Note for folks who don’t know me personally: Despite the title of my love advice series, I’ll be referring to a husband now and then. No, I didn’t forget the prefix, I’m married again! But once a divorcee, always a divorcee, so the title stays. Plus, it serves as an appropriate warning to readers to proceed with caution.
The first fight I had with my husband, Victor, felt significant. By that point, we’d been together almost two years without a single fight. Naturally, our not-fighting streak made us feel superior. Clearly, our love was divine, and we’d be the first couple in history to avoid conflict altogether. But lurking in the back of our minds was a suspicion that we were earthly, not godly creatures and thus bound to annoy each other at some point. We weren’t sure when it would happen or why. The anticipation became mildly stressful. Maybe a fight would break the spell and drag us by our hair from the honeymoon castle. We’d have to either break up or resentfully deal with one another, but we’d surely never drink from the sweet nectar of new love again.
Turns out it was fine. I won’t go into details because it was the boring kind of fight that seems dumb to outsiders but very important to the couple. I will say that it took place at Burning Man because of course it took place at Burning Man. They have a Relationship Survival Guide for a reason.
I’ve always taken lack of conflict in a relationship as a good sign, assuming that it’s the result of a strong compatibility. Then again, my relationships have always tended to be low conflict, even those where my partner and I were poorly matched. This shouldn’t be surprising; I’m like the Roger Federer of conflict avoidance. Turns out that’s not a good thing. While ugly fights are damaging, so is avoiding them at all costs.
This was an important lesson for me in my first marriage. I’ve written about it before, so I won’t rehash it much here except to stay that my ex and I almost never argued or complained about one another. It seemed mature to let the small stuff slide because it was mostly small stuff. So when things went awry, I felt blindsided. I expected divorce to be prefaced with years of yelling, broken dishes, public intoxication, shredded clothing, sleeping with strangers, and so on. That’s how it went on TV (curse you TV, fooling me again!). In our case, it felt like we went from placidity to divorce in a blink.
Our story makes sense after learning about the research conducted by John Gottman, Catherine Swanson, and James Murray. They observed 130 couples having a conversation about problem areas in their marriage and categorizing their behaviors to make variables. By plugging the variables into a mathematical model, the researchers could predict whether or not a couple would get divorced with 90% accuracy. Bananas! Just watching the way they talked about difficult topics with one another was enough to predict their fate.
One of the most interesting findings was related to what they call the “negativity threshold.” It’s defined as “the point at which negativity has an impact on the partner’s immediately following behavior.” In other words, it’s the amount of shit you will tolerate from your partner before you react. People with a high threshold will put up with your dumb ass for years before complaining. Those with a low threshold will gripe about you failing to respond to a text with the sufficient number of excited emojis.
You’d think that couples who cut each other some slack would fare better in the long run, but the opposite is true. It’s the couples who sweat the small stuff that last. While it seems counterintuitive, it makes sense. Often when we think we’re letting things slide, we’re really just burying them on top of a bomb set to explode at a certain level of grievances. After the inevitable explosion, you’re dealing with the fallout from months-to-years’ worth of resentment.
Successful couples detect problems early and continually try to fix them. They deal with the small problems before they become big problems. Also, they often have high standards for the relationship and feel entitled to a certain kind of treatment.
It sounds like the takeaway message is that fighting is a good thing. I’m not sure that’s right, though. A better one is more nuanced than that – something like: fighting isn’t great, but biting your tongue could be worse. Ideally, you learn how to address relationship problems without it devolving into a fight. The way you communicate is important. For example:
Not to say that being a high maintenance naggypants is a good thing. Surely maintaining reasonable expectations of your partner is still healthy. You should voice your grievances when they arise, even if somewhat petty. But if you find issue in every little thing, you likely need to chill the eff out.
When I think about it, it didn’t take Victor and I two years to fight. Our relationship got started with a fight. We’d been dating a few months, and he hurt my feelings by cutting a date night short. I hadn’t seen him in a while, and I was giddy about that date. He showed up, and it totally met my sky-high expectations. Yes, winning at dating! Then, he told me he was leaving. We’d been hanging out a couple of hours, probably a shorter amount of time than I took to get ready for the damn date. I was shocked and hurt, but instead of telling him this, I tried really hard to pretend like that I didn’t care because… psshhh, it’s not like he’s my boyfriend, he’s just some dude I’m seeing… he’s too young for me anyway… I’m a grownass woman who can be alone, in fact I prefer it because I’m so independent and feminist… plus, I have so many friends who love hanging out with me for way more than 2 hours… I could probably find another boy who’d hang out with me RIGHT NOW if I wanted to because I’m SO MUCH FUN and not insecure or needy AT ALL… whatever, I’m gonna live my life and YOLO, weeeewww!
When all of these arguments failed to convince me that I wasn’t hurt, I decided he was stringing me along, and my sadness morphed into anger. I shot off a sloppy email where I tried to convey the contradictory message that he hurt my feelings, but not because I care or anything… it’s just like, etiquette man. I was still trying to save face and protect my cowardly heart. It was a very dumb email. Even though the email makes me cringe to this day, it needed to be sent because it opened up the conversation and made us talk about our feefees. That’s when we realized that our feelings were mutual, and we could stop being babies about expressing them.
So “fights” can be a good thing, if done consciously. If you find yourself bickering with your partner and feeling envious of that calm, level-headed couple, console yourself with the fact that the odds of staying together are weirdly in your favor.