Why We Argue Over Stupid Things With Loved Ones

And how to stop sweating the small stuff

Dawn Teh
Dawn Teh
Feb 10 · 4 min read
Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash

Family gatherings usually start out as happy affairs. But after too much wine and some remarks about the roast being too dry, it can quickly devolve into an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. Except nobody is laughing.

Nobody likes being labeled “petty”. But most of us have had our close relationships strained because of arguments over trivial matters. Like when your partner forgets to replace the toilet roll when it’s run out. Or when talks break down during the “what to eat for dinner” summit.

Looking back on the incident, we may realize that we emotionally overracted in the situation. But in the heat of the moment, the reasons for why you felt wronged probably felt very justified.

If you’ve ever wondered why perfectly rational people can react so irrationally over small matters, science has shed some light on the issue. Dr. Mark Leary is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, who sought to understand our emotional overreactions to trivial situation.

He and his colleagues conducted a study published in The Journal of Social Psychology, where they asked participants to report instances where they felt upset because of someone else’s actions, and how they reacted to those situations.

Based on the results, they concluded that it isn’t so much the tangible outcome of these grievances that cause the emotional stir. After all, when we’re feeling highly annoyed at our partner telling the same story for the millionth time at a dinner party, (apart from the figurative earache) there usually isn’t any real consequence if we hear it another hundred times.

The researchers found that when we overreact to trivial matters, it’s usually because there has been a perceived violation of “social exchange rules”. These rules are basically our beliefs about how people should behave around one another. And this usually involves things like being respectful, fair, responsible, honest, considerate and cooperative.

“Social exchange rules are so important that violations of these rules can provoke strong emotional reactions even when the other person’s actions have few, if any, tangible consequences,” the researchers write.

They theorize that emotional overreactions are a way to signal to ourselves that this person cannot be trusted to adhere to these social rules in present and future circumstances. Our behavioral reactions also show the other person that violation of these rules means a great deal to us, and shouldn’t do it again. “Not only might some strong reactions to trivial behaviors be reasonable and functional in alerting people to be wary of those who violate social exchange rules, but, as noted, strong reactions may show others that exchange rule violations will not be tolerated,” the researchers write.

Oddly, the more trivial the grievance, the greater the overreaction might be because we assume that if they can’t be trusted to follow the most fundamental social rules, they certainly can’t be trusted to follow rules with greater tangible effects.

Additionally, most of us tend to react more strongly when it comes to loved ones than acquaintances. The researchers theorize that it’s most likely because in close relationships, the greater the long-term impact will be on us. We might be perfectly fine with a visitor forgetting to put the toilet seat down. But if your partner was the one repeatedly committing the crime, you would be less likely to take it sitting down.

Therefore, there is a functional reason as to why we blow up over small issues. But when we habitually start winding ourselves up over trivial matters, the experts believe the only person we’re actually hurting is ourselves. “When the violations themselves are inconsequential and do not signify future problems, disproportionate reactions are neither functional nor reasonable,” write the researchers. “Much of the time, people react so quickly, and often automatically, to what other people do that they end up making mountains out of molehills.”

Dr. Ilene Strauss Cohen, is a Miami-based psychotherapist who has shared some thoughts on the issue in a blog for Psychology Today. She writes that everyone is entitled to feel how they feel. But if you’re consistently getting riled up over small issues to the point where it’s hurting your emotional and social well-being, it’s time to rethink how you react to trivial situations.

She advises that one of the ways to let go of the little things is to know your triggers. “All of us have triggers that can lead us to overreact at times. If we know what those triggers are, we can learn to be more in control of ourselves when our buttons are pushed,” writes Cohen.

Additionally, she suggests that whenever we overreact, it’s likely that we’re getting caught up in our own perception of the situation and not looking at the bigger picture. “Take yourself out of your own mind, and think about how other people might feel about things. Overreactions sometimes happen when we get hyper-focused on ourselves and our own emotions. None of us is entitled to a perfect life. By taking some time to manage our expectations, we can greatly reduce the chances of overreacting to the imperfections,” writes Cohen.

Lastly, she cautions that getting upset over small matters can sometimes be symptomatic of unresolved issues from the past. “Try to address the past and resolve anything that’s truly bothering you in the present moment. If you don’t, I can assure you that you’ll continue to sweat the small stuff. Address issues head-on as soon as they arise. Let it out so you can let it go and move on,” writes Cohen.

It’s not easy overlooking the egregious social violations of your loved ones. And since a little humor always helps, try reading the twitter stories under the hashtag #StupidThingsCouplesFightAbout. If you’re having problems letting things slide, at least know that you’re not alone.

Dawn Teh

Written by

Dawn Teh

Health content writer | Former psychologist writing about how we think, feel, connect and thrive. Let's talk: dawn.teh@pennedcopywrite.com

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