I can do it for hours. Days. Hell, I carried on a fight for more than a week one time. Until I couldn’t remember where it began.
Stone cold silence. That’s my weapon of choice.
When Hank and I fight, it almost always follows this simple, sophisticated 5-step process:
Step 1 – Someone says something insensitive, or shows up an hour later than they say they will, or doesn’t discipline the kids when they should, or drops a truth bomb that burns particularly bad when it detonates, leaving an unmistakable residue of resentment.
Step 2 – A somewhat heated exchange ensues. One in which each participant communicates in their version of “calm” and “effective” dialogue while the other pretends to listen but is really just crafting their own “calm” and “effective” retort.
Step 3 – Both of the opponents go silent.
Step 4 – Silence.
Step 5 – Something happens that makes the silence impossible and/or the anger erodes enough to quell the quiet. (Note: It can take anywhere from 1 hour to 1 week for this process to reach Step 5.)
This is how we fight. It’s the ugly way in which we throw down in this house.
My friends aren’t fond of our spat style. In fact, they’re quite critical of it. “How have you never just called him an asshole and moved on?” one of my lady loves asked. I guess I just don’t think he is an asshole. I just think he’s wrong in that instance. Or being unreasonable or insensitive or stubborn or any of the 5 million other adjectives that haunt nearly every marriage, lovely as it otherwise may be.
“But, how does that, like, work?” another friend inquired. We’ve been together for 16 years. Let’s say we fight, on average, four times a year. That’s 64 rounds of the silent treatment. You don’t withhold words from someone that many times without getting exceptionally good at it. I’ll have one of the chicks go tell Dad dinner’s ready, or talk about something I need him to know to someone else but in front of him so he hears it. But don’t worry guys, it’s all completely healthy and on the up and up as far as maturity.
This isn’t the only trick I carry around in my bag, but I’m no Mary Poppins, either. I handle disagreements with friends differently, as I do family squabbles. A difference of opinion at work is an entirely separate deal than a snarky acquaintance throwing shade on social media. But silence is my pocket knife; Handy, capable of inflicting a minimal amount of pain, but not sharp enough to do any real damage.
Turns out fighting is kind of like applying makeup or folding fitted sheets or making dinner in that everyone has their own approach. Their own brutal rituals.
“I yell at him, then he yells at me, then I yell back, turn, walk away and it’s over,” one friend from work said. So, for her, the booty is the last word. That’s what winning feels like.
“We just scream at each other and say all the things we need to. If I feel like I need to call him a mother trucker (except she didn’t say “trucker”), then I’ll call him that. But it doesn’t mean I really think he is a mother trucker. He’s just acting like a mother trucker.” Good, good …
I needed more.
I asked one gal who said that her and her husband don’t get up from the table until they’ve respectfully settled the disagreement. No yelling, no insults, no low blows. I imagine this approach is much like duck at a fancy restaurant; it sounds good and all but just isn’t appetizing to everybody. It’s what you order when you think someone’s watching.
Another buddy said that he and his wife fight via text. Or email. Almost every time. They have the disagreement, part ways and then let their fingertips duke it out. She’ll fire an opening shot from her phone. He’ll get it, fire something back, then eventually, when more needs to be said, they take it their inboxes and shit gets real. I could probably get behind that. But sometimes Hank is really bad at answering my texts.
It’s amazing when you think about it. We’ve crafted a thousand different ways to hurt each other, none of which result in healthy resolution. We do it, I think, to protect our hearts. We have to develop defense mechanisms that will shield the chambers that house our total devotion to our significant others from the petty arguments over finances and futile bullshit that doesn’t matter in the end. We have to establish processes that cue our brains into the severity of the confrontation. We have to streamline our daily showdowns to maintain the household and keep everything moving forward. This, we tell ourselves, is not a crisis. This is something else.
And really, a good fight could just be a sign that the flame is still there. If I don’t like you, I don’t give a loose stool what you think of me. Not my actions, not my appearance, not my opinions. If I don’t recognize your character and light, I’ll respect you, sure, but I’m not going to go out of my way to try and get you to pick up what I’m putting down. I’m not selling you on me. But if I care about you, I care about your opinion of me. I care enough to have the tough conversations with you. I’m all in, because I want you to be all in, too. There is no better example of that than marriage. What do they say? The opposite of love isn’t hate … it’s indifference. If you have indifference, you have trouble.
When I’m fighting with my husband, I’m coming from an honest place. I want to be heard. I want to be understood. And I want to fix it. I want it to be better when the dust settles, because forever is a long time. I’m so invested in this partnership that neither one of us is getting out without some battle wounds. It’s good and I’m going to fight for it. Every. Single. Day. In big and small ways.
I asked Hank what he thinks about how we fight. He hasn’t really given it much thought, he said. Apparently, I have a bit more time on my hands. I remember years and years ago, before we were married, he told me that I need to talk things out right away, but he needs to let things sit for a bit. He needs to just be with and sort through his thoughts. And then, eventually, he just resolves the issue he has with the situation on his own, and doesn’t feel compelled to circle back and address it verbally with me. I guess somewhere down the road we arrived at this ugly compromise. This fourth child neither of us acknowledge. A handful of times each year, he gets his silence and eventually, I always get my exhausting exchange. Not that I even want it by the time it rolls around.
Are there healthier ways to fight? Oh, 100 percent, I’m sure. I bet there are books on how to have a productive disagreement, and I bet the people who wrote those books order duck at fancy restaurants and don’t get up from the table until they’ve come to a place of shared understanding. And I bet that’s awesome.