I’m in a relationship that feels like it could last, but I’m afraid of ending up like my parents: constantly bickering over minutiae, snarling at each other from other rooms, and slamming doors. The thing is, my boyfriend and I are already starting to fight over the stupidest stuff!
Before you know it, you’re thinking, “What was it, a year ago, he was promising me the moon, and now he can’t even bring home the right freaking pepper?!”
Being annoying is the human condition. But, the partner who will be most annoying is one you only find halfway hot — somebody you have the hots for physically but whose character flaws and incompatibilities you ignore. You basically need to have a crush on a partner as a human being (have deep respect and even admiration for who he is and how he goes about life). Being human, he’ll do things that would annoy a Buddhist monk who could relax for an afternoon in a tank of fire ants. If you have the hots for him all around, it’s far less likely that the things you dream of doing to him in bed will involve strangling or blunt force trauma.
You should also make sure your partner isn’t your second greatest love, after your love of being right. Approaching problems as “ours” rather than “mine vs. yours” takes what researcher John Gottman calls “deep friendship,” where overwhelming positive feelings about each other and the relationship really suck the life out of any negative ones. The more relationship research I read, the more essential an overall positive sentiment seems. For example, researcher Shelly Gable found that the happiest relationships involve partners who make sacrifices for each other — because they love and want to support their partner, and not as some sort of investment to avoid conflict or keep from losing them.
So, in a good relationship, a guy goes to his girlfriend’s poetry reading because it means a lot to her to have him there, and not because it means a lot to him to keep her from running off with some spoken-word slacker who doesn’t wash between his toes.
Each time you snap at each other, you hack a little chunk out of your relationship. Before long, snapping becomes the culture of your relationship, and you become your snarly parents. It helps to make a pact that you won’t act like you’ve forgotten you love each other. Of course, there will probably be times you slip and get nasty. What’s important is not letting yourselves stay nasty. Not for a minute. Not even for 30 seconds.
If you do have “deep friendship,” there’s a good chance you’ll vault yourselves out of the feel-bad situation with what Gottman calls “the secret weapon of emotionally intelligent couples” — “the repair attempt.” This is something you say or do, maybe even something silly like making a face you know will crack your partner up, that defuses the tension and keeps the argument from getting out of hand. This is essential, since Gottman has found that a couple’s success in preventing negativity from escalating when they argue is one of the primary factors in whether a marriage lasts — and not in the sense that your parents’ has: “Please help us celebrate our 30 years — of nonstop screaming, door slamming, and vicious putdowns. Dinner and character assassination, followed by dancing.”
Regression toward the meanie
My girlfriend of three months seems to relish treating me like her narcissistic psycho ex-boyfriend treated her — constantly pulling away and basically putting her on an emotional rollercoaster. She brings up her ex in almost every conversation, although I’ve asked her not to. I keep telling her mature love is about putting out what you wish to receive, and she agrees. Should I stay with her while she struggles to overcome her past?
“Mature love”? At best, that sounds like a porn mag put out by the AARP or some old man’s pickup line: “Something tells me you aren’t wearing any Depends.” The last person who should be pontificating about “mature love” is a guy who thinks he can lecture somebody into providing it. Even better, your student is a woman who treats your relationship like the revenge phase of her last one. (Her narcissistic psycho ex is gone, but you’ll do.) If you want a project, buy macaroni and glue. If you’re really after “mature love,” you need a woman who’s capable of sharing it with you. This starts with recognizing that “mature love” doesn’t only involve “putting out what you wish to receive” but putting out what you don’t — and then running inside and bolting the door so it can’t get back in.
Read Amy Alkon’s book: “I See Rude People: One woman’s battle to beat some manners into impolite society” (McGraw-Hill, $16.95).