Why Little Things Are Worth Getting Upset About

… and why they can torpedo your relationship.

Take it easy. Chill out. Relax. Cool down. Don’t stress out. Lighten up. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. It’s not a big deal.

When I didn’t keep my word regarding something that I told my wife I would do, I used to say these things when I didn’t want to hear her complaints. And back in the day there were quite a few such instances–like being ready to leave for the airport to catch a flight, or picking up groceries we needed for dinner, or remembering not to make any commitments that might interfere with our planned nights out, or, well, you get the picture.

These instances happened frequently. As much as Linda hated to be disappointed with me, I hated hearing the feelings that my negligence provoked — partly because I felt scolded for doing something wrong, but mostly because she had a right to her emotions and I was guilty of dropping the ball again. Hearing her disappointment also put me directly in touch with her feelings, reminding me that I had something to do with them, which didn’t feel good.

Rather than acknowledging my guilt and the legitimacy of her feelings — which might have strengthened my motivation to make amends and break this cycle in our relationship — I often made excuses, explained, or justified my actions (or inactions) and became defensive. I wanted to make her wrong by telling her that she was making a big deal out of nothing.

I believed that the best defense is a good offense, so I was offensive. And she was offended when I turned the tables on her to avoid the consequences of my own irresponsibility. As I learned the hard way, though, while this strategy might work in football and other contact sports, it fails miserably in relationships.

I’m a slow learner, but I eventually learned that all agreements need to be kept. You’re not a bad person if you fail to honor your word, but there are consequences to doing so. Failing to keep agreements affect the foundation of the relationship with the person with whom we made them.

When there is a pattern of broken agreements in a relationship, trust erodes, and the person who gets disappointed esteems and respects you less. After all, it’s hard not to feel that “I must not be that important to you if you prioritized something else over me and the agreement that we made.”

The situation is compounded when there is an unwillingness to accept the feelings of upset or disappointment that inevitably arise when agreements are not kept. This isn’t to suggest that there should be zero tolerance for any broken promise. The point that I finally got was to take my word seriously when I gave it, and to accept the feedback that I received when I didn’t. I realized that Linda spoke up because she cared enough about our relationship to be honest with me when she felt let down.

My offensive strategy had another unpleasant aspect to it, which was to discourage my partner’s (and others’) willingness to express their feelings to me out of a fear that they would be subject to an offensive defensive reaction from me. And why would they want that? It would be easier just to stuff their feelings and tell me, “It’s okay.” The problem is that stuffed feelings have a way of turning into resentment, particularly if they are cumulative, and resentment not dealt with has a way of turning into nit-picking, criticism, judgment, and passive-aggressiveness. Taking what might look like the path of least resistance in order to avoid upset can turn out to be the path of greatest resistance.

Breaking the habit of being late, getting defensive, denying responsibility, or neglecting to keep your word can seem daunting, particularly if you’ve been rationalizing your justifications for years, but take it from one who’s been there: It’s very doable once you get committed. And if you can keep that commitment to yourself, you’ll be more likely to keep those that you make to everyone else.

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