Room for Debate

It's tough to choose words wisely in the heat of an argument. Learn to fight right.

Couples in Conflict

On fighting fair and not throwing the pasta.

A friend of mine was speaking to me today about an ancient relationship, and commented, "That was during my food-throwing years." I asked for further details.

"Melons. I specialized in melons."
"Canteloupe?"
"Honeydew."
"Are we talking the whole melon, or little melon balls?"
"The whole melon; I'd usually crack it over their heads."

I pondered it further, and realized it was unlikely that someone in a state of rage would take the time to get out the melon ball scoop.

"Were there any other food products involved?"

"All sorts. I just preferred the honeydew."

Reflecting on my own history with culinary conflict, I could think of only a single incident, and I was on the receiving end. While driving 65 miles per hour on the West Side Highway in New York many years ago, my girlfriend was upset with me over some little thing I had done—cheating and lying, perhaps—and concluded it was appropriate to smash a box of Freihoffer's Chocolate Chip cookies into my hair and all over my face, effectively blinding me.

I began madly swerving from lane to lane and tried to use reason: "YOU'RE GOING TO GET US KILLED! ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND? STOP IT!" When that approach didn't work, I began punching her. My anger in relationships had never before reached the point of hitting anyone, but this was  life or death. What finally saved us was that Freihoffer's never gave you enough cookies in those boxes, and she ran out of ammo before we reached the G.W. Bridge. And for the record, I had been neither cheating nor lying. Only wanting to.

Psychologists  suggest that the manner in which couples fight indicates the health and longevity of their relationship, and go so far as to say that those who don't fight at all may be in the worst shape of anyone. In Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, a character explains that two, fully individual, self-expressing adults are bound to bang heads at some point, and if they don't, it means that there's likely a lot of unhappy repression going on. Those are the kind of couples where everything seems fine for years, and then one morning, without any warning, one partner pushes the other down an empty grain silo from a great height. It's usually caused by something very small; most often, according to the statistics, an annoying habit regarding socks. 

Fair fighters are likely to listen better, respond with more kindness, and will tend to kiss and make up sooner than later; the below-the-belt types are likely to call their lawyers. In other words, the  findings show that people who are generally nice to one another succeed in relationships more than those that treat each another like all manner of unsightly varmint. (The food-throwers are in a whole separate category, still in the research stages, though preliminary indications are that if spaghetti and marinara sauce are involved, you are likely to have your day in court.)

One of my friends and mentors, Rabbi David Cooper (author, God is a Verb) uses the "fast-forward" method for marital spats: "Since I know we're going to get over it eventually, and be friends again," he reasons, "whether it be in three hours or three weeks, why wait? I just mentally fast-forward to the end of the fight and get there sooner. I have it down to about three minutes now. If I'm really paying close attention to the trajectory of a conversation, I can sometimes catch it in under three seconds."

Shari and I, on the other hand, have developed our own technique for conflict resolution that has proved extremely effective and foolproof. No matter what we're arguing about, and no matter who is wrong or at fault—generally me—our agreement is that she will apologize. Which she does fairly quickly, and it works! I'm tickled pink, thinking I "won," and everyone's happy. When David Cooper's wife Shoshana heard me describe this approach, she commented. "That's how you manage when one partner is enlightened and the other isn't." Exactly! I sure hope Shari is reading this.

There is an oft-quoted line from the popular spiritual tome, A Course in Miracles:

"We are never upset for the reasons we think."

Case in point: Shari and I were headed to a small dinner gathering, and I had volunteered to bring ingredients for Margaritas. There followed a battle of epic proportions over whether to go with the cheap Triple Sec, which the guy in the store said was sufficient, or spring for the expensive Cointreau. Bear in mind that neither of us drink very often; the occasional glass of wine with dinner, or the rare mixed drink at a wedding or party. Yet we were arguing as if both of us had been working non-stop as Bartender to the Stars our entire lives, and we each had a huge, personal stake in the correctness of our positions, as if our professional integrity as Margarita makers was on the line. Don't even get me started about the limeade vs. fresh-squeezed limes part of the discussion.

I resorted to my old, failsafe routine: I browbeat her into submission, or as she described it, "You broke my spirit and sucked the life force out of me." Once that was accomplished, I instantly saw the error of my ways and came over to her side. The Cointreau was a big hit.

She's not really crazy about this particular soul-depleting trait of mine, but there actually are some she does like, trust me. She enjoyed, for example, how I made up a song about coffee this morning to the tune of an old Shaker hymn. And I love her version of Maria Callas doing "Ruby Tuesday." (Which rivals only my Placido Domingo doing "The Doo Ron Ron.")

Those are the sorts of things that keep us together, and they are precisely the type of things that don't necessarily show up in psychologist John Gottman's famous "Love Lab." Gottman is the marital studies guy who claims to be able to predict with 88-94% accuracy the future of a relationship within three minutes of listening to a couple bicker in his lab.

I wonder how Shari and I would do? We seem to have mastered the barely-more-sophisticated, adult version of,"I know you are but what am I?" Both of us can masterfully deflect any attack and counter with the identical complaint.

Me: You often don't respond right away when I ask you a question, and I don't know if it's because you didn't hear me, or you're just not responding."

She: [....]

Me: See? You're doing it right now! I hate that!

She: I was still thinking! At least give me a chance to respond!

Me: [....}

She: See, you do the same thing!

I suspect Gottman would agree that this is a fairly lightweight, workable fighting style and indicates a long and happy future in store for us.

This stuff shows up in non-romantic relationships as well. My friend Perry and I like to play the escalation game; we start with a minor disagreement about something, then gradually move further and further out to the extreme polarities of our positions:

"These cupcakes are a just a tad too sweet."

"I actually think they could be just a drop sweeter."

"Definitely, way too much sugar."

"Clearly not enough."

"It's like they took an entire  sugar cane plantation and compressed it into a single cake product. More sugar than I have ever tasted in a pastry in this or any other known universe."

"Never before in the written history of mankind has there been documented a less sweet cupcake.It's in the Guiness Book of World Records, listed under 'Banal Confections'."

And so forth. We also still live with the aftereffects, some 39 years later, of the Great Omelette War, in which, to this day, I  assert that his stepping in and grabbing the spatula right out of my hand in mid-omelette prep, in order to take over the flipping process, was an intentional, ruthless casting of aspersions on the core, primal masculinity at the  heart of my very being and identity.

We are never upset for the reasons we think.

It is never about the Triple Sec. Or the omelette.

In some cases, however, for some people, it probably is about the lying and cheating. That's when the melons usually come out.

 

 

 

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