Welcome to This Emotional Life! My goal is to share my professional experience about intimacy with a focus on how to preserve and deepen it. Professionally, I come to this topic as a couples’ therapist, researcher and book author. But I will also share my personal experiences as someone who was single for many years and now, pardon the cliché, very happily married. I want to begin with a topic that was central to my work with Monica and Phil who you will meet if you watch PBS’s This Emotional Life.
If you are intimate with someone you are going to have arguments---some of them will be knock-down, drag-out, fights. The reason is that with closeness comes cost—the stakes are much higher than with a casual friend or stranger. Many people think that couples who argue frequently are headed for divorce or a miserable marriage. I couldn’t disagree more.
I know from experience that arguments can either erode trust and cause break-ups or bring couples closer. I am writing this blog on vacation, on a sailboat. It sounds idyllic and the first few days of the trip were until my wife became unreasonable and stubborn. Okay, that might not have been fair. Let me try again. It was idyllic until we had an argument about….actually I’m not so sure I know what we were arguing about. Anyway, here is what happened. We had to sail overnight and I asked her if she felt ready to do a night watch alone (she is relatively new to sailing which has been a lifelong passion of mine). Her main job would be to maintain our course and watch for other boats.
“I’ll do it if you are with me.” She answered.
“I can sleep in the cockpit with you” I said thinking I was being helpful and especially loving since it was a cold night seventy miles off shore on our passage to Maine, and I would have much preferred to sleep down below in a warm bunk.
“Well if you’re with me, I feel comfortable doing it.”
“So are you saying you will do it?” I asked.
“If you’re next to me” she paused in thought, “then yes.”
“I said I would sleep in the cockpit, next to you, so are you saying yes or do you want me to stay awake with you?”
“If you’re next to me, I feel confident I can do it.”
“Can’t you just answer the question yes or no?”
“I did answer.”
“No you didn’t,” I shot back getting frustrated.
My wife (she won’t let me use her first name) was irritated and we went back and forth like this a few times. I was tired and the discussion, over something very simple, was becoming a heated argument over whether she did or did not answer my question. I am not sure which one of us broke the cycle of what I would call an emerging toxic argument---one marked by two people not listening to each other, escalating anger and other bad fighting habits—but it was probably my wife. Without going into the details I can say that the argument ended well and with both of us feeling closer to one another and able to laugh about it. I asked my wife if I could write about this and uncharacteristically---because she is from France and tells me French people are much more private than Americans—she said yes. I think she said yes because this small argument increased our trust and felt healthy in the end.
I’ve worked with many couples in therapy who would have arguments over small matters like the one above and end slamming doors, calling each other names, or burying their anger and acting it out passively by “forgetting” to do a household chore. Healthy arguments, like the one my wife and I ultimately had (later, if there’s interest I can describe how we got there), bring couples closer and strengthen the relationship, while toxic arguments damage relationships.
When relationships are damaged--when trust is lost and anger simmers--bad things happen. Healthy arguing leads to healthy relationships. And, believe it or not, preserving the health of your relationships can even help to keep you alive! A recent study of 3,682 couples, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, found that women who give up and give in during arguments with their husbands are four times more likely to die than women who argue productively. The women who held it in also had a higher risk of depression and irritable bowel syndrome (the latter most likely a physical manifestation of their view that their husband’s were pains in the a__). The study’s authors conclude that healthy arguments are good for your health and longevity--I couldn’t agree more.