Mary’s annoyed with Jeff because he didn’t put the Tupperware away neatly. He threw the biggest containers on top of the small ones. “Why wouldn’t you stack the bowls according to size? It doesn’t make any sense!” “It’s really not that big a deal,” he says. “It looks so messy and they all could fall out next time we open the cabinet!” “Oh my god, no they won’t.” “Yes they will! There’s no reason to put them away so haphazardly. It would take you three extra seconds. This is the epitome of laziness.” “Will you just relax? Why does it matter so much?” “It bothers me! You know that. You know it drives me crazy, you know I like things organized, yet you don’t care at all and you do it anyway. Clearly, you have no consideration for my feelings.” “Jesus Christ, Mary, you’re such a drama queen!”
Mary is a bit of a drama queen in this scenario. But Jeff can be one too: “What happened to the tissues next to the nightstand?” Jeff asks. “Oh, I used the last one.” Jeff sighs. “What?” Mary asks. “It’s just, I need tissues next to the night stand.” “I understand, but they ran out.” Sigh again. “What? What’s the problem?” Mary asks. “One, my nose runs like a fucking fountain. Especially at night. So I need tissues next to me when I’m in bed. And two, I’m used to them being there, and when they’re not, it completely throws me off.”
“Like I said, they ran out. I needed a tissue and there was one left. I used it, and now they’re gone.” “Why were you using my tissues anyway?” “Your tissues? I’m sorry; I didn’t realize the tissues in this house fell under private domain.” “I specifically buy the special, medicated ones with lotion, because otherwise my nose gets too dry and irritated because I blow it so much.” “Jesus, Jeff, I’m sorry. I needed a fucking tissue.” “We have regular ones in the living room!” “I’ll buy you more tissues! Fucking relax.” “You relax!”
Mary witnesses fights just like this between her parents, who happen to be world-champion bickerers. They fight when Mary’s mom doesn’t put coupons in the right drawer. They fight when Mary’s dad talks while Mary’s mom is trying to watch one of her favorite shows (even though instigating a fight disrupts the show more). And they fight when one perceives the other’s tone of voice as hostile. And it always drives Mary crazy. And she always thought that she could never bear to be in a relationship inundated by bickering. Yet, when Jeff and Mary bicker, it doesn’t bother her the way she always imagined it would.
Mary’s irritation about the Tupperware, for example, wears off relatively quickly. And once it wears off, she feels calm. On some level, she even appreciated the fight, because it was a relief to be able to fight with someone and have it not be a big deal. Fighting with a significant other (about arbitrary things) is qualitatively different than fighting with friends. When you want to argue with a friend—again about something arbitrary—you’re much more likely to bite your tongue than with a boyfriend or girlfriend for several reasons1:
- It feels like fighting will negatively alter the relationship.
- As it is, fighting with a friend yields uneasy feelings.
- Uneasy feelings that said friend won’t like you as much.
- You don’t want to look like a douche bag.
It’s common—perhaps even second nature—to censor yourself at least a little bit when you’re with friends, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers, etc. Of course, there are some things you can’t help fighting about—i.e. your integrity is affronted. But let’s be honest, you’re probably not going to yell at one of your friends for not putting the Tupperware away correctly if they happened to come over and helped put dishes away,2 and you’re never going to yell at your friend for using up the last of the tissues, even if they are medicated. This is what you might call social etiquette.
But social etiquette can be exhausting. You probably try to be reasonably polite all day long, and by the end of it, there’s a litany of things that irritated you—your boss made up a grammatical rule and criticized you for not adhering to it in a report; your friend’s friend said something somewhat offensive; you stained your white shirt with salsa at lunch; the barista at your neighborhood coffee shop overcharged you and didn’t know how to void the transaction; the hair stylist yelled at you for flat ironing your hair, then proceeded to give you a shitty, uneven haircut. And you try not to let it get the better of you. You censor your frustration.3 So by the time you get home to your significant other, you’re like a rigorously shaken pop can that’s ready to explode.
You can’t censor yourself all the time, or you’ll go crazy. Part of the appeal of being in a relationship is that you acquire the freedom to be yourself uncensored.4 It allows you to have the fights you’ve wanted to have all day,5 because you just don’t care as much if you look like a douche bag to your significant other. Because your significant other likely won’t perceive you as a douche bag.6
A big part of the reason you feel comfortable fighting with your significant other—and feel confident they won’t perceive you as a douche bag for it—has to do with the fact that your significant other knows you as a dynamic human being. So even when you yell about which shelf the cereal goes on, they know that such an outburst doesn’t define you as a person. They know you are also a kind and caring individual who doesn’t get deal-breaker repulsed when they’re vomiting in the waste basket next to the bed in the middle of the night, and that you’ll ask them if they need anything—Pepto-Bismol, water, ginger ale, a cool washcloth for their forehead. You’ll graciously listen to them complain about their day, make them tacos when they come home from work, and scratch their back in places they can’t reach themselves. You know your significant other knows you this well, so you feel confident a petty argument will not alter the relationship. And so you yell about which shelf the cereal goes on, for your own mental health.