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For Valentine’s Day, Don’t Fight Over the Small Stuff

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Young man hiding gift box from his girlfriend

Valentine’s Day is a time to celebrate love, and yet it can also bring to the forefront the kinds of petty arguments that can chip away at your daily enjoyment of your partner, like deciding where to eat.

The problem with these small arguments is that they make the time you spend with your family less joyful. So, what can you do to make sure that the small things don’t derail your satisfaction with your loved one?

Think back to how you felt early in the relationship. Remember the times when the activities you were engaged in mattered less than the chance to spend time together. When you first fall in love with someone, you think about long-time horizons. Could this be the person you will spend your life with, start a family with, and grow old with? You share your life history with a new person. You make plans for the future.

As a result, you don’t spend much time thinking about day-to-day factors. You gloss over differences in some of the specifics of how you live your lives like food preferences and meal times when you’re carried away with the emotional intensity of a relationship.

Later, though, the day-to-day factors begin to matter again. You have to integrate that relationship into your life. And if you have a family together, then you have to balance your relationship with the daily responsibilities of being a parent.

When you are focused on the day-to-day details, the differences between you and your partner get magnified. You begin to pay attention to whether you get to go out to the restaurant you like or have home-cooked meals that are spiced to your satisfaction. You think about the movies you see and whether you are getting to enjoy the activities that are your favorites rather than the favorites of your partner.

And that can make you feel like you’re missing out on something. But, you don’t necessarily want to have that conversation with your partner, so instead you create tension over mundane decisions like food.

Pop back up to the longer-time horizon. When you’re tempted to get down in the weeds and feel bad about a particular decision like where to eat, remind yourself that the main reason you’re spending time together is to enjoy the time together and celebrate your relationship. That can help to ease the small resentments that build when you don’t get exactly what you want.

On top of that, most of us have an illusion that we know what our partner really likes. Research suggests that couples who have been together for many years are confident that they understand what their partner likes, but they are generally less accurate at predicting their partner’s preferences than couples who have only recently gotten together.

In the research, some couples that had been together for a long time were good at predicting their partner’s preferences. What made these couples successful was that they talked a lot about what they like and don’t like.

Over time, your tastes change. It is entirely possible that your partner doesn’t realize that particular foods, restaurants, or activities are not ones you really enjoy. That may make it easier to pick something that both of you will like.

Finally, there’s nothing wrong with explicitly trading off on some activities. Agreeing to go to one restaurant today in exchange for another in the future can also defuse the tension. You might even put both dates on the calendar at the same time, saving yourself from having to make the decision on a future date.

In the end, remember that when you look back over your life, you’re going to think about the big picture and not the small details. To play on an old cliché, nobody has ever lain on a deathbed wishing he had spent another day arguing about what to have for dinner.

Art Markman is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology, HDO, and Marketing at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Waco Tribune Herald and the San Antonio Express News.

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