I want to get better at arguing. Not the bitter, exhausting kind that happens online, and not the kind that occurs when you put two French people in a room and within 90 seconds one of them is quoting Montaigne and the other has countered with Immanuel Kant, even though they are talking about, say, low-energy lightbulbs (about which neither of them previously had an opinion).
I’m interested in the domestic. I have never mastered the short, sharp spat, which can apparently be quite therapeutic. I wouldn’t know. After an early phase of massive, horrible fights, my motto for decades has been: “Why say something when you could let it fester, explode at the worst possible time, be horrified and grovellingly row back until the next time?”
But there’s scope for personal growth for even the most evolved among us (what, after all, is more evolved than silently WhatsApping pictures of the overflowing bin to a friend as your eyelid twitches involuntarily?). I want to get better at conflict. I don’t expect to enjoy it, but like kale or exercise, tolerating the unpleasantness has long-term benefits. An online poll in 2012 suggested that couples who argue “effectively” are 10 times more likely to have a happy relationship than those who don’t.
So to up my effectiveness, I have been reading The Five Arguments All Couples (Need to) Have by therapist Joanna Harrison. Harrison identifies categories of surface argument (“you never listen”, “your mother drives me crazy”, “you haven’t taken the bin out”, “stop looking at your phone”, “we never have sex”) through which we express deeper, fundamental issues around sharing a physical and emotional space with someone. Approached with curiosity and compassion, they can provide “rich opportunities to learn about each other and develop”.
And what rich opportunities there are! The people we live with thoughtfully foster our personal development daily, filling our favourite mug with WD40, piling washing in a mouldering heap to “dry” and turning the sink into an immersive art installation called something like “Teabag Butterknife Pan Soak IX”. Harrison writes that she has heard every variant of washing-up fight, and I believe it: dishwasher Tetris topped my unscientific survey of common fight topics by miles – we’re all exercised by fork prongs and pre-rinsing.
Some of these arguments, Harrison says, have a “playfulness”; they become more about expressing our individuality than the apparent subject. I can see how that might be, when you’ve lived with someone so long that your mind meld is total and you can look at a passing cat, both be reminded of the same minor incident in 2003, and then by some circuitous thought process say out loud, simultaneously: “We need more plasters.” We exert our independent existences by disagreeing about the correct place to store ketchup (the bin).
Most fights are horrible, but these entry-level spats, if you will, feel manageable. Buoyed by Harrison’s encouragement, I currently have five of my own, in various stages of their life cycle, on the go. I’m not sure what deeper truths they express, but they are:
Bread goes in, not on, the bread bin. I have basically lost this. The bread bin is now a mere bread display unit (much as the biscuit tin is now just a hiding place for stuff I’m keeping to myself).
You can leave a low-energy clothes airer on overnight – that’s the point of it. This is in the war of attrition phase: on, off, on again but angled so the tell-tale light is now out of sight.
Unless you are willing to sniff the milk, you can’t get huffy about it being thrown away. Conceded, reluctantly.
Recycling: you’re doing it wrong. Never surrender.
A toaster with only one half-functional slot must be replaced. “It’s fine,” I argue. “You just flip the bread! That toaster is older than our children! What do you expect?” “Toast?” says my spouse. I aired this one publicly and was informed definitively that I am, as Reddit, global arbiter of arguments would have it, the asshole.
Despite this poor record, I am determined to keep fighting (a phrase more often associated with heroism than bloody-mindedness about domestic ephemera, yes) and thus growing. It’s not about the winning – it’s about the taking part.