Sage: All couples argue, but you can do it without offending spouse

Dear Sage:


My husband’s best friend from college is part of a couple that argues more than occasionally when we socialize, and six months ago they retired and are renting a condo 50 miles from us in Florida, so we see them more and more. We, too, are seasonal snowbirds. Whenever we go out, they make me think of the SNL skits about the Needlers, played by Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers, who are constantly at each other’s throats. In one episode, after a couple of minutes of sarcasm back and forth, Mr. Needler, in a restaurant, orders a scotch on the rocks ‘with a splash of water and, like, sixty sleeping pills.’ Our friends are like them, and I find these a waste of time. Is there a discreet way of asking them not to argue, perhaps asking them to table the squabble until later? Should I refuse to go along with this as long as the squabbling persists?


        – Tired of the Fights in South Miami Heights


Dear Tired:


   The Sage, ever the student of history, is reminded of a 1940s radio program called the Bickersons, played by Don Ameche and Frances Langford, who spent almost all their time quarreling in a series of humorous putdowns. A couple of examples:


Blanche: You used to be so considerate. Since you got married to me you haven't got any sympathy at all.
John: I have, too. I've got everybody's sympathy.
Blanche Believe me, there's better fish in the ocean than the one I caught.
John: There's better bait, too.


   Some couples think they’re entertaining others with comical repartee, but rarely does it come across that way. Some may joke harmlessly with each other, without offense, about trivial matters, such as one’s love of ice cream, or popcorn, or a 20-year-old pair of comfortable stinky old sneakers that he or she is required to keep in an outdoor shed. But other fights can be toxic and mean-spirited, and the warring factions ruin social gatherings for themselves and for everyone else within earshot, not to mention the potential for permanently damaging their marriages.

   People argue for many reasons. Even couples in the healthiest relationships are likely to go at it sometimes.

  But if they do so with positive intentions, psychologists say, such disagreements can actually strengthen relationships – so long as people are addressing issues rather than avoiding them, and in a way that is nonjudgmental, nonaccusatory, and that avoids personal affront, harsh criticism, name-calling and any hint of rejection. Recommendation: To do this successfully, it’s probably a good idea not to call your partner’s family a bunch of slobs and nitwits who are descended from toenail fungus and who demonstrate the table manners – and intellectual capacity – of a goat.

   Ideally conflict should be addressed in a tone that is calm and reassuring and that respects the other person’s feelings and point of view. In other words, never forget that you’re a team and that you accept each other’s strengths and weaknesses, even when you want to scream so loud that you’d put a blue whale’s mating siren to shame.

   A 2019 study done at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, reported in Science Daily, concluded that “In marriage, conflict is inevitable. Even the happiest couples argue. And research shows they tend to argue about the same topics as unhappy couples: children, money, in-laws, intimacy. So, what distinguishes happy couples? According to (this) study, it is the way happy couples argue that may makes a difference.”

   Some types of arguing can have health consequences, too, even for younger couples, according to a 2016 study, also reported in Science Daily, and based on research by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Northwestern University:  Outbursts of anger during arguments can predict cardiovascular problems, including chest pain and high blood pressure.

   On the other hand, the researchers added, “shutting down emotionally or ‘stonewalling’ during conflict raises the risk of musculoskeletal ailments such as a bad back or stiff muscles.”

   They concluded: “If you rage with frustration during a marital spat, watch your blood pressure. If you keep a stiff upper lip, watch your back.” The study tracked participants over a 20-year period, presumably people who for the most part lived through it.

   Some couples like to fight and argue because it’s part of the rhythm of their relationship – it keeps their adrenaline going, Dr. Nancy K. Schlossberg, a professor emerita of counseling psychology at the University of Maryland, told a columnist for the New York Times.

   “Most men get angry at what’s happened to them when they get ill, women get angry and scared when he’s not what he used to be — so they fight,” said Dr. Schlossberg.
   Arguments may stem from other problems in a relationship, according to Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania, writing in Psychology Today. These include unmet needs related to a lack of a secure attachment or acceptance in the relationship, a shortage of warmth and affection, a sense of loss of control and perceived inferiority in the relationship.

   So, other than these factors, getting along with each other is a no-brainer, correct? Ha! Good luck with that every time you disagree about who’s washing the sweat socks and unloading the dishwasher!

   As for Tired of the Fights, the Sage would suggest that you encourage your husband to socialize with his college friend by himself for now. Avoid the unnecessary friction that comes with meeting as couples. Let the two of them enjoy each other’s company. You will probably be better off watching Beverly Hillbillies reruns.

   Presumably your husband will be able to tell his friend that he believes the two of them can spend more quality time talking and sharing than if it were the four of you.

   Needless to say, your hubby must avoid criticizing or belittling either the other guy or the wife. For instance, he wouldn’t want to say, like the Bickersons, “Boy, you have my sympathy!” In fact, the arguments may come from both their corners, so don’t presume that one or the other is always the instigator.

   The easy thing for you to do is simply to bow out and say – every time the other couple tries to arrange a double date – that you’re busy. If the guys go out by themselves, your husband need not mention the arguments; after all, he can’t predict how the other guy will react. But if the friend demands a reason, diplomacy will be essential – delivered with as neutral and non-prejudicial a tone as possible. A simple observation about the effect of the arguments on the group dynamic will suffice. The other guy doesn’t need to know that these dinners make your skin crawl and prompt you to develop an unmitigated urge for 10 glasses of Vino Fino at three bucks a gallon.

   The Sage wishes you well. Old chums from school sometimes turn out to be best buddies for life. Encourage that if the camaraderie is still there. If not, well, you’ve both tried your hardest. You’ve given it a fighting chance, so to speak. Good luck!

   Humbly Yours,

   The Sage