Arguing for two (and eventually, three)

Joe and I are celebrating our ninth anniversary today – which makes me remember that when Joe and I first started dating, I quickly learned that for some people, arguing is a sport.

Indeed, Joe would have – or has, I guess, as a litigator – turned pro, so born was he to this calling. I, however, am not cut from the same cloth. Being the classic, diplomatic, peace-keeping middle child, I have always gone to great lengths to avoid confrontation.

Plus, the two of us came from very different families. Nothing was too insignificant to parse, and argue about, at length in Joe’s family. When I was growing up, meanwhile, the only kind of disagreement that happened usually involved tears, slammed doors, and extreme discomfort (on my end, anyway). To my mind, arguing was an absolute last resort. If there was nothing significant to be gained by an argument, I didn’t see the point in engaging in one.

So how were Joe and I ever going to work? It’s a question I asked myself several times early on – especially when, on one occasion, Joe stridently argued a position that I couldn’t believe he actually held. In one moment, my eyes narrowed, and I stopped pounding away at the issue long enough to say, “You’re just arguing this side for fun, aren’t you?”

He was. And as extraordinarily annoyed as I was in that moment, the exchange did finally convince me that arguments about beliefs and issues didn’t have to be painful and wrenching. Look at Joe. He was arguing passionately for something he didn’t even believe. When you experience someone turning that ability on and off at will, you realize that most arguments can simply be an intellectual exercise, not a soul-deflating, emotional fistfight.

And while Joe likes to debate about anything and everything, and does so from time to time with me, we’ve never been a couple that fights – mostly because we’re on the same page where the important stuff is concerned. We have just enough in common, combined with complementary differences, to be a really, really good fit for each other.

So much so that once, when we found ourselves in an interfaith couples group years ago, we smugly laughed on the car ride home about how some members earnestly, soberly said things like, “Marriage takes work, and you have to work at it every day.” Work? Seriously? Picking fruit is work; mining is work; heaving garbage bags into a smelly truck is work. But marriage? Joe and I had found marriage to be one of the easiest things we’d done in our lives. Yes, further down the road, parenthood made it easy to lose sight sometimes of the relationship that’s the original foundation for your family – but Joe and I still feel like a simpatico pair.

Every once in a great while, though – it is a rare occurrence, but it happens – the daunting vortex of work stress, late nights, domestic demands, and two small children suck us into a tense back-and-forth over something ridiculous.

Like, you-think-I’m-overreacting-to-the-baby-trying-to-eat-the-peel-end-of-a-banana kind of ridiculous. (Plus, because we don’t have much of a history where marital bickering is concerned, I’m really not good at it. I have no idea how to just push through it, stay calm, and get past it – which, in the moment, is all I want in the world.)

Yes, when an argument’s starting point involves a banana peel, it’s safe to say that the heart of the fight is probably something else entirely. In the case of this past weekend’s incident, I was tired, and Neve was uncharacteristically grumpy, and I felt overwhelmed by household stuff, so a funk had come over me, while Joe had done everything he could to snap me out of it. Having been on the other end of this kind of thing on occasion, I know well the sense of helplessness and frustration that accompanies the inability to lift your partner’s spirits. You begin to question something you otherwise have taken for granted for years: that you’re the best possible match for this person.

So because I felt beaten down and stressed, and the girls were in high-demand mode, Joe finally snapped, raising his voice, and dragging Neve (in her highchair) from her place near me at the table to a space near him. I froze in surprise, realizing instantly that a whole new layer of complexity had been added by virtue of my young daughters’ presence. My reaction to this opening salvo couldn’t just be dictated solely by the desire to deflate the tension as expediently as possible. Lily, at age 4, is old enough to closely monitor, and possibly ape, my behavior in situations like this, so not only did I have to quickly figure out my next move, but I also had to do so with priorities in mind: priorities like vocally standing up for myself without losing control, and making it clear that the girls weren’t in any way at fault, or caught in the line of fire.

Crap. Like the situation wasn’t hard enough on its own merits.

Just as I hadn’t anticipated the way that, when you become a parent, your spouse can no longer take care of you when you’re sick, I hadn’t before realized that arguing takes on a performative aspect when you have kids. And because the deck has been particularly stacked against young girls in so many ways, from time immemorial, the pressure’s really on when you’re the mother of watchful daughters. You’re their model.

“Why’s Daddy mad?” Lily asked matter-of-factly, repeatedly, while Joe was in another room.

I advised her to ask him herself, thinking that might insert a different energy into the situation. But then I told her the more truthful answer. “It’s complicated, kiddo. It’s the build-up of a lot of things.”

Then, I responded to Joe’s remarks; things escalated; I got a little teary (I’m not proud of this, but confrontation inevitably brings me to this); and we all had a rather miserable family lunch on the back porch, where the open windows left me feeling exposed, vulnerable, and embarrassed.

By meal’s end, Neve was more than ready for a nap, and Lily was then expected to arrive at a birthday party, so the two of us grabbed her friend’s gift and headed out the door.

This was a perfect escape hatch, in its way. Joe and I would both get some time and space away to focus on something entirely different for a couple of hours, and thus, we’d be able to find our way back to each other with some semblance of dignity.

Not that things were all Newlywed Game when I returned to the house. Joe offered me the chance to lie down for a while – and olive branch I accepted; and for a while, good nights and goodbyes were a tentative touch on the arm instead of a kiss. But we were still miles closer to being our usual selves with each other than we’d been since the whole thing began, and that felt like progress.

In addition, just as it was important to me that Lily saw me stand up for myself in a verbal skirmish, it was also important to me that she witnessed the fact that no one-time, tense exchange would threaten the love Joe and I have for each other, or the family we’ve built. I want her to see unconditional love in action, in practice, and that’s precisely what’s happening.

The following night, apropos of nothing, I blurted out, “I’d feel better if we apologized to each other for yesterday. We do that with Lily, when we lose our temper with her, and I think we should do that much for each other, too.”

So Joe and I both said “I’m sorry,” and that’s all I needed to finally put it all behind me.

But my hope is that I’ll be able to give Lily (and eventually Neve) what she needs to become a strong, self-possessed woman.

And it’s interesting to note, in closing, that while our children can sometimes bring out the worst parts of ourselves, they also simultaneously force us to be better people by challenging us to embody what we want them to be.

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