So many things make me cringe in recognition. One of the biggest is “Oh, we have a great relationship – we NEVER fight!”
That’s not a good thing, honey, that’s a flag so red it’s fuchsia. Why? Well, it most likely means one of two possible things:
- you’re entirely avoiding topics that might bring any conflict.
- one or both of you is going along to get along, i.e. holding your tongue when the other does or says something that bothers you.
We have a lot of good-seeming, well-meaning reasons to avoid conflict like this. The trouble is, it has a tendency to lead to surface-level relations without the depth it takes to grow roots. Never arguing at all is almost as bad as constantly being at each other’s throats. I speak from experience here: you can actually transition from one to the other in a head-spinning hurry.
That’s what happened in my relationship with Ezra. We stayed together for over a year and a half before we had our first argument. It seemed really amazing. We just got along so well! But, well, I wasn’t exactly the most assertive person at the time.
Three of my previous four partners had been, at best, emotionally abusive and manipulative. After surviving even one abusive relationship, your sense of self is pretty warped. After three, it’s basically in need of a total re-build. It really would have been in my best interest to have just spent some time alone to do that rebuilding. Self-awareness sometimes comes on during that whole 20/20 hindsight thing. Along with that double-whammy of internalizing abusers’ message that, if they don’t love you, nobody will because you don’t deserve it… well, that can lead to some major fear of being alone, and some very intense emotional reactions to receiving positive attention even after it’d been hammered into your mind that you wouldn’t get that, you wouldn’t deserve it, and you were extraordinarily lucky if someone managed to be convinced otherwise. So you’d better perform. You’d better be compliant, agreeable, and maintain that illusion that you’re desirable. Good Lord, if any of this is something you find relatable, please seek the services of a certified coach or licensed therapist.
What all this un-processed, un-examined background led to is that, basically, I never openly disagreed with him, and I found ways to rationalize things he’d say that didn’t fit in with my perception of our compatibility. The signs were there, I just didn’t allow myself to see them.
Does he debate to inform, with a motive to gain and receive some kind of understanding even if consensus won’t be found? Or does he fight dirty? Does he debate to win, to obliterate, to gloat over people he sees as inferior?
Three major things to look for in sussing out how to expect your partner or prospective partner to fight with you, well before you ever have a conflict, are these:
- How’s he argue with other people? Offline and online. We all probably have at least one or two instances we’ve flown off the handle in an online argument, but does he relish the fight itself? Or does he just get caught up in rare occasion? Does he debate to inform, with a motive to gain and receive some kind of understanding even if consensus won’t be found? Or does he fight dirty? Does he debate to win, to obliterate, to gloat over people he sees as inferior? If he’s a competitive rather than consensus-seeking arguer, are you the same way? Are you going to thrive on debating together, or are you going to tear each other down?
- How’s he treat his mother? No parent-child relationship is ever going to be perfect, but is his tone when he speaks about her generally respectful? Expressing his private disagreements with at least some tone of “well, I understand where she’s coming from at least.” Or do his interactions with and about her often drip with contempt? This is important because she was the first in-depth, interpersonal relationship he ever had with a female person. If there isn’t a damn good reason, a pattern of contempt toward her is usually a dealbreaker.
- Does he see an emotional response as evidence of some lack in logical basis for your position? If, the minute your eyes tear up, you’ve lost all credibility and he shifts into contempt-mode… That isn’t healthy at all. Depending on where you’ve come from, the most likely scenario is that whatever’s given you an “icky” feeling is valid. You may just not have the vocabulary to describe what you’re experiencing accurately. You may legitimately need to know more about logical fallacies, but nobody has a right to dismiss something that’s causing you harm and emotional pain just because you can’t offer a calm dissertation on why your rights and feelings matter.
I definitely would not recommend getting comfortable in your budding relationship until you’ve gotten some clear-eyed observation of how his patterns flow in this regard. Keep enough distance that, if you don’t like what you’ve learned on observation, you are as comfortable as you can be to step away. It’s hard to observe clearly in the pink-and-silver linings of your cloud of infatuation, but it is possible. Keep in mind, this is not manipulating or leading somebody on. Early-on, he’s evaluating you too. Do not stop scanning for flags just because he’s a good kisser, or good looking, or because he brought you flowers a time or two.
This is also a good reason to hold back on getting sexually involved too soon – a LOT of us get emotionally attached when we tangle like that. Make it as easy as possible to be kind to yourself and discerning in your choices. If you’re not just fooling around – if you’re looking for a long-time relationship prospect – then you totally can, and SHOULD, treat your first few months a little more like you’re the interviewer for a job! That doesn’t mean grilling with a ton of third-degree questions, or testing him. It means you’re in tune and observing behaviors.
Pretty sure it’s already been spoilered, but… Nope, I did not use any of these observation tips when I started seeing Ezra.
Being more strategic and assertive from the get-go could have saved us both a lot of heartache when I did eventually figure out that the most loving thing I could do was to let him go so we could seek better compatibility elsewhere.
I’ll also say that he was, overall, a decent fellow and probably still is. We just had fundamental incompatibilities in our character, life goals, motivations, and argumentative styles that did not come up until we’d already spent between 1.5 and 2 years together, because that observation and examination period was never done. Being more strategic and assertive from the get-go could have saved us both a lot of heartache when I did eventually figure out that the most loving thing I could do was to let him go so we could seek better compatibility elsewhere.
Because, wow, once we did start poking around at disagreements, they were everywhere. We couldn’t go a day – no, we couldn’t go HALF a day without being at each other’s throats. We couldn’t fight healthy. And it ultimately did tear our relationship to pieces.
If we’d paid more attention to actual compatibility and not just surface-level feelings, do I think the relationship would have lasted a lifetime? Probably not. But we certainly could have been a lot kinder to each other.
Even in highly compatible pairings, people who love each other are still going to disagree sometimes. It’s a normal part of every healthy relationship. I made a promise to my partner, very early on, that even if I didn’t like him very much in a moment, I would never act like I don’t love him. I may need to step out of the room for half an hour to collect myself before we try talking things out. But I still make sure the last thing I say if one of us needs to run an errand mid-fight is “I love you.” He can still lay his head in my lap while he watches NASCAR or Stranger Things. If he reaches for my hand, he can hold it for as long as he wants to.
In addition to observation and basic kindness, good conflict-resolution skills are SO important.
One of the best tools to fall back onto is the good, old fashioned, “I-message.” For example, instead of “WHY do you NEVER pick up your stupid socks?” try “When I find that you’ve left your socks on the floor, I feel disrespected and like I’m seen as your maid, not your partner.” More on effective use of I-messages can be found at this article.
For further reading on healthy arguing, this article at HuffPo is pretty high-quality.
In short, make as sure as you can, early on, that your prospective partner is compatible to you in goals, motivations, and arguing style. Once you are “official,” don’t hide from conflict, but remember that you are a team and that you care about one another. It’s not about never disagreeing – it’s about speaking truth in love.