Photo Illustration: Jonathan Barkat
When all hell breaks loose, does that mean the two of you are really in trouble? Mark Epstein used to think so…
One of the first fights my wife and I ever had, some months into our marriage, was about how to wash lettuce. It was a small thing that flared into a big thing, and it sent me running to my therapist for help in putting out the fire. We were newly married, and making dinner after work in our new apartment. I was preparing the salad, and my wife made a suggestion that I heard as a criticism. Or perhaps she criticized me and then claimed she was making a suggestion; it depends on who you want to believe. In any case, suddenly we were at odds. Things had gone wrong. Our unity, our very love for each other, was disrupted. Our marriage, the foundation of all that we believed in, was under siege. She thought I was oversensitive and ridiculous. I thought she was controlling and unapologetic. We could not see eye to eye. I had trouble even looking at her.
I was still angry when I went for my therapy appointment, but frustrated and sheepish and confused as well. "I suppose all I can do at these times is love her all the more strongly," I said to my therapist, drawing on my reserve of good intention, my belief in my marriage, and my conviction that by force of will I could get these troublesome feelings out of the way. I was frightened to be at odds with the person I most needed and was willing to do whatever my therapist suggested to make things better.
"Love her more strongly? That will never work," he replied with barely concealed disdain. "What's wrong with being angry?"
For me, this was a new concept. What's wrong with being angry? Everything! I did not want to be angry, I did not want her to be angry, and I did not want our marriage to have anger within it. I wanted peace and harmony and attunement and love—and sex. And yet, when I heard these words, something in me relaxed. It was okay to be angry? This did not mean that our marriage was bad? This rupture could be repaired?
Just the other day, an old friend told me a story about her marriage. She and her husband of many years were reminiscing about Paris, planning their next visit there. It had been 10 years. The last time they were there, they had a big fight on the street. The husband was so mad that he took all the money out of his pockets and threw it onto the street along with his jacket and books. He went straight to the airport and flew home without his wife, leaving her, she said with a smile, to have three more wonderful days in Paris. When he arrived in the States, he didn't have enough money to get home from the airport and had to call a friend in the middle of the night to come pick him up. The friend told him he was crazy and said to call back in a few hours. The husband actually walked from the airport. The funny thing was, she said, neither of them could remember what they'd been fighting about! Here was a couple who could be angry with each other without it being a catastrophe, who could even laugh about it without any apparent bitterness. She made it seem so easy.
We Hear You!