is too short to go bananas about where to keep the coffee filters.

5. Being Told What to Do

This one’s easy.

If your spouse tells you what to do, you can choose to do it —  or not. Why freak out?

Yeah, I know, being “managed” is annoying and intrusive and it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that your spouse thinks you’re too stupid or incompetent to do things on your own. You probably aren’t.

It’s wise not to put your self-esteem in the hands of somebody who’s simply anxious when not in control.

6. Who Made a Face, Rolled Their Eyes, or Used an Unacceptable Tone

Despite all the buzz about how eye-rolling is a clear predictor of divorce, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t do it occasionally. Even so, I agree that it’s no heartwarming move.

My suggestion is this:

Stop rolling your eyes, groaning, sighing, snorting, grimacing or doing any other obnoxious, judgmental and dismissive things that you do when your partner is talking. He or she will be deeply appreciative.

However, until the two of you clean up your act on this one, you’re going to have to live with some crappy behavior. There are worse things in life.

Bad enough that we’re not always kind and respectful to our loved ones. Why spend time and energy protesting that you can’t speak, think, finish a sentence, or keep your cool when your spouse groans or sighs or uses an unpleasant tone.

Believe me, you can.

I promise, you’ll be far better off  once you stop letting your partner’s bad behavior throw you off-course.

7. Being Turned Down For Sex

Hoping for a yes, and you got a no?

Bummer. It happens to all of us.

Badgering, whining, pouting, threatening, claiming something awful will befall one of your body parts — none of these things are in the least bit sexy.

When turned down here are your options: you can ask again, only this time put on the charm. Be more seductive or more inviting and see how it goes.  If it’s not gonna happen, I suggest you go read.

There’s always tomorrow.

8. Expecting Things to Be Fair

I’m sure this isn’t the first time someone told you life isn’t fair. Neither is marriage.

The idea that things should be 50–50, that couples need to compromise, that they need to meet each other halfway, well… this sounds good in theory, but in my experience, that’s not how things play out.

Relationships are messy. Sometimes things end up being 90-10 or 40-60. Sometimes we get the short end of the stick.

Tolerating unfairness is part of growing up. Stamping your feet in opposition is a quick trip back to childhood, where you had a complete meltdown because your sister got the bigger and prettier cupcake.

9. Having to Ask

Asking is part of the human job description. When we want something, it’s our job to ask for it.

I’ve heard people say that asking somehow demeans the thing they ultimately get, as if a mind-reading spouse is a more loyal or loving spouse, as if getting what they want without having to ask means their spouse really “gets” who they are.

Why turn asking and receiving into a test? The kiss I get when I’ve asked is as sweet as the one given to me spontaneously.

Asking requires courage and an ability to deal with the whatever comes our way: yes, no, or maybe, and the ever-frustrating yes that’s really a no in disguise.

Asking is our best chance of having life go as we’d like. After all, who’s going to advocate for your concerns, if not you?

10. Misdeeds of the Past

Sh#t happens. And when it happens in your marriage, it can be heartbreakingly painful. Even so, unless you’re an archaeologist or historian, or you work at the Smithsonian, dredging up the past is a pointless activity.

What’s the value of getting all fired-up about the time your spouse shamelessly flirted at the neighbor’s Christmas party… 17 years ago?

While it’s true that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, most people drag out old grievances not to learn from them, but to hurt their spouse with them.

Thank goodness many of us mature with time. Thanks goodness we grow.

Since there’s nothing to be done in the present about things that happened in the past, why not seek to forgive? Forgiveness leaves the past in the past and makes room in the present for new and better things to come.


Any more issues for the list? Thoughts to add? Please comment.

While you’re at it, please use the buttons below share this post with others!

You can check out Winifred’s blog at speakingofmarriage.com and follow her on Twitter @winifredmreilly.

You can also check out her other article, How to Have the Conversations You Dread Having With Your Spouse,here on the Good Men Project.

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Do you want to talk about how to have richer, more mindful, and enduring relationships?


Image: schlaeger/Flickr

About Winifred Reilly

Winifred M. Reilly, MA, MFT, is a psychotherapist specializing in marital therapy and relationship issues, with a private practice in Berkeley, CA. She is the author of the relationship advice blog Speaking of Marriage and a forthcoming book that explains why relationships are so predictably frustrating and difficult and shows what couples can do besides fight, give up or drive each other crazy.

Follow her on Twitter (@winfredmrreilly) and Google+ (https://plus.google.com/100383331366878010925)

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WinifredMReilly


  1. Natalie says:

    I loved this list! The sex one helped me bc I pout like a baby when my boyfriend turns me down for sex, and then I make him feel awful. I need to stop!!

