Who Needs Conflict?
As some friends and I zipped down a Miami highway, one turned around to look at me, accusingly, in the backseat. "So you don't ever fight with your girlfriend?" he said, as if this was something horrible and ugly. It was true, we don't, although I hadn't told him. I had told someone else, casually and off-handedly, because it didn't seem that big of a deal. But apparently this is the kind of news that travels. I nodded. "Dude," he said, "that's not healthy. You need to fight. That's the only way you'll know how each of you deals with problems."
No, I thought, fighting is the problem--and we've avoided it. And because he wasn't exactly the kind of person to take relationship advice from, he was just making my point. This was an argumentative guy; I had seen him burn through girlfriends, each gone in a smoldering blaze. I always thought--as I did about all fights in relationships--that his squabbles were the product of an easily bruised ego, and of a relationship that was bound to fail. The best thing I could do, I thought, was be the opposite of him. And in a nice way, I told him so.
That was years ago, sometime in late college. I graduated in 2002, and have been with Lisa since we were sophomores. We've lived in a few different apartments since then, and have evolved from idealistic college kids into early-rising career builders. And for the most part, we're still as easy-going as we were back in the dorms. There's no squabbling, no bickering, no squaring off and standing ground over the smallest and most insignificant of things. We've seen friends do this, and we want no part of it. But then, we're just doing what comes naturally. Neither of us has a history of fighting with friends, nor of living soap opera lives full of conflict and begrudged resolution. We're easygoing types; we like compromise. We're of different religions--she's Catholic, I'm a casual, atheistic Jew--but even that doesn't create conflict, because neither of us wants to impose something on the other.
But in the span of seven years, not all compromises go well, and even easygoing types have their moments of pushback. And in those times, I think there's something to be said for my old friend's bad advice. If there's anything constructive in a fight, it's in learning how you deal with a problem, and with other people. That's potent information, but my lack of fighting has left me with little to go on. I fumble through these moments, anxious and half-blind, always thinking, don't make it worse, don't make it worse.
To be fair, our few spats typically start because of me. Up until college, I was an awful communicator (just ask my only serious high school girlfriend), and I still have lapses when an issue makes me especially uneasy. Instead of talking about it early on--as Lisa is apt to do--I tend to mull it over internally, amplifying it needlessly. Then, at some inopportune time, Lisa will ask a question semi-related to the issue at hand; as an answer, I will deliver my thoughts raw and uncompromising. My head, I realize, is not a place to gestate rationality. It is a microwave. Don't leave things in there too long, lest they splatter.
So it went recently, when Lisa's parents offered to buy her a puppy. I wasn't thrilled; the puppy seemed like an intrusion into our life of coming-and-going. I imagined poop on the carpet, and long, sleepless nights as the puppy whined in its cage. But Lisa felt strongly. She loves dogs, and was willing to take on all related responsibilities. It'd be her dog, she said. I could just pet it--or, if I chose, I could ignore it entirely. It didn't matter. She'd take care of everything.
We had a few conversations, all initiated by her. Eventually, I agreed: So long as she's willing to take care of it, I shouldn't be so uncompromising as to not allow it into our home. She was happy, which is what I wanted.
What I still didn't want, however, was a dog--and in the next few weeks, I busily convinced myself how difficult this dog would be. As her parents were about to make the purchase, she called me up for one last confirmation of our compromise. Instead, I blurted out my objections. They came out sloppy and aggressive, not at all what I wanted, and she was shocked and hurt.
That night, we sorted it out. I let her vent. I apologized. I continued to think to myself, don't make it worse, don't make it worse. And during it all, I wanted a dog. I wanted a dog badly. I wanted it because it would have made Lisa happy, instead of what I had done, which was just the opposite.
And really, if those are the options, I can live with the dog.
She arrived a week or two later. Her name is Stella, and she's pretty cute.
She has pooped on the carpet, but I just pick it up. Lisa apologizes and says she's happy to do it, and I know she is. But it's OK.