The Good Fight
About a month ago, I was chatting with my best friend Agnes when she told me about a book called The 5 Love Languages. I have a strong gag reflex for anything sounding even remotely self-helpy so I wasn’t immediately on board, but the more she described the book and how it had affected her interactions with her husband, her children, and even her parents, the more intrigued I became. The philosophy behind the book goes something like this: there are five “love languages” or ways to express and experience love - giving/receiving gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch. Everyone has a primary language, and recognizing both your own language and those of your loved ones promotes compassion and healthy communication. For example, if your primary language is acts of service, you might drop off some homemade soup when a friend isn’t feeling well. If it’s physical touch, you might give your partner a shoulder massage at the end of a long day. No words need necessarily be exchanged for the recipient to feel loved, as long as they understand your language as your means of conveying that sentiment.
I figured Agnes and 15 million satisfied readers can’t be wrong (the book’s been on the NY Times best-seller list for nearly 10 years), so I bought it with the earnest determination to metamorphose into the best wife/mother/sister/daughter/friend known to man. Cut to 3 weeks later and the book is sitting prettily on my husband’s nightstand collecting dust while we fall asleep in front of the tv every night. But the reason I bring it up is because I was thinking recently about how the concept could just as easily be applied to conflict. Just as each of us has our own love language, so too do we have our own means of dealing with disagreements. For example you might be a talker or a sweep-it-under-the-rug-and-pretend-it-doesn't-exist type, someone who must meet issues as they arise or someone who needs to sit & mull things over awhile, etc. And being aware of how each of us deals with frustration, anger, or pain is as important as acknowledging how we express tenderness, affection, and concern.
Why was I philosophizing over this matter, you ask? Because the ole hubby and I got into a whopper of a row last week that threw our contrasting combat tactics into stark relief.
Fortunately, those kinds of skirmishes are rare for us at this stage in our relationship and most of our friction consists of meaningful eye rolls, well-timed passive-aggressive commentary, and run of the mill bickering (ahh marriage). In the 10 years we’ve been together we’ve traded the impassioned, dramatic squabbles that frequently punctuated the beginning of our fiery romance for the comfort & stability of, well, a more well-adjusted existence. We’ve gotten good at reading one another and identifying each other’s warning signs, we know what factors ratchet the grump dial up a notch and to therefore tread lightly, and we’ve learned to navigate most loaded situations away from the precipice. If one of us is struggling on any given day, the other is usually successful at picking up the slack and acting with particular kindness & generosity, even if it means taking one for the team and being the bigger person in the process. And yet, there are inevitably times when it all ends in spectacular failure; when neither party is willing to back down and the proverbial doodoo hits the fan.
Last week was one of those times. Mike and I were both overworked, overwrought, and overtired, and we found ourselves in a battle of wills that culminated with him storming into our bedroom still gripping the toaster tray he’d been banging for emphasis on the kitchen counter, and me putting on a calm front I didn't feel as I fed the kids dinner and fought back rage-tears. In the aftermath, long after the girls had gone to sleep and while Mike and I stubbornly sulked at opposite ends of the house, I found myself dissecting the showdown - the circumstances leading up to it, all the ways we could have handled it better, and mostly, how very differently we fight.
The analysis is quite straightforward, really, and almost comical in its contradiction. My anger is frosty, consisting of interminable silences and careful avoidance of eye contact. Verbal communication is terse to non-existent, physical contact is verboten, and overall demeanor is one of stony reserve. Michael, on the other hand, has a temper that burns with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. When provoked this translates to lots of thundering about, bellowing, and some slamming of doors thrown in to make sure it’s clear that he is OUTRAGED.
As you can imagine, these disparate displays of emotion have been at turns baffling and exasperating, as neither of us can even remotely relate to the other’s modus operandi. He finds my manner unfeeling and impenetrable, while I find his intimidating and excessive. So how do we resolve these blow outs when they occur, and make our way back to common ground? Simple: one of us has to swallow our pride. This is infinitely easier said than done when it comes to two people who are the mulish & headstrong offspring of two sets of mulish & headstrong parents. For example, my mother is physically incapable of saying "I'm sorry." Remorse can be written all over her face but if she were to try to utter the actual words I'm convinced it would be like that scene in The Matrix when Neo's mouth melts into silly putty and fuses shut for all eternity.
To be fair though, Mike has always been better at reconciliation than I am. Once his ire has run its course he’s quick to forgive, unafraid to apologize, and seldom holds a grudge…all traits I wish came more easily to me. Unfortuantely I inherited my mom's aversion to admitting wrong-doing, so those who love us have learned they may not hear the words "I'm sorry" but they can perceive it in our touch when we reach for a hand after an argument. And that's the beauty of having someone in your life whose language is both unfamiliar and unnatural to you - it's the potential for introspection & growth, the opportunity for empathy, and a reckoning of those aspects of ourselves we should probably be working on anyway.
So my conclusion is this: I'm rubbish at reading self-help books. But also: in all our relationships - be they romantic, platonic or familial - we should always be striving to learn from each other and from our missteps, to honor the "languages" we use both in love and in times of trial, and to work our way (sometimes painstakingly) toward enlightenment. It’s not always an easy path but it’s one worth traveling…though the journey would be much less daunting with some bloody road signs.