Domestic rows: a deconstruction
Many years ago, an acquaintance of mine made a remark about their domestic life: ‘I like rows. That’s when you get at the truth’. This comment, made in passing, remained with me, even though, curiously enough, I was reluctant to examine the remark at any length. My decision to not probe more deeply into the issue was that I thought the shortcomings of the viewpoint were only too evident: while it is the case that domestic rows might lead to greater candidness, and a revelation of some unpalatable truths about the relationship, the trustworthiness and fairness of what is said is much open to question. Rows arise when emotions are heated, and animosity is high, and this leads to a will-to-win i.e. a determination to enforce your point of view on the other until they concede your victory. Since the truth of our lives, in as much as it can be ascertained, is usually nuanced, heated arguments, as seductive and as energising as they sometimes can be, are rarely the forum for getting accurate and useful insights into how we are relating to others. Yes, a striking truth may emerge from the friction of the encounter, but the other party is unlikely to accept that truth, or find it even serviceable for them, when it has been used as ammunition.
So, in as far as my acquaintance’s perspective is thought-provoking, it is not because the comment is without deficiencies. It took me some time to appreciate that what I found intriguing was not so much the accuracy of their portrayal, but rather the underlying assumptions behind the view that rows are necessary, or at least beneficial. In this article, I wish to describe some of the underlying reasons for why we find having a row such a compelling attempt to resolve our relationship problems. What I seek to show is that as misguided as rows often are, they represent, even in our most bitter moments, our great hopes.
- A defence of our ‘innocence’. One of the most common reasons for rows is that each side wants to make a case, albeit often in an indirectly aggressive way, for their innocence regarding the issue in question. Most basically, this is because few of us relish admitting our shortcomings, and for many, it is much less threatening to argue, often in a self-deceiving fashion, for the status of blamelessness than to take stock of the degree of one’s culpability. There are many ways to explain this desire for the vaunted position of innocence, but one of the most compelling is that a defence of one’s innocence protects oneself from the ravages of one’s self-hate. In short, you have to be right to save yourself from the underlying feeling of being very ‘wrong’. Irrespective of the reasons for this behaviour, the truth - one that we appreciate in less emotional moments - is that trying to pin all the blame on the other obscures understanding of what is really going on.
- An attempt to maintain the illusion of a fixed moral order. This is quite a subtle reason that is hiding behind some particularly heated rows. To explain: it is understandable that when we feel an injustice has been committed that we might, in anger, raise the matter; where the person can get more enraged, though, is when the party that feels especially wronged either says or implicitly believes, ‘how could this happen? After all that I’ve done for you!’ In this case, the person on some level is attempting to use their rage to enforce the view that there should be an underlying moral order and their rage is a defence against an encroaching disillusionment, which suggests instead that a series of commendable acts need not be returned in kind. To some extent, then, a certain kind of row is a means to avoid a disconcerting existential insight: even when we act in a kind and commendable way with our partners and friends and so on, this doesn’t mean that appreciating your kindness will inevitably be one of their enduring commitments, as they will judge everything from their own vantage point (in the medieval morality play, ‘Everyman’, good deeds are guaranteed to be rewarded, but only in the ‘next life’). To avoid any deep-seated disillusionment in our relationships, and the kind of rows that arise from this, it is helpful to cultivate an attitude of good behaviour as exemplary conduct, but not as an implicit contractual agreement. You might still then be much disappointed by your partner’s conduct, but at least you will be spared the pain of believing that you were inevitably owed great consideration.
- An attempt to enforce your ‘compelling’ point of view. This is one of the common reasons for having a row. It is based upon the unfounded belief that with the sharing of some hard ‘truths’ and with the ‘right’ amount of ‘tough love’, your partner will see the error of their ways. Now experienced and astute therapists appreciate that colourful, pointed language coupled with gentle challenge can help a client take stock of what they are doing and to contemplate amending their perspective. Yet this performative attitude is much different from the acrimonious atmosphere that permeates a row. Indeed, a belligerent attitude is more likely to encourage your partner to erect or consolidate their defences than be open to consider the mistakes they might have made. The likely outcome is that you push them further away rather than constructively amend the damage.
- Not an eye for an eye, but it’s still revenge. When we feel hurt and badly treated, a row is a great temptation because it can be a means of hurting our partner with our well-chosen words that expose their wrongdoings and often excavate their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. There can be a catharsis of sorts that comes from causing pain when we ourselves are so hurt. While a row as a verbal lashing out can be very hard to avoid, from a wiser perspective there are several things to consider: even if you ‘win’ and cause them some pain, how much is that really winning (i.e. you might push them further away, for example)? Although you are in pain and understandably are tempted to retaliate verbally, are you prepared to take ownership of the consequences and the possible guilt (i.e. the consequences might be more than a moral hangover)? These questions reflect the fact that rows for this reason are very seductive, but, since they are reactions rather than considered responses, there is likely to be unwanted consequences from getting vengeful.
- The art of misdirection-avoiding a bigger problem. One of the clichés about relationships is a couple arguing over the ‘right’ way to treat the toothpaste tube. There is a deeper truth to this cliché, though: quite often domestic rows are over seemingly trivial things, yet they allude to more deep-seated difficulties (one possibility is a pervasive imbalance in the power in the relationship). Arguing about smaller things is construed on some level as a release of some pent-up feelings without having to confront the underlying causes. This manoeuvre has some cathartic potential, but rows of these nature are likely to be frequent and fail to ultimately deal with the deeper causes. Indeed, release of pent-up feelings is likely to be countered by increasing demoralisation.
If you are finding that you are having frequent rows with your partner, consider the possibility that some of the above reflects your underlying motivations. If you discover that this process of reflecting is too challenging for you, or you wish to build upon your insights, then you can always consult a counsellor to help you with this process.