HHE FORGETS TO SET THE ALARM (that’s his job), so they both oversleep and start the day in a mad rush. In her hurry she irons the wrong shirt (that’s her job), so he has to wear one he doesn’t like. In his hurry he scatters clothes all over the bedroom and doesn’t help make the bed. So far, neither of them has complained, but they’re both doing a slow burn inside. He’s snarling to himself because the shower’s clogged with her hair. She’s gritting her teeth because he squeezed toothpaste all over the hand-basin.
That night, in the kitchen, it all erupts in a first-class, full-blown, stand-up row. She sparks it off: “I hope you’ll set the alarm. I don’t want another morning like this morning!”
And he fuels the flames: “If you hadn’t spent all evening on Facebook and hours in the bathroom removing your make-up,
we could’ve gone to sleep earlier and not needed the alarm!”
“At least I leave the bathroom tidy. You left it in a disgusting mess this morning!”
“If you’d ironed my shirt, I wouldn’t have wasted 30 minutes looking for another one. Anyway, we agreed that tidying up was your job.”
“I’ll do my jobs around here when you do yours! You’ve worked late every night this week. What’s the point of keeping the house tidy when you’re never home to appreciate it?”
“Oh, get off my back! You sound just like your mother!”
“Don’t you DARE bring my parents into this! At least they knew how to manage their finances!”
And so this punch-up in the pantry goes on. And on. And on. Angry words tumbling out. Going for the weak spots. Hitting where they know it hurts …
Kiwi couples really know how to wreck a good thing. Married, de-facto, living together, whatever – we know how to snap and snarl, to gouge each other’s eyes out. Some couples go for surprise attacks. Others prefer night-time assaults. Some battle-scarred veterans settle for on-going, hand-to-hand combat.
And it doesn’t just happen in poor relationships. Even the best of us can snap and snarl when it suits us!
There’s an acid sort of pleasure in arguing, isn’t there? You keep stirring the mixture. You pour in the pepper. You bite on the lemon. The very bitterness tastes good. And after the attack, when you retreat to lick your wounds, you go over and over it all in your mind … rehashing every point … wishing you’d said it better … working out how you’ll say it next time … planning your revenge.
So what is it that makes two nice people turn so nasty? And what possible GOOD can come from these ‘Pantry Punch-Ups’?
Patrick Doherty – Auckland husband, tutor, family therapist, and all-round nice-bloke – has spent a chunk of his life helping people with problems just like these. So we sat down around his dining-room table and got him to reveal all …
“After falling in love,” notes Patrick, “most couples begin to feel bored and disillusioned with each other. But instead of dealing with those things that pinch and hurt, they bury them – or blame each other. Which then builds into more and more disagreement.
“But there’s something deeper going on …”
1. conflict happens because WE’RE IN LOVE WITH AN ILLUSION
When we fall in love, most of us don’t fall in love with a real person. We fall in love with a romantic ideal, with an IMAGE that we carry in our heads of what this perfect partner will be like. We’re attracted by this image, and we hope it will last forever.
PLEASE DON’T PRICK MY BUBBLE!
When that romantic ideal starts to fade, when this person dares to be himself/herself, we get disillusioned. And we begin to blame our partner for the very things that we found so attractive.
“For example, I’m attracted to Helen because she’s tidy and organised and thorough. But those things also bug the heck out of me, because they remind me of my own inadequacies. And then I get irritated with her. Why? Because the very things that attracted me to her remind of me the things I dislike most in ME!”
“But thank goodness!” Patrick grins. “Because after disillusionment, real love has a chance to be born!”
2. conflict happens because WE BRING BAGGAGE FROM THE PAST
When we enter a relationship, we don’t come with a clean slate. We come with stuff from the past. Maybe we were hurt or restricted in our childhood – after all, none of us had perfect parents. Or perhaps we carry wounds from previous relationships.
“Subconsciously,” says Patrick, “there’s this sense that my needs weren’t totally met. So I’m searching for someone who will heal me and make me whole.
“Here’s a person who was smothered by his overly-protective mother. And his response is to step back and withdraw – he doesn’t want to be smothered again. But, almost inevitably, he’s going to search out a mate who in some way has those same qualities as his mother. He’s going to find someone who’s overly-affectionate. She probably grew up in a home where she could never be certain whether or not she was loved – she was constantly seeking that out.
“So he was smothered as a child, she was neglected as a child, and they’re now both attracted to the very thing that hurt them.
“But they don’t understand this – so they attack each other.”
