Death by a 1000 Paper Cuts
Updated: Aug 17
The existence of love, safety, trust, and respect, in a relationship is often hurt by moments you might dismiss as petty disagreements.
The things that destroy the foundation of a healthy marriage can often disguise themselves as unimportant. Many dangerous things neither appear nor feel dangerous as they’re happening. They’re not bombs and gunshots. They’re paper cuts. And that is the danger. When we don’t recognize something as threatening, then we’re not careful. These tiny wounds start to bleed, and the bleed is so gradual that many of us don’t recognize the threat until it's a little too late.
Most people believe what hurts marriages are behaviors I classify as "crimes against marriage." Sexual affairs, spousal abuse, and gambling away the family savings are some examples of crimes against marriage, "CAM."
If you aren’t committing CAM’s but find yourselves on opposite sides of an issue, I bet you often suggest to simply agree to disagree. Seems benign, right?
Let’s use the example of the spewer and the stuffer. The wife was “the spewer” and hundreds, maybe thousands of times, she tried to communicate that something was wrong. That something hurt. But that didn’t make sense to him, “the stuffer.” He thought to himself, “I am not trying to hurt her, so she really shouldn’t feel this way.” He dismissed her feelings over and over thinking he was taking the higher road in avoiding fights.
This made her feel ignored and made him seem like a victim of unfair expectations. But it wasn’t just ignoring her requests for helping around the house—it was what they represented.
This couple did not go down in a fiery explosion. They bled out from 10,000 paper cuts. Quietly. Slowly. She knew that something was wrong. He insisted that everything was fine.
Every couple has their own unique version of the same fight. It could be any number of things. Throwing laundry on the floor. Leaving dishes in the sink. It doesn’t matter what the actual thing is. For them, it was unfinished projects in the house.
He would start a project and then get sidetracked. He said he never intentionally ignored her. Just thought there were more important things to do. He felt she was just “riding him to criticize.” It wasn’t a big deal. But it was a big deal to her.
After lots of work and processing, he finally understood. He never really connected putting up shelves in a laundry room as earning his wife’s respect. He believed that his wife should respect him simply because they were married. The lesson was that because he loves and respects her, he will start what he finishes, one home project at a time. It was important to her.
I think sometimes these little things blow up into the same fight because maybe we don’t think it’s fair that our partner’s preferences should always win over ours. It’s as if we want to fight for our right to prioritize what’s important to you.
He was arguing about the merits of little projects. But for his wife, it wasn’t about the shelves. It wasn’t about dishes by the sink, or laundry on the floor. It was about consideration. About the pervasive sense that she was married to someone who did not respect or appreciate her and ignored things that she felt were important to her. And if he didn’t respect or appreciate her, she couldn’t count on him.
He now understood that when he left that glass there, it hurt his wife—literally causing pain—because it felt to her as if he had just said, “Hey. I don’t respect you or value your feelings. Not taking four seconds to put my glass in the dishwasher is more important to me than you are.”
Suddenly, this moment is no longer about something as benign and meaningless as a dirty dish. Now this moment is about a meaningful act of love and sacrifice.
She knew he was reasonably smart, so she couldn’t figure out how he could be so dismissive after hundreds of these conversations. Every time she expressed anything about the house, he just checked out. She began to question whether he was intentionally trying to hurt her by ignoring her.
When you’re having the same fight, positive intent, or chalking up any harm caused as accidental, can be just as much of a trust killer as more overtly harmful actions. It doesn’t matter whether we are intentionally refusing to cooperate with our spouse or legitimately unable to understand what’s wrong—the math results are the same. The net result of the same fight is more pain. Less trust. Regardless of anyone’s intentions.
This is how two well-intentioned people slowly fall apart.
If I had to distill the problems in failed relationships down to one idea, it would be our colossal failure to make the invisible visible, our failure to invest time and effort into developing awareness of what we otherwise might not notice in the busyness of daily life.
The most successful couples put one another’s needs ahead of their own. If you don’t transform it, you will transmit it.
Silvia Farag, MSW, LSW, PsyD Candidate runs the Christian Center for Counseling and works with adolescent and adult clients in individual, couples & family therapy. Her personal philosophy is that through human connection, we can foster the encouragement needed to take courageous steps toward creating positive change. She uses evidenced based and strengths-based approaches & believes in the inherent ability of everyone to overcome when they are willing to step into their potential. Therapy illuminates the path so the client can make conscious steps towards emotional health. Her attitude is one of respect and acceptance of each client’s individuality, allowing for the creation of a safe, therapeutic space. Silvia serves with Coptic Women Fellowship, an archdiocese ministry focused on enriching, supporting, and strengthening the lives of women, along with the clergy and several accomplished women of the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America.