There are DEFCON levels to arguments between couples.
DEFCON 5: “Don’t forget the milk.” DEFCON 4: “It seems that you keep forgetting the milk.” DEFCON 3: “Dinner is ruined because there is no milk.” DEFCON 2: “I’m seriously concerned about this whole milk situation.” And DEFCON 1: “If you ever forget the milk again, this relationship is over.”
The penultimate episode of Showtime’s financial drama Billions (the season finale airs Sunday) features a perfect DEFCON 1 scenario: The obscenely rich Power Husband abandons his obscenely rich Power Wife to spend time carousing with his obscenely rich (and super sexy) Power Mentor. When Power Husband finally returns home in the wee hours of the morning, Power Wife tells him: “Don’t ever fucking do that to me again.”
Damn, Power Wife, damn. You think this guy will forget this conversation? If he does, even this dude’s billions can’t help him. That relationship is screwed.
If there is ever a line to be honored in a relationship, it’s the language articulated once DEFCON 1 is reached — when a boundary is drawn, often with a splash of ultimatum.
I’ve heard speeches like this more times than I would care to admit. But with my husband, we have reached DEFCON 1 just once.
I’m not proud of this, but it happened. My levels of control freakiness had reached a new level of insanity. One night, after I had failed to force him to apologize a 20th time for something that was so important I don’t even remember it now, I angrily searched for my name in his iMessages. I didn’t even have a mission. I was in that glorious land of “just trying to find some shit to get mad at.” I believe this would count as DEFCON This Chick Has Gone Batshit.
Even more annoying is what I found in all his texts: He had only said nice things about me.
Infuriated, I told him what I had done.
My husband was exceedingly kind. We have each other’s passwords; it wasn’t as if I hacked the thing. But it was still a horrible violation. He whipped out a version of that magic line that changed the game. He said it in a way that was so stark, so real, so eerily without malice that he has never had to say it since.
“Please, don’t ever do that again.”
These “don’t-ever-again” commands are used sparingly by couples, and I would say we get about four or five very serious absolutes apiece. Any more, you’re getting a little greedy or controlling. Anyone in a relationship should be on the watch for it. Everyone loves the Golden Rule, so let’s call this sentiment the Golden Threat.
How, you may ask, is this different than the always-toxic ultimatum?
At its core, the Golden Threat indicates that a relationship’s fundamental health is at stake — not just your desire to get something you want. With the Golden Threat, there is a firm but fair verbal contract being articulated that says, “I know what I need for this relationship to work, so if you don’t empathize with this need, neither I nor the relationship is going to be operating smoothly.”
Ignoring these statements is what causes irreparable damage to a partnership. Because the Golden Threat essentially says: “Yes, this is the hill I’m going to die on — so what of it?”
I’ve always recommended sharing your five favorite movies as a first date icebreaker. Now let’s add add Top 5 Golden Threats to that list of conversation topics. It would save a hell of a lot of time and heartbreak. My top 5? 1. Don’t cheat. 2. Don’t lie. 3. Don’t take me for granted. 4. Don’t mock me. 5. Don’t withhold physical affection.
In fact, the one time I have used the Golden Threat relates to physical affection.
When we first started dating, my husband and I had a fight about how I zoned out as he was talking about a fairly important matter. He was so irritated, he physically moved away as if he couldn’t even stand being near me. I was on the bed. He was on the couch.
I felt sick. So I told my now-spouse, “Please don’t ever withhold physical affection to get back at me again.” My mom has severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, and there were times as a small child where she couldn’t hold me because of her fear of contamination. It left a few psychic scars.
I don’t expect my husband to always be rocking me in his arms like a baby; but during a fight, I simply ask that he not tactically withhold physicality as a means of making a point. He has obliged.
Human beings are so maddeningly human that abiding by every preference is unlikely to happen. But at the very least we must hear each other’s Golden Threats — and never have to hear them again. Usually they relate to childhood wounds as to what feels particularly wrong in our guts and our hearts. These are the most highly personalized triggers for one’s own well-being. Heeding them is the least we can do for our partners.
In an odd twist of pop-cultural fate, the electronically invasive sin I committed against my husband made for another plot turn on that last episode of Billions when the Paul Giamatti character rifles through his wife’s computer — and actually sends something to himself. Watching it, I cringed.
As we binged on the show together, my husband’s arms held me in bed like a warm, cozy nook. I felt the physical affection I know I need to thrive in a relationship. I turned to him.
“He should not do that,” I observed to my husband, “ever again.”