I was talking to a friend the other night about his relationship. Three months in and he and his new girlfriend have passed through the initial Honeymoon Phase. You remember the Honeymoon Phase. It’s the time when everything is perfect and easy and it’s hard to imagine what mythical troubles could ever possibly emerge over the horizon to muddy the shiny new relationship.
But, at some point, life with all its messy, complicated, annoying little realities eventually bursts the perfect little bubble and then the real work of building and maintaining a relationship begins. And that’s if you’re lucky.
We all know that relationships aren’t supposed to be easy necessarily. That some degree of effort is required to nurture them and protect them and fashion them into what works and fits for us as a couple. But for the most part, we ignore what we know and hope that it will always be easy.
One of the common harbingers of the end of the Honeymoon Phase is the First Big Fight. The First Big Fight can be pretty scary. Your perfect relationship has been cracked open by a chasm so alarming and unexpected that it threatens the very existence of your status as a couple. Yikes! Sometimes this experience is, indeed, over something important and concerning and (when viewed from hindsight much later) an ultimate dealbreaker for the relationship. But more often than not, it’s just a bump, a hurdle, a necessary correction to the direction of the relationship.
There’s plenty of research to demonstrate that productive arguments are actually good for a relationship. As I was listening to my friend, I was reminded of a study I’d read about shortly after my separation. I wish I’d saved it or bookmarked it, because it was really intriguing, but I didn’t and it’s gone now. The nutshell version was the idea that researchers had finally drawn a link to a lack of arguing and subsequent divorce. This was of special interest to me because my marriage’s placid surface was one of the primary indicators of health to our friends who thought we had such a strong marriage. We just seemed to always get along. And we did… while being miserable inside. I realized from personal experience that a placid marriage makes other people comfortable — it reinforces their beliefs that a happy, healthy relationship is mostly free of conflict — but to the people in the relationship, that placid surface can conceal deep and troubling waters.
I remember the research specifically noting that those couples who argued most strenuously during the first two years of their relationship were found to have the strongest relationships years later, whereas those who did not particularly argue during the first two years were over or on wobbly ground many years later (I can’t remember how many years later… 10? 15?). Of course, the group in question consisted of couples who had all survived many years together, so we’re not talking about couples who fight like cats and dogs for the first two years and then break up; these are couples who had enough substance to their relationships to keep working at it for some longer period of time. The researchers had a very interesting — and sensible, I thought — hypothesis for the research results. As I remember it, they explained it this way: A relationship is about how two people fit –or don’t fit — together. Each of them is bringing their personalities, their pasts, their interests, their obligations to the relationship and at some point, in order for the relationship to survive and thrive, they are going to need to reconcile all their individual “stuff” into a new organization. They’re going to have develop new systems and some mutual (rather than purely individual) habits. The longer a couple puts off negotiating those details within their relationship, the harder it is to effectively address them later because other, less productive patterns and habits have taken hold. And, the researchers noted, the older we are when we couple, the more “stuff” we bring that needs reconciling and re-organizing (hopefully, we also bring better communication skills and maturity, too). The researchers posited that couples could put it off, but eventually all of this would need to be hashed out, and since we’re humans, that hashing usually involves arguing. They further noted earlier research that pointed to the fact that we tend to argue productively when we feel most secure in a relationship, which is why the First Big Fight usually doesn’t happen until everyone’s been feeling hunky dorey for a while.
A couple of caveats to understanding this are useful here, I believe. First, it was clear to me at the time that the study wasn’t talking about arguments that are emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive. It also wasn’t championing drama that is repetitive or attention-seeking. The emphasis was on the productive nature of the arguments — did they resolve something or further a relationship goal? So many of us are conflict averse when it comes to arguing with a loved one that we have difficulty discerning the difference — all arguments feel unhealthy. But they simply aren’t. Getting over that hump and accepting — or even embracing — arguing as a healthy component to a relationship can be difficult for a lot of people.
I used to be one of those people. I grew up watching my mom throw verbally violent tantrums that left me emotionally wrought and exhausted for days afterward, even though she would be fine within hours of having exorcised her anger. When she married my dad, I saw their dynamic — she would blow up, he would become stony and retreat, silence would ensue until — eventually — normalcy was restored. Productive, it wasn’t. And when I wasn’t at my house, I was usually at my friend Katrina’s, where her mom would get angry with her and deliver a silent treatment that sometimes lasted weeks, conveying messages to Katrina through her sister or father or even me, if no one else was around. Again, not productive. Learning that every argument does not have to result in a gaping hole in my chest has been a long and difficult struggle. No wonder I ended up in a marriage with minimal conflict.
Which leads to another facet of this issue: Different couples are going to argue differently, based on their past experiences, their personalities, and their general tolerance for conflict. Two emotional people are probably going to argue more frequently and with more fervor than two passive people. Both couples might resolve issues in their relationships (or not), but they’re going to do it differently. Neither is necessarily better, because — as the study emphasized — the point is whether the arguing is productive for the couple, not whether it’s loud or not.
In the three years since my separation, I have rather reluctantly accepted the fact that I will probably argue quite a bit in my future relationships. I am a passionate person and so are the men to whom I’m genuinely attracted. I have met some very nice, passive men who couldn’t hold my interest, and I know that part of the reason is that I don’t actually want a man who will bend to my every whim. And learning that about myself is just part of the journey. What works for someone else doesn’t necessarily work for me, and vice versa. How someone argues, I have found, is an important piece of the attraction and intimacy puzzle. As with the other pieces, without the right fit, the relationship won’t be whole or healthy.
So, back to my friend. His girlfriend seems to be worrying that they’ve hit a rough patch and this portends bad things for them and their relationship. I can totally appreciate and relate to her feelings. For all I’ve written above, most of us just want things to be perpetually smooth and happy. We want it to feel good every day, all the time. But, apparently, if what we truly want is a healthy, stable, forever relationship, we’d do better to hash it all out early on and get it over with. It seems that there isn’t a shortcut through the messy stuff. A good, clean fight is the only way through it.
And if you need further incentive to confront those issues that are quietly simmering in your relationship, just remember: a good, clean fight is often followed by good, dirty make-up sex. Nothing unproductive about that…