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Perfecting the Art of Arguing: Jewish Women and Their Non-Jewish Mates

April 24, 2007

During my high school years, my mother and I were known for having yelling fits, arguing and disagreeing about where I was allowed to go into the city or what parties I could attend without a parent. She'd assert her scary authority to which I did not like submitting. I'd argue back my position. But at some point, we'd always find common ground. No, I didn't want to hurt her; I just didn't feel she was being fair. No, she didn't want to be strict with me just for the sake of it; she wanted me to be safe. And we'd compromise in some way, hug and make up, and continue any conversation we might have been having before the argument or sit down and have dinner together, and that was that. None of us harbored any bad feelings.

Except her (non-Jewish) boyfriend. He did not like that we argued. He complained to her in private that he did not feel it was right. She told me about it. Then we both yelled at him and said we can argue if we want to. "If he doesn't let his feelings out, he'll have a nervous breakdown," I apparently said at age 15. And 20 years later, we still laugh about that — how dare he prevent us from our loving arguments!

The Jewish women I know like to laugh hard, live well, and have a good argument. Maybe we argue because we come from an oppressed people, we feel we've never been heard throughout history, or we've been taught to go out and grab life and take what we deserve — fairness, authority, and respect — however we can get it. I, for one, sure as hell wasn't taught to be quiet and docile and let life pass me by.

Enter my (non-Jewish) then-boyfriend, now-husband, when I was 21 years old. Neil is quiet. He doesn't come from arguing people. He comes from people who don't express anger. They bottle it up and put it back on themselves, blame themselves, feel guilty, and get depressed. Neil hated it when we had arguments. He wasn't used to someone who was so assertive; arguments made him feel like a bad person. While I might have been mad about some specific incident that happened and wanted to discuss it, he took the situation as an affront to him as a person. I still loved him when I argued, but he didn't know that.

Neil is 12 years my senior. He came to our relationship after many others and much self-analysis. He might not have wanted or known how to argue, but he had acquired some communication tools from his work with youth groups and other group initiatives. For example, he had already learned that "I" statements open a conversation gently and humbly ("I feel hurt when you say that"), while I was still using my high school lexicon of "you" statements ("You are being spiteful"), which often cause the receiving party to get defensive. He had also already learned the pitfalls of exaggerations; I still fell back on them to summarize my overall impression ("You always do X," "You never do Y.")

Neil has also focused on my tone of voice more than the content of my argument. He often felt we could have had a decent conversation about an issue, but not when I was using an unfriendly tone. I was often so caught up in my emotions that I couldn't strike a different tone until I settled the problem. (But on the rare occasion that he gave me a taste of my own medicine and raised his voice, it was so out of character and unpleasant, I ran away in terror!)

Each of us arguing our points about arguing has led to changes over time. As in the situations with my mother, I never want to hurt Neil, I just want to solve a problem, be listened to, or get a frustration out. I've tried to temper my outbursts and tone; they don't yield me what I want from him (he shuts down or is unable to really listen). At the same time, when I'm not successful, Neil has learned to understand the signals and then deflect my sometimes misdirected anger or frustration, when he just happens to be in the way of negative emotions about something else entirely. In addition, while initially Neil seemed to think that addressing an issue head-on was too confrontational, he is now more willing to talk about issues even if it makes him uncomfortable. He has become more aware of the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness, so he is more assertive about his own feelings and needs and doesn't feel as intimidated when I am about mine. Most importantly, we've each learned to use the magic words: "You're right."

There's something to be said about letting it all out, everything you want to say in the back of your mind, unedited, uncensored, and then letting it all dissolve into the wind, like my mother and I did when I was young. But there's something else to be said for being so sensitive to and affected by each other's words and so in tune with each other's emotions that you can see the wave coming from a distance, navigate it with listening, kindness, understanding, and respect, and avoid the cacophonous crash altogether. Heading into our tenth year of marriage, we know that striving for this is part of the lifelong contract.

Sue Eisenfeld

Sue Eisenfeld's essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Gettysburg Review, Potomac Review, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, Virginia Living, Blue Ridge Country, and other publications. Her essays have been listed among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays in 2009, 2010, 2013. She is a two-time Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the recipient of the 2010 Goldfarb Family Fellowship. She holds an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, where she currently is on the teaching faculty. Her first book will be published by University of Nebraska Press in 2014. www.sueeisenfeld.com.

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