fight better
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?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I struggle. One day, Michael asks about going to a Red Sox game—a friend got last-minute tickets—and I say, "Tomorrow? The one night that my brother's family will be here from Switzerland?" He nods. "Maybe I can do both," he says. The game is at 7; Boston is two hours away. "So what time would dinner work for you?" I ask, and he says, "Four? 3:30?" I explode: "This has been on the calendar for six months!... Are you kidding me?... Dinner at 3:30! No really, that's a great idea!... I can't even deal with you right now." Also I make the khhh sound. Michael cowers, apologizes ("I only asked"). But I'm too mad to listen or learn or do anything right. I storm out of the room and busy myself with seething.

Only when Michael sits tentatively beside me do I replay the fight in my head. I hear my excessive fury, and I am sorry. He is a good partner, just a person who is different from me, one who also really wants to go to the ball game. "I'm sorry you're going to miss your game," I say, meaning it, and he says, "I'll be glad to see your brother. There will be other games." I smile. "Wrap your arms around me," I say, and he does.

The next time I'm annoyed, I do better. High school friends of Michael's come into town. "What were you thinking of serving?" I ask, preemptively irritated but doing my darnedest to scrub it from my tone. "Uh, pasta?" Michael says, grimacing. "With some kind of, uh, sauce?" Michael's haplessness is the trigger here; typically I'd say something like, "Why am I the one who always has to figure this stuff out? They're your friends. It's not like I don't have a billion things to do!" And I'd say that even though what I really want is connection. Were I a set of nesting matryoshka dolls, the tiniest one inside would tell him clear, gentle things like "I just want to feel appreciated." But the big, bullying outer doll prefers to engage in a sniping tit for tat. And I don't like the way it sounds, or rather the way it sounds like it would sound, because—hooray!—I catch myself before I speak. "Did you want to ask me if I would please make dinner for your friends?" And Michael smiles back. "Would you please?" he asks. "Happily," I say. We are unrecorded, but sounding, I hope, better and better.

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