A MATTER OF DEGREE
Some couples come ‘very grown’ into their relationship – with few wounds and little baggage. And their disagreements are therefore minimal. But others are broken people with toxic leftovers buried deep inside …
3. conflict happens because IT’S MEANT TO HAPPEN
Disagreements, arguments, tensions – these don’t mean something’s wrong with a relationship. They don’t mean this relationship can’t work. They don’t signal, “We should never have got married! This is the end of the road!”
No, just the opposite. This is what’s supposed to happen!
Here’s how Patrick puts it: “We’ve grown up with a Hollywood narrative that says ‘Love is stars-in-our-eyes – and it’s going to be like this forever!’ We’ve been deluded into thinking that we should never have to change … and that conflict means our relationship is over: ‘If you’re not enjoying this fantasy, go and find someone else!’
“But that popular message is really teenage stuff. And the tragedy is: when you think ‘I don’t have to put up with this!’ and take off to find someone who’ll really love you, you’re simply wasting a wonderful opportunity for growth.
“Instead of addressing your ‘baggage’, you carry it into another relationship where it will emerge again.”
TO GROW WE MUST CHANGE
And the way to live well is to change often! But change happens best in an intimate relationship where we feel close enough and safe enough to be vulnerable without risking rejection.
Sadly, some relationships are so damaged by abuse or violence that there’s truly little hope. But for the majority of couples, says Patrick, our disagreements simply reveal ungrown parts in both of us … parts we need to work on.
“Perhaps we were hurt in an earlier relationship or wounded somehow during childhood. But now, because we understand things we didn’t understand as a child, we have the potential to heal those things for each other.”
BUT HANG ON …!
You thought couples should learn NOT to fight, didn’t you. Surely, two people who love each other shouldn’t argue?
Maybe – if you prefer the Hollywood myth!
But according to Patrick Doherty, “Intimacy is an invitation to conflict – not an invitation to happily-ever-after. Because when you put two people this close together, there are going to be sparks – of course there are!”
As another expert puts it: “You have problems? That’s normal. All couples do. As a matter of fact, it’s a good thing. Those who make a success of their relationship are those who tackle their problems together and overcome them.
“Those who lack the courage to do that are the couples whose relationships fail.”
GET THE MESSAGE?
It’s not arguments that spoil your love – it’s how you argue. And those punch-ups in the pantry don’t have to end in separation. The fact that two people argue doesn’t mean they don’t love each other …
There are plenty of successfully ‘together’ couples who yell and stomp and storm along with the best of them. They fight, all right – no question about that. But they’ve learned the secret of fighting fair, without assassinating each other. And they’ve learned how to turn their conflicts into opportunities for growth.
Some of them have talked about it, shared their secrets, described the ground rules that have proved helpful in their own pantry punch-ups. Their ideas won’t all work for you – but some will. And we’ve tried to collect the best.
So … into your corners, ladies and gentlemen. And wait for the bell!
1. fighting fair: CHOOSE TO TALK … AND LISTEN
One golden word that’ll nip a lot of niggles in the bud is ‘communication’. It’s not important that you think the same (you won’t, on many issues) – but it is important that you think together.
Sadly, the big conversation of the day for some couples is when he walks in from work. She says, “Hi, how was your day?” And he says, “Okay.”
And that’s it!
Dialogue (eyeball-to-eyeball talking and listening) does for your love what blood does for your body. When the flow stops, something dies. And good communication is a lot more than a passing comment during the commercials.
“My husband never listens to me. I could talk all day and he wouldn’t hear a word I said!” It’s a frequent complaint. And we could all show more interest in how our partner thinks or feels. But that can’t happen unless we take time … time together.
So here’s a suggestion:
One of the best ways to make this happen is to build it in – 15 to 20 minutes each day at a suitable time and place. Just make sure it’s peaceful …
SHARE A GOSSIPY CONVERSATION
A relaxed chat about the day’s events. Perhaps an early morning walk. Perhaps a cuppa after dinner or before bed. While the kids do their homework or enjoys screentime, maybe. And make it a habit!
Your aim? To find out where your partner’s at … and develop those vital listening skills.
Patrick Doherty has another suggestion: If two people are really serious about disagreements, they should make an agreement:
- “You say whatever you want to say, and I’ll keep my mouth closed and my ears open – I’ll let you talk it through, without getting defensive or excusing my behaviour.
- “Next, I’ll let you know somehow that you make sense – instead of criticising you, like I would’ve in the past.
- “I’ll try to take your emotional pulse – understand how you’re feeling, whether you’re angry, or sad, or feeling this is a waste of time.
- “And when I’ve got that right, then it’s my turn to tell you where I’m at …”
Listening without interrupting is harder than it sounds. Most of us find it easier to talk, lecture or preach. And even when we let our partner have a say, it’s tempting to want to butt in with explanations, justifications or solutions.
