It’s extremely easy to fall into a fight in even the most enlightened relationship. My husband and I almost did it recently. In fact, if you had been watching you might have called what happened a fight, or at least an argument….
To put this in proper perspective, you should know that we have been married for 48 years, and have been studying and teaching about relationships for over 35 years.
It Starts Innocently
It started innocently enough. My husband Jon came into my office and said, “I’ve been invited to a meeting tonight. I’m going to go, would you like to come along with me?”
I said, “Tell me more.”
Jon: “A friend told me he attended “x” workshop and came away feeling less guilty and pressured about getting stuff done. You have been struggling with that, so I thought you might find it useful.”
Make Sure You’re Being Clear
I missed something in this exchange. I’ve known about “x” workshop for a long time and have never been particularly interested in attending it. His comment was ambiguous, but I thought he was talking about the evening program. In his mind his invitation was about the workshop.
Me: “OK, I’ll come.” I asked for details, and he gave me a location and starting time. Both were very doable. I asked about the ending time, he said he didn’t know. He called to find out. Later, he told me, “The meeting ends at 10: 45. Maybe we should take both cars in case you want to leave early.”
Now, I was a little bit unsure about the meeting since I had been out late at night before but I didn’t say anything. A little later, I overheard his end of a telephone conversation with our adult son.
He talked about saving the workshop dates, because our son might like to attend with us. At this point I was getting a little confused and suspicious.
Me: (later in his office). “What is this about? Are you planning on attending the workshop?”
Jon: “Well, my friend told me how much it changed since I was involved years ago.”
I was again beginning to feel angry because he didn’t actually answer my question.
Me: (impatient) “Tell me the whole thing.”
Jon: “I did. I’m thinking about it.”
Me: (Angrily — This Is The Part That Looked Like The Fight) “Tell me the whole thing, starting at the beginning.”
Jon: (defensively). “Why are you mad at me? I did tell you.”
Me: “No you didn’t. If you had told me the whole thing you would have started with telling me that you were thinking about going to the workshop, instead of inviting me to attend the meeting. What is this thing tonight anyway? Is it a preview for the workshop?” (We both know that a preview is a sales presentation.).
Jon: “Well, my friend said they don’t pressure you anymore. He said they’ve changed.”
Me: (I’m angry — he has SORT OF admitted that it’s a sales presentation.) “I thought you said it was about helping me feel less pressured.”
Jon: (innocent). “Why are you so angry?”
Me: “Because you’re not giving me the whole story straight — it’s coming out in pieces.”
I left his office telling him I would think about it. This brief angry exchange could’ve turned into an ugly fight. In fact it had all of the earmarks of one of the games described in Eric Berne’s classic book Games People Play.
The Games People Play
It started with an invitation that had an ulterior motive. Jon wanted me to do something that he was pretty sure I wouldn’t be very interested in doing, so he offered me an ambiguous invitation. If I had actually attended the evening meeting and been subjected to a sales presentation instead of getting useful information I expected, I really would have been angry.
He really was not thinking about trying to manipulate me at the time he invited me. All he was thinking about was what he wanted to do. Games start that way and end with everyone involved feeling badly. They can get out of control very quickly. Then it becomes a matter of blaming each other for the problem.
If I had gone to the meeting and discovered that it was a sales presentation, I would have been very angry. And I certainly could have blamed him for tricking me. Really, though, I would have had a part in it being tricked. My part would have been falling for the bait of a pleasant evening out and not noticing that there was something else going on.
Ignoring the Moment of Confusion
And that is what would have happened if I hadn’t noticed my own confusion after I overheard Jon’s phone call and started asking questions. In every game, there’s a moment of confusion that is usually ignored. Once it’s ignored the game or the fight escalates into a mess of bad feelings and accusations.
I’ve been practicing noticing those moments for many years. Even when I did notice that something else was going on and tried to get more information, I still got angry. But we did manage to avoid a fight.
Later when I had calmed down I thought about whether or not I really wanted to attend the meeting. I decided that I didn’t want to go and said, “I’ll pass.” He said OK, went to the meeting, and I had a quiet, pleasant evening at home.
Much later, he came home and said, “It’s probably a good thing that you didn’t come. You wouldn’t have liked it.”
Me: “Are you going to attend the workshop?”
Jon: “I’m thinking about it.”
When Communication is a Challenge
Communication can be a real challenge, even when you are as skilled at it as I am. It’s important to learn to notice those moments of confusion and talk about them. Sometimes that works, and you can avoid getting deeper into an argument.
If it doesn’t work, and that fight happens anyway, trying to assign blame won’t get you very far. In fact, you may start another fight while trying to sort out the first one. If you can, just forgive each other and move on.
If fights happen frequently, talk to a professional relationship counselor. We can help you learn more effective patterns of communication.