    To the men commenting about sex – I too was in a mostly sexless marriage, and maybe twice a month, I did have the “maybe this will shut him up” sex. I was in my early twenties and had young children at the time, but I can tell you some things that would have helped:
    1. Feeling like he was my partner in crime, not someone else NEEDING something from me. I was NEEDED for stuff all day with the kids, I didn’t want to feel like he was demanding something too.
    2. Feeling sexy. Instead of crawling into bed late and going “wanna?” I would have loved to felt desired. A simple “I’ve been thinking about touching your body all day. Can I give you a back rub?” Extra hint – the first few times, just make it a back rub and nothing more.
    3. Listening, attentiveness, kissing for closeness and not sex, cuddling, your TIME. I would have loved to have felt like he wanted to be close to me, sex or not. The sex would have followed.
    4. Excitement. A date night. Planning. Dressing up. Going somewhere new and novel. A change of scenery. Behaving like you used to when you were first dating.
    5. A conversation about sex without blaming. “I notice you’re not interested much anymore when I ask. I’m worried that my asking is bothering you, or you might be upset about something. Do you want to talk about it?” At first she may even be defensive and start blaming you, but remember that this is probably from embarrassment and a fear of opening up. If you want things to get better, you have to stay calm, listening without talking, and thank her for talking to you. Even cuddle her to sleep afterwards. Then don’t ask for awhile, I guarantee the real truths won’t come up until the next conversation because it’s a touchy subject. You can always tell her why you want sex – to feel close to her, to make her feel good, to connect and be intimate, etc.

    Of course these things aren’t a cure-all. Sometimes two ppl will have major differences in desire, so much so that they have to end a marriage. AND this isn’t to say it’s all the man’s fault. Men and women are just different in how they treat sex. Men use sex to feel close, women have to feel close to have sex.

  2. “It’s wise not to put your self-esteem in the hands of somebody who’s simply anxious when not in control.” Dammit that was IMMENSELY helpful and will no doubt change my life! Thank you.

  3. I find these things are warning signs ot deeper issues like a lack of respect. In our house when issues like these are addressed it always comes down to a respect issue. If we can’t respect eachother how will we ever make it work?

  4. re: #7 – “ask tomorrow”??? Tomorrow never comes, and neither will he.

  5. Thanks for commenting bobbt.

    Let me start by saying that nobody likes getting turned down for sex. What I’m suggesting in my post is that we don’t flip out about it.

    Complaining and begging isn’t likely to improve things. In fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed to make things worse between you.

    Straight talk about sex – what’s working what’s not – is a more effective strategy. If your partner is having sex to get you to chill out, that, too, warrants a calm and straightforward conversation.

    As for the “never used to happen issue,” most of us have a lot more sex in the early stages of our relationships than we do over time. The fact that it’s less frequent doesn’t necessarily mean that something is wrong.

    When you’re the person who wants sex more frequently than your partner it is certainly frustrating. No two people are going to want sex at the exact same time or with the same frequency.

    Every couple has to figure this one out.


    • I don’t complain and I don’t beg. The fact of the matter is I’ve just stopped asking. Either learn to live without or if someone else offers (Who am I kidding, not at this point in my life!)

      • My point about dealing well with being turned down for sex looks like a hot button– no pun intended!
        My short comment is that every couple deals with desire differences and most don’t handle things well.
        Some end up having little or no sex, others have grudging sex, some stop asking and just feel bad.

        The subject warrants a whole post. Look for it in the next few weeks.

        And thanks to all who have raised the issue.

        • There was an article recently on this site that said once the kids are grown, and the women have returned full time into the work force, they feel that they don’t need the men in their life and tend to move on to other things without them. Maybe that’s where I find myself now?

          • as a woman
            we had a period where I just really didn’t want to and I have always been pretty “sexy” ie I liek sex I enjoy sex , but I found myself not feeling “it”
            there was nothing wrong with me , it was just a stage for me and my life.
            I did feel bad for my OH.
            and for some time there was tension.
            when he sulked it just made me think f** you ( or NOT!!)
            when he got pissy I felt poles apart and that I couldn’t explain that it wasn’t him or a forever thing it was just a something thing that I was ure would be ok soon.
            When I did explain he was quite dismissive so that estranged us even further
            then we had a blazing row.
            and I know he felt rejected but equally so did I
            so we agreed to just still be touchy – I hadn’t stopped hugging or touching or sitting together
            and we just slowly built back up – like teens experimenting
            I really just wanted to be shown “care” in other ways
            I wanted a kiss and a cup of tea
            being stroked without expectation
            being told I looked nice hugged without the expectation that meant we were going to have sex.
            when i shouted I don’t feel cared for unless there’s sex at the end it hit him
            so he bucked up and did nice things again re romancing – finding each other again.
            we were back on track and just remember that we all need touching and loving sex or no
            whilst it is lovely and I’m not diminishing the frustartion of a sexless life when you want to have sex – we are wired differently and if we feel pressured it tends not to happen
            I really urge a difficult to start but much needed talk – maybe a letter
            take her out date her , bring her cake in the tub
            kiss her , tell her how lovely she looks.
            If nothing else, you tried.

    • JSchroeder says:

      My mother told me this one…In Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” the two characters are talking individually to their couple’s therapist.

      Therapist to the woman: How often do you have sex?
      Woman: Oh Dr, All the time! 2, maybe 3 times a week.
      Therapist to the man: How often do you have sex?
      Man: Hardly ever, maybe 2 or 3 times a week.