But listening’s worth the effort. And you’ll be surprised (and relieved!) how powerful a tool it can be.
2. fighting fair: GET IT OUT IN THE OPEN
Are there silly little things your partner does that really grate on your nerves? You know, like leaving shoes all over the house … or tapping in time to music … or eating/drinking/blinking/sniffing/coughing in a way that drives you nuts …
Do you end up doing a slow burn as you privately nurse your annoyance?
COME ON, BE HONEST
Some of the things that bug us about our partners are so silly and so little that they’re not worth getting steamed up about. They’re best defused by a grin or a giggle. Which is why a healthy dose of humour is such an asset.
But other things are neither silly nor little. And there’s nothing very noble about keeping your mouth shut – especially if it’s really bugging you. You just get madder and madder until you bite somebody’s head off. Or your anger leaks out in a trickle of sarcasm that wears away the love you once shared.
It’s so much better, obviously, to talk sensibly and get it out in the open. So, here’s another suggestion:
Agree on a time when you’ll sit down together. Then quietly, using words like these, have a go at making your point …
- “I feel angry when you …” Put your partner’s name in the sentence and add your own ending. For example, “I feel angry, John, when you yell at the kids and they get all resentful …”
- “… and I wish you would …” Now explain how you’d prefer your partner to do it. For example, “… and I wish you would just speak quietly and firmly to them, so there’d be less fuss and they’d understand what you want them to do …”
- “… but I realise …” Finally, stop and think about why your partner does it that way. For example, “… but I realise you’re under pressure at work, and the kids are a handful when they won’t do what they’re told.”
SAY IT STRAIGHT
Most of us are pretty good at skirting around conflicts, playing guessing games that leave our partner wondering: “What did I do wrong this time?” And it’s hardly surprising, when we give vague, uncertain messages, that the fight goes nowhere fast.
But if your partner can hear your complaint – calm and clear! – and feel understood, you’ve got a chance to explore the problem together and find a way to solve it (or live with it).
Let’s face it: people who are scared to disagree aren’t at ease with each other. And those frustrations or resentments that spoil your relationship aren’t going to go away …
3. fighting fair: PICK YOUR MOMENT – BUT DON’T WAIT FOREVER
Punch-ups in the pantry are not well-mannered. They don’t wait for the ‘right’ occasion. They start without warning and flare up when you least want them. How come? Because when you get mad you get MAD!
But if you’re going to fight fair, you need to pick your time and place. And when you’re in PUBLIC is clearly not it!
So three rules …
Rule #1: Unless it’s with a counsellor who can help you work it through, fighting in front of others is fighting dirty! One of you needs the self-control to say, “Look, this can wait till we’re on our own …” or “Let’s sort it out when the kids have gone to bed.”
YOUR OWN PERSONAL AFFAIR
Keep your disagreements private. Slagging matches or sarcastic side-swipes when you’re with friends are sure ways to make you resent each other all the more – and probably embarrass everyone else.
Rule #2: Dinner’s a lousy time for picking fights, and only born losers will try it. Coming home weary from work, rushing with the meal, coping with the kids, facing a pile of dishes – it’s the ragged, worn-out end of the day, and you need to treat each other gently.
Rule #3: Don’t avoid fights forever! You can fool yourself into thinking you’re the nice guy – a bit of a martyr even – by playing this game:
- “I don’t want to talk about it.”
- “Let’s not get into that argument again.”
- “If you feel so strongly, I guess I’ve got no choice.”
- “Oh, do what you like!”
But be warned: the ‘peace at any price’ approach merely raises the temperature … leaves one person carrying the can (guess who’s gonna get blamed if it doesn’t work out?) … and buries the conflict deeper inside where it can cause ulcers.
4. fighting fair: ATTACK THE PROBLEM – NOT THE PERSON
The day Howard and Sally got an email saying their car payment was overdue was a bad one all round. One of those rush-rush days that had already put both of them on edge. The fight actually began when Sally asked (in that tone-of-voice) why Howard had forgotten. Again …
“Look, I’m run off my feet at work! You’re online all day – why can’t you pay a few bills?”
“Me? I’m managing everything: my job, your kids, the laundry, cooking, even your mother whining about your father’s diet. And if you keep eating takeaways, you’ll end up looking the same.”
“You’re not in such great shape yourself. Look at you!”
“Well, it’s not my fault you stopped going to the gym. Mum always said you didn’t have much ambition!”
“If your mother would just butt-out, we’d all be better off. I thought she’d never go home after Christmas …”
SLASH & BURN
When couples fight dirty, they become more and more hysterical – and historical … going back over old hurts, dragging up the past, exposing each other’s failures, and hacking away at each other’s self-esteem.
