Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to email@example.com.
My partner and I desperately need your advice. About six months ago, we moved from our roomy condo in New Orleans—where we lived for five years—to a teeny, tiny apartment in New York City. I got a job offer I couldn’t refuse, so we loaded up (most of) our stuff in a U-Haul and treated this next chapter of our lives like an adventure.
But after a few weeks of playing tourist, the stress of the new city, new jobs, new everything began to set in. Now, we’re at each other’s throats constantly.
Everything she does (or doesn’t do) sets me off, and everything I do (or don’t do) seems to get under her skin, as well. We’re both aware of the amount of stress we’re under, but it’s not stopping us from getting into World Record-setting screaming matches. We fight, talk it out, make up, only to get into it again a day or two later. And it’s always over the most ridiculous things: chores, bills, plans, or why on earth she won’t squeeze the toothpaste tube from the bottom up, damnit!?
I’m so over the constant fighting, but I don’t know how to stop. It feels like we’re both walking around on eggshells all the time. We love each other deeply, but both agree that we can’t continue to live like this. Is it just a phase we’ll get over? Do we need to go to therapy together? Or does this sound like the beginning of the end?
Tired Of Fighting
Dear Tired Of Fighting:
Congrats on understanding that you guys are fighting over the lamest things. The fights keep reoccurring after you resolve them because these fights aren’t the disease—they’re the symptom.
You’ve been together a while, you know each other well, and you weren’t fighting as much when you lived in New Orleans. What changed?
You moved. You are both feeling upended, insecure, and lashing out at each other.
In times of stress we tend to lash out at the people closest to us because they’re least likely to leave just because we’re acting like total assholes. Problem is, we also tend to assume that, because they’re not going to leave us, that we can stop thinking of them as our dear loves and instead think of them as that asshole who hasn’t done the dishes yet.
We start to see our partner, the most important person in our lives, as that asshole who keep ruining things for me. We pin all of our discomfort and anxiety on them. If only she would squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom my life would be better. And yet she won’t squeeze toothpaste from the bottom up because the only time she interacts with toothpaste is when she’s at her weakest—first thing in the morning, last thing at night—and that small extra step is just not worth it because you can squeeze the toothpaste one-handed if you don’t squeeze from the bottom and I’m sure Stalin made people squeeze toothpaste from the bottom and isn’t a little chaos in life good and how much is the ½ gram of toothpaste we maybe don’t use on account of my not squeezing the tube per your specifications worth—$0.5? Here’s a nickel and I will squeeze how I want to. And, yes, my husband would really rather I squeezed the toothpaste from the bottom.
You’re fighting because you’re in the middle of a renegotiation in your relationship. The way you two did things in New Orleans isn’t going to work in New York.
Here’s a statistic: 69% of arguments that couples have are never resolved. Ever. You just argue over the toothpaste and the squeezing for the rest of your lives. That statistic may cause some to despair, but it makes me feel better because it helps me not judge myself when my husband and I are disagreeing about the same thing over and over again. Fighting doesn’t mean that you suck at relationships, or that this relationship sucks. It just means that you’re trying to make a life with a completely different human person who is not going to agree with you all of the time, which is one of the reasons that you love them.
Here’s another statistic: To be happy in a relationship, your ratio of positive to negative encounters should be 5:1. Five kisses and hugs for every “you know, about the toothpaste tube…” Five “you look great!”s for every “why don’t you ever take out the trash?” Five cups of coffee you make for them without asking because you know they want another for every angry “I moved to New York for you!”
You are fighting so much because you aren’t fighting about what you need to be fighting about: you changed her life. You got a great new job and she moved to New York for you. She sacrificed a part of her life to make yours better and, because she is a human, she is likely pissed about that. And her being pissed makes you pissed and then you’re all pissed together.
When you fight about unimportant shit, like toothpaste, you’re doing it because you want to win. You want to show how you are right and she is wrong and then feel satisfaction when she agrees and starts squeezing toothpaste from the bottom and proves that you are right. That is a fight for ego, that is a fight to win, and that is not the kind of fight you need to having. You both need to stop fighting for yourselves and start fighting for your relationship.
When you fight about important shit, like how you are both now resentful of each other because of this move to New York, no one wins because you aren’t fighting for each other—you’re fighting for your relationship.
Here’s the fight you need to have: You go to your partner and tell her how she has wronged you—this is what you do to me, this is how I now feel, look at how I feel. You tell her and she listens, she does not talk, she does not provide contradictory evidence or bring up another subject to fight about where she’s more likely to come out the victor. Your feelings are true, regardless of her experience. So she listens, and hears you, and understands how she has hurt you. Through that understanding she feels guilt and shame and sorrow. But we’re not done, we’re just getting started, because this is real life and both people have feelings.
She is also upset with you, because in her experience you have hurt her. You have wronged her. She gave up everything and life isn’t better, it’s worse. And when she expresses this to you, it is your job to not talk. Do not interrupt, do not provide contradictory evidence. It is your job to listen, to really hear what she’s saying, to accept her feelings as true facts. And then you will understand how you have hurt her, and you will feel guilt, and shame, and sorrow. So many couples don’t fight about what is actually bothering them because they don’t want to experience the discomfort of realizing that they have hurt the one they love. The point of understanding, when you realize your own fault in hurting the person you love most in the world, is uncomfortable. Many adults work their entire lives to not feel that discomfort. Instead, they prefer to expression dissatisfaction with their partner through much smaller disagreements where so much of themselves isn’t at risk. But by avoiding that discomfort, they are also avoiding the intimacy of reconciliation. When you break through the disagreement and see your partner, really see them, as though for the first time. And they see you. And you both apologize and promise to do better.
You and your partner are constantly fighting because you’re unhappy with each other and you aren’t addressing the root of that unhappiness. Change that. Be brave. Go to her, tell her why you feel the way you do, and find out how she feels. Allow your anger to give way to sorrow, and then allow yourselves to sit with that sadness. And then use that sorrow to grow a new understanding, a new partnership, a new life.
And then maybe buy two tubes of toothpaste that you each squeeze however you want.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.