When the rose tinted glasses come off, as they do eventually in all romantic relationships, we invariably find ourselves embroiled in stupid arguments about who’s turn it is to un-stack the dishwasher, or whether cream is a practical colour for a stair carpet, even if it is on discount. And of course, the majority of arguments have an unspoken subtext; rows about money are generally about power and control; rows about housework are often about a need for respect, and rows about sex are nearly always about a need for love and affection. How people argue is hugely important, indeed according to psychology professor, E. Mavis Hetherington, conflict style determines not just the risk of divorce, but for women, it also predicts future physical and psychological problems.
One of the categories of marriage that Heatherington identified in her 30 years of research is probably best illustrated by a scene from journalist J. Randy Taraborrelli’s biography of Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor, who had just recently met Richard Burton, put her head on his shoulder at a dinner party and asked “I wonder if this man will one day be my husband?’ to which Burton replied “If we don’t kill each other first?” Theirs was the classic ‘Operatic Marriage’, a relationship which functioned at a level of extreme emotional arousal. Operatic couples are intensely attracted, attached, and volatile, given both to frequent fighting and to passionate lovemaking. In fact Hetherington’s research shows that people in operatic marriages reported the highest level of sexual satisfaction among all of the marriage types studied.
The downside of all that passion is the hurtful, damaging things that are said during conflict, and these relationships usually end when one partner, typically the husband, decides that it is just too damaging. That pretty much describes what happened to M who is still recovering from her rather exhausting divorce five years. M is the first to admit that when she and her ex husband argued she could get from nought to “that’s it I’m leaving” in the space of five minutes. “I was like a child having a tantrum and then, when I realised I had pushed things too far, I would use sex as a way of pulling the relationship back from the brink. I did it for validation, to prove to myself that I hadn’t f***cked things up permanently. It wasn’t mature. All that fighting and then kissing and making up, it was like drugs or alcohol. It’s a fix.”
At least volatile couples have sex. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the couples who don’t fight at all. In his book “I love you but I’m not in love with you” marital therapist Andrew G. Marshall describes them as ‘best friends,’ people who never argue and who tend to have polite uninteresting sex, or no sex at all, because in order to avoid conflict they have had to switch off all their feelings.” Heatherington classifies these marriages as being ‘disengaged’. The couple share few interests, activities, or friends and conflict is low, but so is affection and sexual satisfaction.
Somewhere in the middle of these two relationships lies a happy and healthy medium. These are the couples who know how to fight fair (see do’s and don’ts), and for them, arguments are an opportunity to get difficult issues out in the open. They can also be an opportunity for one or both partners to get attention, to show off, to flex intellectual muscle and importantly, to demonstrate autonomy. That ‘separateness’ is one of the central tenets of psychologist Esther Perel’s book ‘Mating in Captivity’. In it, Perel suggests that “eroticism doesn’t come from intimacy, but from distance”. She argues, convincingly, that the realisation that you don’t own your partner, or could indeed lose them, is a much more powerful sexual incentive than taking each other for granted, and when it comes to day to day domestic conflicts between two people who essentially love each other, it is this underlying fear of loss that gives arguments such erotic potential. Perel says “anger emboldens you. It relieves you of compliance, and leaves you feeling more entitled. Anger highlights separateness and is a counterpoint to dependence; this is why it can so powerfully stoke desire. It gives you the distance you need. As a habit it can be problematic, but there’s no denying that it’s a powerful stimulant.”
Though certain sexual relationships seem to thrive on adrenaline, physiologically, anxiety and sexual arousal should be totally incompatible. In times of stress the body’s fight or flight response triggers the release of cortisol into the bloodstream. Cortisol constricts blood vessels supplying non essential organs such as the genitals in order to pump more blood to the heart and lungs. Technically, this ‘vasoconstriction’ should prevent sexual arousal, yet in 1977, a study involving probes, porn and horror flicks found that women showed more vaginal blood flow response to erotic imagery if it was preceded by anxiety provoking imagery (Hoon et al). Three years later similar tests found a comparable response in men (Wolchik). And in 1983 tests involving the threat of electric shock and porn established that fear actually enhanced sexual arousal (Barlow et al). Needless to say, this relationship between anxiety and arousal only works under certain conditions.
Nasty punch below the belt arguments are more likely to lead to the divorce court than the bedroom, but heated debates about neutral issues – that stair carpet or the Lib/Con alliance- induce the kind of impassioned anxiety that can propel you into each others arms in search of oxytocin, the chemical that counters the effects of cortisol and calms you down. Oxytocin, the hormone responsible for emotional bonding, reduces anxiety and evokes feelings of contentment, calmness and security. It also happens to increase sexual receptivity and is involved in both male and female orgasm. At orgasm, the release of feel good neuro-chemcials dopamine and seratonin conclude the cocktail, at which point neither of you care about the cream stair carpet or the two Hugh Grants from Love Actually.
While the push-it-away, pull-it-back nature of an argumentative relationship can be a very positive thing, the unfortunate human tendency to view arguments as a win-lose situation means that and in the heat of the moment, couples often say things they regret in order to score points or to retaliate. It’s difficult to resist the temptation to grab the moral high ground but what good is being’ right’ if you lose your relationship. One woman who knows a lot about this is Laura Munson. In her book, “This Is Not the Story You Think” Munson describes how, after twenty years, her husband told her that he didn’t love her anymore and he wanted out of the marriage. Most other women would have been reaching for the meat cleaver, but not Munson. As she says “I think he expected drama – he wanted it – and if I had freaked out he could have justified leaving, but I wasn’t prepared to engage in his drama.” Munson’s husband went AWOL for a few months but her refusal to turn the situation into a win lose situation meant that eventually, her husband had to accept that he was having a fight with himself and he came home. Munson thinks the best strategy for couples trying to stay marriaed is to “avoid allowing resentment to build by letting off a little steam every now so that the pressure cooker doesn’t explode.” It makes sense because marriage guru John Gottman’s research shows that 69% of the things couples argue about are perpetual issues that will never be resolved. Essentially, it is not what couples argue about but how they argue that is important and it is important. As Andrew G Marshall says “ having an argument is actually one of the most intimate things you can do with your partner because it involves taking a risk and ‘being real’. We can all be nice and loving but you really have to trust someone to be able to expose the angry part of yourself, to reveal yourself as a full rounded human being.”
How to fight fair
* Expect to work out any issues during a fight, it may be only then that we ever bring up these issues.
* Drink and argue – alcohol-fuelled rows are far worse than sober ones
* Punch below the belt, resort to accusations or insults or put the D word on the table.
* Keep thrashing it out if you are getting nowhere. Take time out, sleep on it if necessary, until the temperature cools down
* Forget humour. Po-faced logic has limited appeal.
* Be afraid to agree to disagree. Most arguments are perpetual issues that will never be resolved.
• Take turns to talk. Listen to what your partner is saying to you . Get into the habit of paraphrasing what your partner has said back to them to ensure that you are not misinterpreting their words.
• Use ‘I’ statements not ‘you’ statements. You are a world expert on your own feelings but the minute you start diagnosing your partner’s point of view you are on very weak ground.
• Have a tape-recorder, dictaphone or camcorder ready and hit “record” if things begin to escalate. It is the quickest way to realise how awful you both look and sound when you get into full flow!
* Remind yourself that being “right” is less important than being happy.
* Be mindful of your facial cues and expressions
* Use touch – a hug, a kiss, holding hands – as a way of reconnecting. Touch has the power to comfort and support, to protect and encourage, to relax and, of course, to arouse
The is the full and unedited version of a shorter article that was originally published in Psychologies Magazine