Marriage therapists are tasked with playing referee for both legitimate arguments and silly squabbles.
“I might as well be a judge in a black robe, as I must occasionally make rulings about what is reasonable in a marriage and what is not,” marriage and family therapist Becky Whetstone told HuffPost.
We asked Whetstone and other couples therapists to share the most ridiculous fight they’ve had to mediate. Here’s what they told us:
Fight No. 1: Cat treats
“The husband likes feeding the cat treats (the treats are formulated for cats). He likes the interaction and it gives him a relationship with their cat. The wife thinks it’s bad for the cat’s health. The couple ratcheted this fight to the level that they were considering divorce, but then who would get the cat? I suggested they agree upon a limited number of treats per day, and that he would be the one to give treats and she would feed the cat. This seemed to solve the problem.” ― Tina Tessina, psychotherapist and co-author of How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free
Fight No. 2: A race to file divorce papers
“It was a high-speed car race to the courthouse to see which spouse could file the divorce papers first. I was doing a marriage counseling session with a couple by phone and had each one on conference call on their cell phones. As is almost always the case, a fight broke out between them over something insignificant and stupid (I don’t even remember what). They were already on the verge of filing for divorce and were separated. As they fought and I mediated the dispute, the husband snapped and said he was getting in his truck to go to the courthouse to file the divorce papers. The wife took that as a threat and a dare and said she’d beat him to it. As I sought to de-escalate the conflict, they both raced across town to beat the other to filing. Speed limits were broken and red lights were ran as they sought to outdo each other.
Fortunately, by the time they got there, I had been able to talk them down and neither one of them actually went in and filed that day. They did eventually end up divorcing, however.” ― Kurt Smith, therapist who specializes in counseling men
Fight No. 3: Dreams vs. reality
“One couple came in for therapy to specifically deal with a fight that was breaking up their marriage. The wife was having recurring dreams that the husband was unfaithful with a close friend of hers. Her dreams were completely fabricated and based on absolutely no evidence of his real-life actions or intentions. She would blame him for treating her so poorly and for sneaking around behind her back with her best friend, no less! He would throw his hands up in surrender, obviously having no way to defend the actions he did in her dreams. For hours she would stonewall him, returning causal conversation with harsh tone or silence.
Many therapy sessions were spent exploring and discussing fears with a heavy emphasis on empathetic listening. It turns out that the wife was having an increase in bad dreams due to an increased consumption of melatonin supplement to help her fall asleep faster.” ― Laura Heck, couples therapist and creator of the online couples therapy series “ForBetter”
Fight No. 4: A tit-for-tat open marriage
“Bob and Carol (not their real names) came in for couples therapy because they were in an open relationship, and wanted to navigate the complex rules around their monogamy agreement. Bob had two girlfriends who Carol agreed could be part of their lives, as long as he only saw them on weekends and didn’t contact them outside of their designated times. Carol had one boyfriend and Bob agreed that she could see him on Saturdays, all day, but couldn’t contact him on any other days.
Carol was traveling one month and saw her boyfriend out at a bar in the town where she was visiting. They connected and had a cup of coffee. It was a Thursday. She told Bob. In retaliation, Bob saw one of his girlfriends on a Monday for tea. Because Carol was mad, she called her boyfriend on a Wednesday and spoke on the phone. Bob felt betrayed so he called the other girlfriend on a Friday, and they went out to a park for a picnic. Every week in therapy, Bob and Carol came in to use the time with me to confess in ‘revenge’ on each other. Most open marriages are a negotiation around time, attention, affection and sex. We tried to negotiate those boundaries every week until I finally said, ‘Either free-for-all this open relationship or grow up.’ They were, admittedly, acting like adolescents.” ― Tammy Nelson, sex therapist and author of The New Monogamy
Fight No. 5: An absurd ultimatum
“Husband says to wife of many years, who has stated she is terrified of divorce and going at it alone: ‘OK then, I want you to let me keep my girlfriend, and we will stay married and be like we always have been, and then we won’t have to get divorced, and we won’t have to change our lives.’ Ruling: Request denied. Never ask your spouse to give up their inner peace so you can have it. It is immature to bring your ideal-world fantasies into your marriage and seriously propose it to your partner, especially when you’re smart enough to know that your request would be a bitter pill for any person to swallow.” ― Whetstone
Fight No. 6: An argument about the argument
“More than once, I’ve seen couples fight about who started the argument or who was slow to let it drop or first to make peace. ‘You went on for a full five minutes and I couldn’t get a word in edgewise!’ ‘No, start to finish it was under two minutes.’ ‘We wouldn’t have been fighting at all if you hadn’t come home annoyed.’ ‘I was in a perfectly fine mood when I came home, YOU were the one who brought in all the tension.’
The content of a couple’s fight is not what they’re actually fighting about, which makes the most ridiculous arguments seem absurd, when they’re really a window into something important in the couple’s dynamic. The ‘solution’ to a go-round like this is to pause and wonder why innocence and guilt are worth fighting about. No matter who ‘started’ the fight, the bigger question is, ‘Why did you get hooked and stay hooked, rather than find a way to de-escalate it?’” ― Winifred M. Reilly, marriage and family therapist and author of It Takes One to Tango