Photo: Peter Rosa; Illustration: Julia Rothman
Our 13-year-old son was tinkering with his new iPod. "Hey," he said. "I just recorded you guys!" And sure enough, from the tiny, tinny speaker, my husband, Michael, and I could hear ourselves. Arguing. About Scrabble. Actually, arguing is a misnomer. It was mostly me ripping the poor guy a new one. And let me say this—if you don't like the way your voice sounds on an outgoing message, you should hear it when you're barking about a triple-word score. We were only kind of serious—more fisticuffs than hand grenades—and still it was ugly. "You're totally trying to screw me," I heard myself say like a child (an especially foulmouthed one). "No, no," Michael says pleasantly, and I sigh and say, "I always forget what an a-hole you are when you play this game." I also make a weird exasperated sound in the back of my throat (it would be spelled khhh). Hearing myself, I did not feel proud.
"Yikes!" I said. My son said, "I know, right?"
Our neighbors would doubtless get an amiable "No worries!" from me if they crashed a truck through our living room. But at home, a federal case must be made about such trivia as the children's vitamins ("Why am I the only one who..."), the unbought wrapping paper ("How come you never..."), the haircut unnoticed ("Could you for once..."), and the apologies offered too late or too unconvincingly ("Forget it. Really, just forget it.").
It isn't that I don't know this is wrong. I need to compromise more, listen more closely, respect opinions different from mine (sigh); to stop sounding like I'm a contestant in the Shriekingest Harpy competition; to be humbler, extend the benefit of the doubt, avoid hyperbole; to apologize and forgive. A recent study on married couples and fighting demonstrates just how important these skills are. The researchers had some of the couples write about significant recent fights, reporting objectively on their arguments in a way that made them pay attention to how they communicated. If you view your fight from the perspective of an outsider, the researchers found, your distress over the argument diminishes.
Armed with this information, I decide to try my own experiment. When I speak to my husband, I tell myself, I will imagine the sound of my own voice as if I'd have to listen to it later—or as if our daughter's fourth-grade teacher or my mother or Barack Obama might listen to it later. Because wouldn't you speak more carefully if you knew someone was listening? And isn't that strange, given that someone—your actual dearly beloved—is?
We Hear You!