From the December 2015 issue of The Rotarian
Let us begin with the argument concerning the gourmet yogurt. The scene is a small suburban kitchen. My wife, Erin, has just returned from the supermarket. We’ve been married less than a year, and Erin is pregnant. While “helping” her unpack the groceries, I happen upon a space-age container with a small pod of fruit that you mix into a larger pod of yogurt. These combined pods cost nearly $2 – for a single serving.
“What’s this?” I say, holding up the offending item. “Do we really need to spend this kind of money on one yogurt?”
My wife’s posture stiffens. “Are you seriously auditing my purchases?”
“I’m just asking a question,” I insist. “Don’t I have the right to question how we spend money?”
I will spare all of us the extended version of this colloquy, which, I am sorry to report, resulted in two days of stony silence in our home.
Rest assured, after a decade of marriage, I can see how idiotic my behavior was. As a rule, when a pregnant woman has gone to the grocery store to fill the fridge with food, much of which you, her non-pregnant husband, will eat, your first two words should be “Thank you,” followed, if possible, by “my gorgeous life-giving goddess.” Not: “What’s this?”
I recount this episode not to demonstrate what a clod I am, but because marriage often feels like a never-ending daisy chain of such rows. The big question is how to keep them from escalating into dueling arias of recrimination. The best advice I can give is also the hardest to follow: You must step away from the fight and consider why, exactly, it has arisen.
So what was the Gourmet Yogurt Imbroglio really about?
Near as I can reckon, my wife, who had spent the first three months of pregnancy mired in around-the-clock “morning” sickness, needed some TLC in the form of a fancy comfort food.
As the primary breadwinner for a growing family, I, on the other hand, was feeling unconscious anxiety about my newfound financial responsibility.
Had either of us been able to articulate those feelings, the argument would never have mushroomed. But, as so often happens, we got defensive, focused on the other person’s sins, and proceeded to the shouting.
We still bicker over petty matters. (We have, for years, conducted a rather epic and pointless feud over how best to unload the silverware from our dishwasher.) But these days we’re quicker to step back and identify the why, to acknowledge – and therefore defang – the hidden motives that turn spats into emotional bloodbaths.
The other day, for instance, I snapped at my wife when I realized that we had forgotten to pack our son’s beloved blankie for a trip to California to visit my sick mother. She had every right to snap right back at me. After all, the assumption that she alone was responsible for this oversight was self-serving and sexist. Instead, my wife said nothing. She said nothing because she could tell what I was actually stressed about: my mom’s health.
And her silence – her refusal to answer my resentment with her own – forced me to assess my petulant behavior. Which led to my apologizing.
But what about the more fundamental conflicts that surface in a marriage? For most of our history as a species, marriages were arranged. They were economic compacts, almost always undertaken by couples from the same culture or region or even clan. Today, most of us come to marriage based on love, our heads often stuffed full of romantic visions. We give much less consideration to differences in background, values, religion, family culture, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity. Love will conquer all, we tell ourselves. Then we run smack into conflicts we never saw coming – or that we willfully ignored.
Take the issue of faith. As a secular Jew, I gave little thought to marrying outside my religion. My wife was a self-described “recovering Catholic” who was open to converting. Good enough, I figured.
The trouble arose when our first child started asking us about God. My wife believes. I’m what you might call a humanist with atheistic leanings. We were able to explain these differences to our daughter. But we found it upsetting that we didn’t agree on something so elemental. It took us weeks to come to terms with the fact that some differences can’t be argued away. You simply have to learn to accommodate them.
Sometimes the conflicts are more practical. The general rules are, for us, relatively simple: let the other person have her full say, try to understand where he’s coming from, and separate matters of true principle from those of sensibility.
But what happens when the conflict between you and your partner is irreconcilable? My wife and I have heard the horror stories about couples who disagree on whether to vaccinate their kids, for instance. Sometimes, one parent has them vaccinated behind the other’s back. Although I’m the sort of person who would probably do the same thing – citing the health of the children as my defense – I’m not sure I blame either party in such situations. They’re simply following their own personal dogmas.
The truth is that we all live according to our own personal dogmas. Our experiences determine our values. And when we agree to marry, we’re essentially marrying our spouse’s values, as well. The happiest couples are those who accept this inconvenient truth. Marriage isn’t about winning arguments, or avoiding them. It’s about keeping the lines of communication open and managing disappointment when your partner’s values fly in the face of yours.
I realize this doesn’t sound romantic – marriage is about “managing disappointment”? – but it comes closer to recognizing marriage for what it truly is: an ongoing negotiation. Or maybe a better word would be “conversation” – one built upon a foundation of love and respect, a sense that you and your partner are on the same team, even if you differ on strategy.
Not surprisingly, as I was writing this piece my wife and I got into an argument. It had to do with sunblock, specifically my desire to use the spray-on stuff, which is much easier than trying to slather white lotion on a squirming child.
My wife insisted that the spray-on stuff can harm children’s lungs. Inwardly, I scoffed at this notion. I pointed out that our kids wind up with sunblock in their mouths and noses when we don’t use the spray. My wife sighed, as she often does, and directed me to an article citing scientific concerns.
I could have scrounged up my own research. But I could see that my wife’s fears were legitimate and that my objections had more to do with feeling put-upon as a parent. So slathered sunblock it was.
That may not sound like much of a happy ending, but it does help to know that our kids are protected as we, as a family, ride off into the sunset.
Steve Almond is a regular contributor and the author of books including Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.