The great thing about arguing

Couples who sometimes fight stand a better chance of staying together, if they argue in the correct way. Every psychologist, relation therapist and romance blogger says so, and I know this because it struck me at the last minute before writing this text that I should find out what science says about quarrelling with your loved one. I can safely say that 90 % of that advice does not apply to us. Even though we’ve lived together for ages, and fought a lot.

So this is not going to be great advice on how to quarrel correctly. Instead I’m going to write about my anguished relation to fighting, and about how I now, decades later, have begun to understand the good bits about arguing, even if it’s done wrong.

growl! Photo by CloudVisual on Unsplash

But I’m still going to start with the good advice.

Actually, I’m going to start with a disclaimer. I want to make it clear that I don’t believe in romantic love. I don’t encourage living in nuclear families, and I certainly don’t endorse twosomeness. I know it might seem weird for me to say that, living in a nuclear family with the same person since the Soviet submarine U-137 crossed the Baltic Sea, but it still is true: I think romantic love and nuclear families are traps laid out by capitalism, commercialism and patriarchy, and I think of them as possibly dangerous or even lethal, especially for children.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any good things in living with the same person for a long time. There are many great things about it, like getting to know someone so well, and realize you can love them with all their faults and flaws, and that they can love you in spite of all your flaws and weaknesses. Having someone in your life that you can trust completely, someone you know will come to your side in any crisis, and knowing this because they’ve done it again and again. Confident sex, friendship, laughs. Common memories. All those things are good!

But for most people, long relationships also mean a lot of hard work. I’ve written about how that work has been for me, but in that text I forgot to mention the fact that my person / partner (P for short) and I have argued, loudly and angrily, many many many times.

When I added this in a comment, most people responded things like “Phew! I thought you were pod people there for a bit” or “#ustoo”, but one or two people said they never fight and can’t understand why they should, or why anyone should.

And that’s perfectly fine, of course! Everyone’s different. There is no secret recipe that helps everybody, that’s impossible. And as long as you get on well without fighting, for the right reasons, and not because you hate fighting, or you’re scared of fighting, so you keep everything inside — then that’s great. If not, try and get help. Scientists say that bypassing bickering is associated with abnormal rises and falls of the stress hormone cortisol throughout the day — and as I’ve just learned at cancer rehab, too much cortisol (and stress) wears down the immune system, which is a BAD thing.

So what is the right way to bicker then? According to science and the romantic bloggers, these are some things to think about:

  • If you’re angry, let it out. Don’t try and shut it down to the point where you explode. Try and make it a habit of telling your person what you feel before you get angry (source)
  • Have a method for resolving problems without anger, express feelings in a measured, moderate way, take turns talking (source, source, source)
  • Don’t threaten your person (for example by presenting an ultimatum) (source)
  • Don’t go back to old stuff or stockpile (source)
  • Let your person speak, don’t interrupt or frown, listen carefully, acknowledge their feelings and points of view (source)
  • Cool down afterwards and discuss what just happened (source, source)

All these recommendations seem sound and wise. To me, a lot of them also seem impossible. Or at least, very difficult to implement. When P and I fight, we fight because we are already angry, and we’re often angry because we are hurt (often in a childish spot), or tired, or too hungry, or panicking about something. It’s very difficult, in those situations, to be rational and cool and understanding. More often we act like stupid people, and say stupid things to each other.

(This one I actually omitted from the list because I can’t stop laughing when I try to imagine the two of us whispering angry stupid things to each other):

Don’t raise your voice. It’s amazing how issues of hurt feelings or differences can be resolved with a whisper. I counsel couples who are yellers to only communicate with a whisper and it greatly reduces the anger factor in their relationships.”

Not saying it doesn’t work for others. Again, everyone’s different.)

I really envy people who are good at fighting. (Those who never fight are something else, a kind of faerie unicorns.) I wish I could be calm, collected and cool when I feel hurt, diminished or not listened to. Believe me, I have tried. And I am getting better at it, slowly!

But lets go back in time to 1962, because I think one of the reasons why I’m lousy at conflicts can be found there. That’s when I was born. Or maybe let’s go to 1925, when my mum was born. My mother was disastrous at conflicts. It probably had to do with her upbringing, but let’s not go back any longer, it’ll never end.

Mum & me, 1972-ish

My mum and I fought all the time. As far back as I can remember. Every day. It was just the two of us, and even though she loved me very much she was very unhappy, and she had no confidence in herself as a parent. Or as a human being. She always started crying when we had a conflict, and I always cried, and then she’d tell me to stop crying, which didn’t help. She hit me sometimes, not because she thought it was the right thing to do — on the contrary, she was totally against any kind of violence — but she panicked when I yelled at her or defied her, and did to me what had been done to her as a child. Once, when I was 11 or 12 and had locked myself in my room after a big fight, she screamed outside the door that she would kill herself if I didn’t come out. That’s not something you should scream, or say or write, to your child, ever.

In short: when I grew up I had almost no experience in resolving conflicts in a good, constructive way. And I was scared, very scared of hurting other people. At the same time, I was even more scared of being hurt, or left/abandoned. I figured (subconsciously) that attack was the best defence, and became very defiant. See what we have here? Trouble.

When I was 19 I met P, and in the next ten years we had four children. The first time two of them had a big fight — the seven-year-old running in rage after the 11-y-o who had been a tease, shouting “I’m going to kill you!” and really meaning it — I panicked. I had no experience of sibling fights, I thought there was real hate between them and that they would never be friends again. Their father, being a younger (and probably really annoying) brother, assured me that there was no risk for murder or lifelong animosity. And of course he was right: they were friends again within an hour. I was shaken for much longer. How could they say such horrible things to one another and then play like nothing had happened? I saw this many times over the years, of course, but it took me long to get used to. My instinct was to get immediately in the middle of every conflict between the children, or between the children and their father, and make it stop by almost any means possible. I hated and feared it so much!