      Always puts the quantity of sex in my life in perspective for me.

  6. Great list. I’ve learned to drop most of those and we are teaching our kids the same.

    One I would add is “Having the Last Word”.

  7. One that I run into a lot is… Who has a better education.

    In this day and age of college degrees going to Masters and beyond, there seems to be a strong emphasis on educational level. I suppose you could also lump in career. Ultimately, my point is, many of us are still coming up in communities and households where competition is encouraged, and we “naturally” compare ourselves to others, even our partners.

    Example: My ex and I were together for about a year, and had fallen in love. While I had a college degree, he had just completed high school, and while we were pretty equal when it came to intelligence (which I do think is a contributing factor to longevity and compatibility, as great differences in intelligence levels can lead to frustration and lack of intrigue/challenge), he would sometimes get focused on the fact that I had gone to college when he had not. No amount of assurance would assuage his feelings of inferiority on the matter. So, based on his statements, I began to encourage him to pursue college, that I would be supportive of that pursuit. The effort was met with an almost equal sense of insecurity, like I was trying to “correct” him.

    In other situations, my degree has been called “just” a Bachelor’s, and been a point of comparison and “proof of superiority” when met with someone who had pursued a graduate degree.

    I think it happens a lot in couples who meet in the “real world” as opposed to settings like the college classroom. If one or the other, or both, put a lot of weight in the education level achieved, it can lead to underlying tension and worries about one’s partner secretly sitting in judgment.

    As I said, it happens with careers as well.

    Fact of the matter is, the important thing should be meeting as humans and as equals. A piece of paper does not prove anything other than that you took classes to get it. A title held should only be important in the workplace. The dynamic of a couple shouldn’t be defined by these things… and if it is, it’s doomed to fail, in my opinion.

    Being able to accept information from your partner is important. Being able to understand that when your partner shares knowledge, it’s about equaling the understanding, not proving superiority, is really important to being successful for the long haul.

    • Yes. I’ve seen the who’s better issue come up in a variety of ways: who’s got the better family background, the better career, the better taste in clothes, food, cars, window shades… You name it, someone can be superior.

      The other side, as you said, is that people can feel inferior, too. They can engage in one-downsmanship or one-upsmanship.

      Thanks, Lynn, for adding your thoughts to the conversation.

    • Oaklander says:

      Sounds like it has less to do with the degree and more to do with insecurity. With the latter, there will always be some ‘degree’ until the insecurity is addressed.

    • Once you’ve dealt with really serious relationship issues in your life or life and death issues in your life – you can’t imagine fighting about toothpaste tubes anymore. It gives a whole new perspective on what’s worth getting worked up about and what’s not.

  8. #10: Misdeeds of the past

    In a long term relationship, you have to air out long past issues…the other partner is doomed to repeat them…over and over….especially if he is ignoring or dismissing his partner….

    • Hi Leia
      Thanks for your comment.

      My point here is that old misdeeds can be dragged out and revved up and only end up making people miserable in the present while not offering any real resolution. Relationship problems are best dealt with as they come up. I gather that the repetitive problems you mentioned (ignoring, dismissing) happened in the past and are, unfortunately, still happening in the present.

      The difficult thing we all face in relationships is that we’re only in control of ourselves and we can’t make other people change their behaviors, hurtful or offensive as they are.

      While it’s certainly a good idea to talk to your partner about the impact of his behavior, it’s up to him to decide whether or not he’ll change what he’s doing.

  9. So #7’s no big deal. “Bummer, it happens to all of us.” What if it never use to happen? “There’s always tomorrow.” What if the answers the same? And the next day and the one after? What if you’re only working on a 20% success rate? Even then you wonder if it’s like ” Alright, maybe this will keep him happy for now” How many books am I supposed to read?

    • “How many books am I supposed to read?”

      You say that as if reading books is a bad thing. One of the regrets of my adult life is that I never seem to have enough time to read all the books I want to read.

      • “I never seem to have enough time to read all the books I want to read.”
        THAT’S where I’m trying to get back to!

    • And the month after that? And the next month, and the next month? There is something called a “sexless marriage” (clinically 4 times or less per year, I think) but apparently that’s no big deal. “Bummer, it happens to all of us.” NO, IT DOESN’T. How many encyclopedia collections am I supposed to read?

    • Thanks for commenting bobbt.

      Let me start by saying that nobody likes getting turned down for sex. What I’m suggesting in my post is that we don’t flip out about it.

      Complaining and begging aren’t likely to improve things. In fact, they’re pretty much guaranteed to make things worse between you.

      Straight talk about sex – what’s working what’s not – is a more effective strategy. If your partner is having sex to get you to chill out, that, too, warrants a calm and straightforward conversation.

    • I think that any one of these issues can be taken to an unhealthy, lifelong, or abusive level. I think the point with this list is to help us see some things that on a day to day, or one time basis, we could do to let go a little.

      • Hi Amy

        Yes, that’s the point.
        As a couples therapist I’ve seen couples get hung-up on these issues and not develop healthy, more productive ways of interacting.

        Thanks for commenting!

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