I was chatting with an old friend over the phone who had recently gotten divorced. She’d been married for 13 years, and honestly, from an outside perspective, I didn’t see any trouble with her marriage. They always seemed to work well as a team. They often posted very happy Facebook photos of them together, smiling, doing couple things. I asked her what I assume are usual questions when people get divorced, “How are you holding up?” and “How are your kids?”
Then I asked, “You both seemed fine. Were you two fighting behind close doors, or something?”
She laughed. “I wish we fought. That would’ve showed some investment in our marriage. We never argued. We were really good at organizing our lives together, like business partners, or something. We were good at that. But neither of us were invested in each other enough to argue. To…” She struggled to find the right words. “Try to change the other by arguing. I really wish we’d argued. It would’ve showed we still cared about our marriage.”
I didn’t say anything for a bit. I didn’t know what to say. I thought about my own parents’ divorce, and how much they argued. My most vivid memories of my parents together are of slamming doors and red-faced arguments. But then I thought about what Jessica said about not arguing, and it reminded me of the night my father left. He came home and told my mother that he’d been having an affair and that he was leaving. I remember it being so quiet that I could hear the roll and pop of each drawer as he packed his bag. It was an eerie weighty silence that I didn’t understand then, but now, after chatting with Jessica, realized it was the sound of giving up. It was the sound of realizing that there was nothing left to fight over.
“I never, in a million years, would’ve thought that arguing was a good thing,” I said.
“I’m sure arguing too much can be a bad thing,” she said. “But for us it was silence. We just stopped being invested enough to fight.”
Jessica and I spoke for a moment more. Then we said goodbye, and then I thought about my own marriage.
Not that Mel and I fight all that much, we don’t. And I will be honest; I hate it when we do. I hate it when my wife slams the bedroom door and then I hear the click of the door lock. I hate that our fights are always over something that seems like a big deal at the time, but looking back, it was always something that would’ve been better solved through conversation, like how to get the kids to do their homework, or why we over spent the budget this month. After 11 years, our fights are about fine-tuning our marriage, and they don’t ever last more than a few hours. But every time we fight, I wonder if we are doing something wrong, and this argument is the first step on a long road ending in divorce.
But after chatting with Jessica, I realize that maybe, we are doing something right.
Fighting too much is a bad thing. That I will say. And I’m not going to try and put a number on how much a couple should argue. But what I can say is that there is something about the ebb and flow of an argument that is clearly evidence of two people invested enough in a relationship to try and make a change. Arguing in a marriage can be a way to make it better. Sometimes an argument is because one person is really tired or stressed out and acting ridiculous. Believe me, I know. I have done it. I have seen it. But most of the time it is one person saying, “I love you, but I don’t like this one thing. Can we fix it?”
Arguing really does show that people are invested in fixing a problem, and although it’s uncomfortable, arguments really are what make a marriage better.
Mel and I argued a lot during our first year. We argued over little things like how to load the dishwasher and big things like being friends with exes. And when I think back on those nights where we went to bed with our backs to each other, both of us flaming pissed about this or that, I realize that we needed it. We needed to call each other out on our crap, and the fact that we took the time to spot something that needed to be fixed, and then humble ourselves to fix it, was a good thing.
And I think the amount of arguing can really depend on the relationship, and where you are in it. I know that Mel and I argue about different things now that we have kids than what we did when we first got married. I’m not a social scientist or a relationship counselor. I don’t know how my marriage compares to other marriages. But what I do know is that when I think back on what Jessica said about the lack of arguments in her marriage, and compare it with my own, I can see that every time Mel and I argue it’s because we are invested enough in our marriage to get pissed off and try to change it. Although I hate when we argue, and I’d much rather never argue again, silence would be worse because it would show a lack of investment in change. Because ultimately that’s what marriage is all about. It’s about growing together, learning to understand each other as we become different people. I suppose what I’m trying to say here is that arguments are the growing pains of marriage.