Personal put-downs have sharp points, and can turn a disagreement deadly: “You’re incredibly stupid!” “You can’t do a thing right!” “I don’t know why I ever married you!” “You always let me down!” “I’ve never met anyone so pathetic!”
Healthy fighting, on the other hand, focuses on the disagreement: “It really upsets me when you don’t let me know you’re running late.” “I don’t want to lose respect for you, but that’s what happens when I see you drunk.”
Instead of “You were a real jerk last night!” (which is an invitation to a punch-up) … try “I felt embarrassed about what you did last night!” (which shares the problem).
You’ve still got a good fight on your hands – but you’re dealing with the problem rather than rubbishing the person.
5. fighting fair: IT’S OK TO ASK FOR CHANGE
With many couples (observes Patrick Doherty) there’s this sort of DANCE that’s been going on for years … “a reactive pattern that they’ve practiced and practiced for so long that it’s almost encoded in their physical being. Every time he does something, she nags, and he responds by shutting down. Then she feels left out and begins to nag even more. So he explodes.”
But FIGHTING FAIR means breaking that cycle – by creating a safe place where a couple can communicate openly:
“When they finally get to sit down together and speak out their pain – perhaps for the first time – they’re often amazed at this experience of being LISTENED TO. They sense an enormous relief: ‘I don’t have to prove myself, I don’t have to argue. My partner is actually HEARING me!’”
When two people are able, at last, to identify what’s been going on between them, without fear of being blitzed by yet another angry melt-down, they can then move on and begin to ask for changes.
“For example, it’s okay for me to ask Helen to change. In the past, I might have criticised her for doing something and made her feel inadequate. But as we’ve become more aware of what’s under the surface – the ‘baggage’ we each brought with us – I can talk about the things she does that irritate or make me feel uncomfortable. And I can ask her to help me by changing her behaviour.
“Now, of course, she’s free to say, ‘Yes, I’ll try that’ or ‘No, I can’t do it right now.’ But as we’ve become more open and vulnerable, TRUST has happened. And in that trust, I can tell her about my frustrations and failures, and I can ask her for help.”
There are no shortcuts or quick-fixes. It’s often a struggle. And third-party counselling is sometimes needed to break the ice and help create new patterns of talking, listening, and problem-solving.
But what can you do when one partner’s willing – and the other’s NOT?
Says Patrick: “Very often, the unwilling partner is saying, ‘I don’t want to see a counsellor. I’m just going to be blamed for everything!’ Which is understandable … So what the willing partner needs to say is, ‘I want to love you more. Will you come with me to see someone who could help me achieve that?’
NOBODY WANTS A PAINFUL MARRIAGE
We all want to grow in love. And that message, ‘I want to be a better partner – would you help me?’ is irresistible. Very different from saying, ‘I want you to come so the counsellor can beat you up and tell you what an awful person you are!’
“So yes, there is hope. People can change. I’ve seen it happen …”
6. fighting fair: WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, APOLOGISE!
No, not for everything. Your relationship won’t grow if one of you becomes a downtrodden doormat. But there’s no way you’ll get it right every time. And the fastest way to heal your love is to use those simple words: “I’m sorry – please forgive me.”
The funny thing is: you don’t lose face by apologising! Being able to say you’re sorry is actually a sign of maturity. And it gives your partner a chance to respond with that most powerful medicine – forgiveness.
Most of us don’t have big things we need to forgive – only lots of thoughtless, stupid, trivial, frustrating little things. But relationships drown when they’re swamped by too many of those little things.
Some of them need to be talked about. Some of them can – and should – be changed. And the rest? They should be forgiven and forgotten.
LIKE SOMEONE SAID:
A good marriage is simply the union of two awfully good forgivers …
There’s enormous energy and excitement to be found in growing together and discovering more and more about each other. Ask couples who’ve tried it and they’ll tell you.
And it’s at a level far deeper than romance …
“I’m intuitive,” admits Patrick Doherty. “I process my feelings by going inside – I’m an introvert, and when I come to a decision, I’m still quite flexible. Helen is the total opposite – she’s extrovert – she uses her thinking faculties and talks out her feelings rather than going inside. And when she gets to a decision, she knows it.
“She is my growth-potential. And I was attracted to her because she’s like this. Yes, that’s also the reason why she bugs me so much. But I need some of the qualities she has.
“Likewise, she needs some of the qualities I have – we’re each other’s growth-potential!”
So go to it. Fight fair. Keep your conflicts clean. Grow. And be the lovers you were meant to be.
Keepers of the Vine