Why do I pick fights with my husband? Because I want a happy marriage | Emma Beddington

The right kind of argument can apparently bring couples closer together. Is bickering about the bread bin a good start?

I want to get better at arguing. Not the bitter, exhausting kind that happens online, and not the kind that occurs when you put two French people in a room and within 90 seconds one of them is quoting Montaigne and the other has countered with Immanuel Kant, even though they are talking about, say, low-energy lightbulbs (about which neither of them previously had an opinion).

I’m interested in the domestic. I have never mastered the short, sharp spat, which can apparently be quite therapeutic. I wouldn’t know. After an early phase of massive, horrible fights, my motto for decades has been: “Why say something when you could let it fester, explode at the worst possible time, be horrified and grovellingly row back until the next time?”

But there’s scope for personal growth for even the most evolved among us (what, after all, is more evolved than silently WhatsApping pictures of the overflowing bin to a friend as your eyelid twitches involuntarily?). I want to get better at conflict. I don’t expect to enjoy it, but like kale or exercise, tolerating the unpleasantness has long-term benefits. An online poll in 2012 suggested that couples who argue “effectively” are 10 times more likely to have a happy relationship than those who don’t.

So to up my effectiveness, I have been reading The Five Arguments All Couples (Need to) Have by therapist Joanna Harrison. Harrison identifies categories of surface argument (“you never listen”, “your mother drives me crazy”, “you haven’t taken the bin out”, “stop looking at your phone”, “we never have sex”) through which we express deeper, fundamental issues around sharing a physical and emotional space with someone. Approached with curiosity and compassion, they can provide “rich opportunities to learn about each other and develop”.

And what rich opportunities there are! The people we live with thoughtfully foster our personal development daily, filling our favourite mug with WD40, piling washing in a mouldering heap to “dry” and turning the sink into an immersive art installation called something like “Teabag Butterknife Pan Soak IX”. Harrison writes that she has heard every variant of washing-up fight, and I believe it: dishwasher Tetris topped my unscientific survey of common fight topics by miles – we’re all exercised by fork prongs and pre-rinsing.

Some of these arguments, Harrison says, have a “playfulness”; they become more about expressing our individuality than the apparent subject. I can see how that might be, when you’ve lived with someone so long that your mind meld is total and you can look at a passing cat, both be reminded of the same minor incident in 2003, and then by some circuitous thought process say out loud, simultaneously: “We need more plasters.” We exert our independent existences by disagreeing about the correct place to store ketchup (the bin).

Most fights are horrible, but these entry-level spats, if you will, feel manageable. Buoyed by Harrison’s encouragement, I currently have five of my own, in various stages of their life cycle, on the go. I’m not sure what deeper truths they express, but they are:

Bread goes in, not on, the bread bin. I have basically lost this. The bread bin is now a mere bread display unit (much as the biscuit tin is now just a hiding place for stuff I’m keeping to myself).

You can leave a low-energy clothes airer on overnight – that’s the point of it. This is in the war of attrition phase: on, off, on again but angled so the tell-tale light is now out of sight.

Unless you are willing to sniff the milk, you can’t get huffy about it being thrown away. Conceded, reluctantly.

Recycling: you’re doing it wrong. Never surrender.

A toaster with only one half-functional slot must be replaced. “It’s fine,” I argue. “You just flip the bread! That toaster is older than our children! What do you expect?” “Toast?” says my spouse. I aired this one publicly and was informed definitively that I am, as Reddit, global arbiter of arguments would have it, the asshole.

Despite this poor record, I am determined to keep fighting (a phrase more often associated with heroism than bloody-mindedness about domestic ephemera, yes) and thus growing. It’s not about the winning – it’s about the taking part.

  • Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist


Emma Beddington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Will you marry me – or will you embarrass me? The unstoppable rise of the public marriage proposal
What’s more romantic than asking the man or woman of your dreams to spend the rest of their life with you? Doing it in front of an audience, apparently

29, Aug, 2023 @1:15 PM

Article image
The key to wedded bliss is a joint bank account? I don’t buy it | Arwa Mahdawi
My wife and I trust one another with our finances, but we have never opened a shared account. When it comes to a happy marriage, there is an easier way ...

Arwa Mahdawi

28, Jun, 2023 @10:00 AM

Article image
‘Now I know love is real!’ The people who gave up on romance – then found it in lockdown
Dating apps can be difficult and daunting at the best of times, and many users give up on them entirely. But for some the pandemic was a chance to reassess their priorities, and they were able to forge a much deeper connection

Lizzie Cernik

16, Sep, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
The sexual assault of sleeping women: the hidden, horrifying rape crisis in our bedrooms
A recent survey suggested a shockingly high proportion of women have been sexually assaulted by a partner as they slept. Now more and more are speaking out

Anna Moore

15, Jun, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: the empty sock drawer told me my marriage was over
The sight of our house without my ex-husband’s belongings prompted enormous grief. It also put me on the road to rebuilding my life

Annabelle Thorpe

05, Apr, 2023 @7:00 AM

Article image
‘I love you’: why men are much quicker to declare their feelings than women
According to a study of more than 3,000 people, heterosexual women take longer than men to make a verbal commitment to a new romance

15, Aug, 2023 @12:50 PM

Article image
No one believes my husband is my husband. Is that because he’s younger and prettier than me?
He’s not my brother. He’s not my colleague. If he was, we wouldn’t have such ridiculous conversations, writes Zoe Williams

Zoe Williams

06, Jul, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Could you take down a grizzly bear with your bare hands? My husband believes he can | Emma Beddington
A poll asking which animals people could beat in a fight has kept our household entertained. It’s a shame we can’t even outwit the clothes moths, writes Emma Beddington

Emma Beddington

18, May, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
My winter of love: Scrolling through sperm banks wasn’t sexy – but it was surprisingly intimate
Donor profiles sparked long conversations about the values we wanted for our child. The guys who wanted to ‘spread their genes’? Definitely out

Arwa Mahdawi

23, Dec, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
My husband and I are separating – but he doesn’t want anyone to know
He can’t afford to move out and refuses to tell his friends or family what’s going on. I’m worried about his mental health – and the effect on our seven-year-old

Anita Chaudhuri

25, May, 2023 @11:00 AM