There are several stages of a fight. In the first stage, we present our perspective with logic and rationality. Much like a lawyer, we marshal evidence to support our case. For example, if we find our husband guilty because he forgot to pick up our son from soccer practice, we’ll call witnesses to the stand, present proof of our claims. Exhibit A: we left a note in bright bold letters on the family calendar which clearly said “Dad picks up James from practice @ 4:30.” Exhibit B: we even texted to remind him 2 hours before.
At this point, our husband will respond with a rebuttal. “But you usually pick him on Thursdays,” he might mutter in an attempt to defend himself. Or he might deflect and simply say, “He just had to walk home. What’s the big deal?”
Now we arrive at the fight’s more explosive second stage: confrontation. When our partner refuses to acknowledge the indisputable logic of our case, things usually devolve into an argument. The more our husband refuses to see our perspective, the more we get angry and vindictive. We might exploit each other’s insecurities, use our partner’s self-doubts as ammunition. Soon the civility of the courtroom gives way to a brutal kind of warfare. We scream, we shout, we slam doors. We call each other horrible, unforgivable names like “asshole” and “bitch” and “cunt” and “whore.” We regard our significant other— not as someone we’ve devoted our life to— but as a hostile enemy to be overpowered. At times like these, it can feel impossible to leave the battleground and actually talk like two people who love each other.
In his endlessly enlightening A More Exciting Life, Alain de Botton suggests if we ever want to reconcile and reach an understanding, we have to be courageous enough to say what we truly mean. Ultimately, every argument has two layers: the surface and the substratum beneath. At the surface, a quarrel is usually about petty things: we might battle about age-old resentments (the fact that we stayed in our home town for our husbands though we’ve always yearned to move to a new city) or squabble about sex (why we’re not having any). We might bicker about how our wife never hangs her coat in the closet or how our husband is always 20 minutes late. We might squander our Saturdays quarreling about dirty laundry and PG&E.
However, these things only symbolize the more serious issues lurking beneath. We’re bickering so bitterly about the coat our wife leaves out— not because we actually think she’s an inconsiderate slob or because we’re such neat freaks that we can’t stand the sight of a single coat strewn across the sofa— but because her refusal sends us one heartbreaking message: you don’t value me.
In an argument, we only want one thing from our partner: reassurance. Though we hurl grenades of bitter accusations and hurtful names, we don’t hate our partner or want to “win” exactly— we want them to remind us that we do matter, that we are important to them. We want to be acknowledged, heard, seen. We bring up the fact that we remained in our hometown and sacrificed our dream of living in the city because we worry our relationship lacks reciprocity: that our partner loves us less than we love them. Will our partner ever make such a sacrifice for us? Or will the reminder of our relationship require us to compromise who we are and what we truly want? Behind our indignation lies insecurity.
We lash out angrily at our partners when they don’t want to have sex— not because we’re selfish, sex-obsessed nymphomaniacs— but because we feel hurt and rejected. Do our partners no longer find us attractive? Though we never admit it, their lack of interest in sex makes us worry that we’re unlovable and repulsive.
We get irrepressibly irritated when our husband is (yet again) late for an event— not because being 20 minutes late to our daughter’s choir performance makes much difference— but because his perpetual lack of punctuality communicates a lack of respect. If our husband loved us, we think, he’d value our time. He knows how much we despise tardiness. Why can’t he just make an effort to leave a few minutes early? Is it really that hard to get dressed and out the door? to account for traffic and parking? The fact that he continues to do something that upsets us just shows how little he cares for our feelings.
If we are to become better at fighting, we have to fight more honestly. Rather than remain at the surface and squabble about dirty laundry and PG&E, we should communicate what is genuinely bothering us. Instead of make a bitchy comment when our husband leaves his dirty boxers on the bathroom floor, we can say what really ails us: “When you leave your boxers on the floor after I’ve asked you to put them away, I feel unheard and unseen.”
Why is it so hard to communicate in this way? Why— rather than simply demonstrate emotional maturity and express how we feel— do we resort to schoolyard antics like tantrums and name-calling? Botton argues that many of us avoid expressing our feelings because doing so requires a vulnerability we find terrifying. To say “I miss you”/”You hurt me” is to essentially admit that our partner has the power to hurt us profoundly. The idea that we so completely depend on another human being, that— with a few cruel words— our lovers can shatter our hearts and irreparably damage our dignity— is petrifying. Therefore, when our partner hurts us in some way, our first impulse is to go on the defensive. The moment we feel attacked, we counterattack; we fortify our walls and strengthen our fortresses. But as Botton so eloquently expresses, “in love we will be much safer (that is, much more likely to be a recipient of affection and atonement) if we manage calmly to reveal our wound to its (usually unwitting) perpetrator. The best response is not to make ourselves more impregnable, but to dare to be a little less defended.”