Bickering our Way to a Better Marriage
At the end of our wedding reception, my wife and I walked past the rows of cheering family and friends, climbed into the getaway car, and drove away, utterly euphoric.
On the way to the hotel, all the bickering we had done during the engagement seemed to evaporate. Truly, this was a fresh start.
I remember thinking, “Wow, those vows really did change me. I don’t believe we’ll ever argue again.” We would not, in fact, argue again – until four days into our honeymoon.
The Mexican resort where we stayed was all-inclusive, but as honeymooners, we were allowed to choose one night for a special candlelit dinner by the Caribbean Sea. Being the classy southern gentleman that I was, I put on my suit jacket.
“Don’t wear that,” my wife said. “It’s kind of over-the-top.”
This first, post-marital criticism left me feeling embarrassed, but I shrugged it off and replied, “Well, I like it, and it’s kind of chilly anyway, so I’m going to wear it.”
I then stepped outside and, recognizing how great I looked, requested that my wife take a photo of me. She reluctantly complied (see photo to the right).
“Shrumble foobie brruzzle phlog,” she mumbled, as we walked away from our condo.
“What did you just say?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said.
“No, what did you – wait – is this about the jacket?” I asked.
“I just think it looks silly. You’re overdressed. None of the other guys are going to look like that.”
All the post-marital, lovey-dovey pixie dust vanished in an instant.
“Fine, I’ll take the jacket off,” I said, way too dramatically. I turned around, yanked it off, and walked back to the room where I tossed the jacket on the bed. I returned, and we took the long walk to our seaside table, bickering along the way.
After we were seated, we discovered there was a persistent, cold breeze blowing over the Caribbean that evening, dropping the temperature into the fifties, cooling the food prematurely, and leaving me shivering without a jacket.
“Blazzuh fibizz bobbib zong,” I mumbled, holding my hands over the lantern on the table, trying to keep warm, while my wife snuggled into her shawl.
“What did you say?” she asked.
“Thanks for the bright idea on the jacket,” I said.
And so went the conversation until the waiter brought our desserts. By that time, our petty peace negotiations had resulted in moderately sincere apologies from both of us, and we decided to move on and have a good time on our trip – two hours after an argument over my dinner attire.
Unfortunately, our first year of marriage was littered with these kinds of useless bouts of bickering. We certainly had a handful of more serious arguments, some of which were necessary. But for the most part, we squabbled over the silly, unimportant things in life – like who got to drive to church, who was messier, how to load the dishwasher, and whether I should throw out my favorite plaid shirts. And I would be remiss if I did not mention our biggest, ugliest argument of all – okay, brace yourself – it was an argument over who would get to write more thank you notes for wedding gifts (yes, you read that correctly).
Too much of the time, we both took these arguments very personally; and looking back, I think I understand why. First, we were losing control of our lives. We both got married in our late twenties, years into living the single life – a life in which we called our own shots, chose our own paths, and had our choices left mostly unquestioned.
There was now a questioning, sometimes nit-picking intruder in our lives (albeit an intruder we both found very attractive). So each challenge from our spouse – no matter how minor – was a challenge over who had the authority in our lives.
Second, our ongoing critiques stung because we didn’t just want to be loved – we wanted to be liked, and we especially wanted to be liked by this person we had married. When my wife told me I was an embarrassment at the party or when I told her that her hair looked like a rat’s nest, old tenth grade insecurities came rushing back. And before you knew it, we were aimlessly bickering for thirty minutes. But under the bickering were hurt feelings and a fear that we weren’t accepted by the one person whose opinion now mattered the most.
We haven’t got marriage figured out, I assure you, but we’ve come a long way since the honeymoon argument over whether I would wear my suit coat. I think it’s helped a lot that we’ve both backed off of having to be in control – I can suck it up and go to the movies sometimes (it’s not my favorite thing to do, but I’m learning to like it). And she’s learned to keep it to herself when I want to wear my favorite, plaid shirt (I wore it the day I wrote this, and she didn’t say a word).
But more important than giving each other space to make decisions, is that we’ve both begun learning the importance of regularly demonstrating how much we really like each other. Sometimes that involves a small gift, a touch, a meaningful compliment, a prayer together, or an afternoon where we just hang out, rather than doing errands.
We still have our share of disagreements, which is probably normal and healthy. But on our good days, the disagreements are respectful and don’t have that exhausting, bickering tone to them. We’re learning – very slowly at times – that it’s the little decisions, the intentional moments of reaching out or just letting the other person be, that keep our chemistry high, our frustration low, and our hearts soft toward one another.