My own fights with P were often chaotic, when we were young. We argued over jealousy or other relational things, as I remember it. P very often turned his back on me and said he didn’t want to go on discussing, which always made me panic and run after him, demanding that we go on, which made him panic and be nasty, me break down in tears and getting even more intense, and so on and so on. We never hit each other, but we did shove each other hard, at least once, and sometimes we broke things in anger. There was so much frustration. Mainly, I think, because we were both strong, passionate, hotheaded persons with (at least) the normal amount of unresolved childhood issues. Overly sensitive in some places, but with no or little knowledge or experience of how to express these things constructively.

I don’t know how often we had these “scenes” (that could last from minutes to hours, sometimes with up to 2–3 days of angry silence after) but it can’t have been more than twenty percent of the time, because “research has shown that couples who argue more than twenty percent of the time are probably not going to survive”, and we did survive (actually that quote is weird, is it the relation or the couple in it that die? Let’s hope the relation). 
I would say at least once a month. 
P, on the other hand, would probably say “What are you talking about? I can’t remember any fighting” — but then that’s because his brain works that way, he just remembers the good bits.

I was on a train once, going from Stockholm to Gothenburg I think. I was around 25. And I was sitting opposite this old couple: she was short, dark, compact; he was tall, white hair, also on the heavy side. Both in their late 70s. They bickered constantly. He couldn’t find his hat. She scolded him for it. He blamed her. She seized the conductor, trying to drag him into it and make him agree with her that her husband was a fool. The conductor fled. They continued their argument. It never ended.

Almost ten years later I went to Rome with my family. I was walking across a crowded piazza in the sunshine when I overheard a conversation close by, that felt strangely familiar. I turned around and there they were, still bickering. They must have been 80+, maybe 90 by now. And I realised they might have been quarrelling all their life together, possibly all over the world. Maybe it made them feel safe? Maybe it was like a script that they had to stick to, because they didn’t have any other? I don’t know. But I knew two things then: 1) I didn’t want us to end up like those two, weirdly charming as they were, and 2), that maybe arguing isn’t so dangerous after all.

Still: I wish my mum had taught me constructive conflict solving, instead of the panic/guilt trip that was on her map. I wish my school had educated us in Giraffe language besides, or rather before, English and French. I envy people who can keep calm trough big disagreement. The reason I envy them is it probably means they don’t feel hurt, they just think they disagree. The stupid kind of quarrel always happens when someone feels hurt.

My whole family went on a long trip when our kids were 14, 17, 19 and 24.

We travelled for almost a year, and boy, did we argue a lot! It was hot, we were always going from one place to the other, we had to share very small spaces mostly. We were like sardines in a hot can. There was nowhere to run or hide from conflicts; no own rooms, no doors to slam, no familiar streets to run to. So we fought. Very tiresome, and very educating. We learned a lot about each other.

And this was something I remembered the last time I argued with P. There are so many things you don’t normally say, about what you want and need. You don’t say them for a number of reasons. You might not be aware of them yourself. You might be ashamed to say them out loud because you don’t think that your needs are important. You might feel that you’ve said them but your partner didn’t listen — maybe no one ever listens, so why bother.

But needs are not something you can easily drown. They’re there all the time, just under the surface. And sometimes when you’re agitated, they come up. Garbled, maybe, because you didn’t plan it, or want it, or didn’t even notice it. Maybe you were yelling, or crying. But you told your person something about what you need, and if they can listen, or at least think about what happened afterwards, they might be able to learn something from it.

Our latest altercation was about … something. I really can’t remember, even though it was just some weeks ago. (We fight so much less nowadays, maybe once a month, or once in two months? And when I say fight I mean raised voices, possibly swearing, exaggerations, “you always do this”, “you never do that”, marching away, maybe marching back, sulking etc. Not fisticuffs, but not just different opinions, muttering, sighing or rolling eyes, either.)

So. We had this dust-up. About something. It could have been about one of us dismissing the other ones argument too harshly in a discussion about politics, the other one feeling offended and saying “what’s wrong with you?” and everything escalating from there. (I’m really just guessing, but that sounds like us on a bad day.)

And it might have ended with one of us retiring into the bedroom to watch TV angrily, and the other one cleaning up in the kitchen rather noisily, but what I do remember is that the next day it dawned on me that I had learned something about P. Something he said the night before became more clear the more I thought about it, and it was something that I might have known all the time but never really thought about, you know, I had heard it but not listened to it. And it was a need. It was about how he feels.

And I realised that because I had listened this time (not when he said it, while we argued, but the next day, thanks to some small unit in my brain telling me this was an important message that I shouldn’t miss again) I now knew this, I now knew him better. And that I could choose — if I wanted — to respect this need, which probably would make him feel better. And me; because when you love someone you don’t want to hurt or dismiss them out of ignorance.

So maybe the fight was unpleasant (I know I was so angry I cried at one time!), but I had learnt from it, something important. It felt like finding a nugget in a muddy stream. If we had been sensible, composed faerie unicorns I could have found this nugget during a sensible, whispered conversation. But we’re not: we’re just humans. Imperfect, passionate, sometimes too tired, too hungry, too exhausted from life to resolve things calmly. And maybe that’s not the end of the world.

One last thing: if you haven’t heard Marshall Rosenberg, founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, here’s a lecture worth listening to (it’s actually 3 hours long!!! but I chose one bit that starts about 1:58 into it and goes on for about 10 minutes). The reason it interests me is because he talks about how the solution comes effortlessly when, and never before, you have listened without judgement or demand to each others needs. Sounds easy, is difficult!

(Read in Swedish here!)

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