Fighting is one of the less awesome aspects of being a couple, but unless you’re creepily contented with one another, it’s inevitable. The problem isn’t that we’re doomed to commit felony grade offenses, such as cheating or insulting someone else’s mother, but that we’re all susceptible to the relationship misdemeanors that cause periodic quarreling. Just look to the Chicago couple behind the Twitter stream @WeFoughtAbout, who chronicle the seemingly mundane happenings that launch their bouts, including: “Alan called me ‘man’” and “I thought Claire was using a ‘tone.’ She wasn’t.”
Let’s face it: We’re all annoying, and thus bound to annoy each other. Just consider the sheer quantity of potentially vexing human behaviors: nail biting, foot tapping, open mouthed chewing, superfluous channel surfing, off-key singing, refusing to screw the top of the Listerine bottle back on, etc. (If you don’t think you’re at all annoying, lack of self-awareness is one of your more annoying traits.)
If you’re in a long-term relationship—and especially if you’re at the cohabiting stage—you might as well accept that you and your partner are destined to get on each other’s nerves regularly. Renowned psychoanalyst Dr. Otto F. Kernberg, author of The Inseparable Nature of Love and Aggression, has studied the interplay of (you guessed it) love and aggression in the context of unresolved oedipal conflicts and other issues. Without getting esoteric, however, not all has to be lost in the jackassery that unfolds between lovers. Since we reveal things about ourselves through squabbling—what sets us off, how we handle deep frustration, and what we need to recuperate emotionally—there’s an element of intimacy buried within most bickering. It should be possible, then, to approach fighting as a relationship building exercise in which we learn about each other rather than something destined to tear us apart. Below are a few tips on how to do this.
1. Respect Your Partner’s Combat Style
People have different triggers. The road rage prone might break down when their partner refuses to accelerate in the fast lane, while the cellphone phobic might freak out when their partner pays too much attention to a device. Perhaps more importantly, our methods of handling irritation can differ vastly. For instance, I feel compelled to dissect a given scenario immediately in the name of coming to a resolution as quickly as possible. Until things are resolved, I’m unable to focus on anything else, which seems like a grand ol’ waste of time that could be better spent, say, researching merkins. My boyfriend calls this tendency the hasty hammering of shit to fucking death. He prefers to walk away when irritated so he can clear his mind and gather his thoughts. Whatever is said in the immediate aftermath of any skirmish, he argues, is tainted by anger. I call this running the fuck away. See the problem?
There may be nothing more annoying than a person whose approach to coping with aggravation is, in your opinion, entirely annoying. Luckily, the headache is most likely shared. But so is the main risk: that even the most innocuous fight becomes a Kanye-West-Twitter-rant level blowout.
To prevent a molehill of a problem from erupting like Mount Vesuvius, it helps to remain mindful of your partner’s unique fighting form—to separate yourself from the issue at hand for one millisecond to remember that style matters. Because the truth is that their way (unless violent, of course) is only as unreasonable as yours is. Depending on the argument and your individual states of mind, one of you will generally be better positioned to yield a bit and to guide things back to Pleasantville. While pausing momentarily, assess whether this chivalrous role is right for you in the situation, remembering that if you suck it up once in a while, the favor is usually returned.
2. Keep The Fights Clean And The Sex Dirty
When asked about the secret to his thriving long-term relationship with wife Kyra Sedgwick, Kevin Bacon famously advised: “Keep the fights clean, and the sex dirty.” One of the ironies of being in love is that knowing a person inside and out empowers us to hurt them. When attacking those we love or defending ourselves against such an attack, we’re often reduced to outright nastiness, subtle but impactful jabbing, and/or the spiteful dredging up of the past. But if you can avoid the itch to use intimate knowledge of a person as ammunition, their tear ducts will be spared a little work, and you will feel less shitty about yourself later. With a nod to Bacon, when the perfect biting insult creeps into your consciousness, try repacking the hostility as something to wield during make-up sex later. For example, “I don’t care if it was 15 years ago—you’re still a fucking cunt for ditching me at the bar to blow the basketball captain,” might become “turn over so I can spank you, 15 times!”
3. Never Underestimate The Power Of Apology
Yes, we should all do our best to avoid the cutting disparagements only we can conjure about our partner. But the prospect of fueling wonderfully dirty lovemaking by repurposing our rage isn’t a full-proof tactic. And no one deserves what we’re capable of dishing out at our personal lowest. So remember that, while some things can never be unsaid or undone, an apology always helps. Recognition of fault—even when your partner is equally or more to blame—and the words “I’m sorry” go a long way towards repairing what might seem like a broken bond. In the same vein, when confronted with a genuine apology, it’s a good idea to accept it gracefully. “There’s no weakness in forgiveness,” says the great Coach Taylor’s wife Tami of Friday Night Lights.
4. Play Nice Outside The Ring
On the flip side of being annoying, we’re all capable of small but important kindnesses. The benefit of doing things to make your partner’s life more enjoyable on a daily basis is that they will surely appreciate—and, hopefully, reciprocate—these thoughtful gestures. Plus, they’re likely to call your awesomeness to mind much faster in the midst of battle if they have specific corroborating evidence to tap from the recent past. For instance, my boyfriend always places of a glass of fresh water without ice on the nightstand before we go to bed, knowing that I often wake up craving a refreshment at room temperature. Thanks to me, his ipod is charged at all times. And when either of us takes a shower before the other, we make sure that the dry towel is hanging on the hook from which the next person can grab it most easily. We also exchange love notes (via snail mail, email, text, Post-it, and sugar cookie) frequently. These are the things I remember when I want to rip his head off—the tiny deeds that foster quick resolution.