When my husband tells jokes about our marriage onstage, there is one that hits particularly close to home. He’s talking to the audience about women he used to go for when he was younger, before he met me — his third wife — in his 40s.
“In your 20s, it’s all about looks and body and chemistry. But when you’re my age,” he says, turning to the older men in the audience who nod appreciatively, “you just want a woman you can get along with for two days in a row.”
He then pauses to add, “I’m a newlywed, and that’s our record. Two days in a row.”
Pat is stubborn and quick and always right. I am stubborn and quick and always right, too. Sometimes these qualities do not mesh well together, and we end up forgetting all the reasons we fell in love in the first place. Neither of us wants this. We both know how this road ends, and it sucks.
When one of our recent runs of two days in a row of wedded bliss ended, I decided the best move was to Google some best-sellers in the relationship self-help department while starting an emotion-avoidance home-improvement project to avoid ever truly feeling the depths of despair brewing in the pit of my stomach.
Later that night, my husband came home to see me painting our cabinets a chalky shade of teal and to hear the blasting sound of an audiobook by clinical psychologist Sue Johnson, author of the excellent Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. The book played on for quite a while that night, but the key bit of advice that jumped out to us both was about what Johnson calls “demon dialogues.”
“See if you can pin down each person’s [fighting] moves,” the audiobook advises. “Can you see the whole feedback loop? Describe it very simply by filling in the blanks in the following sentence. ‘The more I ____, the more you _____. And then the more I _____, and round and round we go.’ Come up with your name for this [argument] dance, and see if you each can share how it erodes the sense of safe connection in your relationship. How does it change the emotional music between you?”
She describes three main argument patterns among couples: #1: “Find the Bad Guy,” basically a fingers-pointing, blame-one-another game; #2: “The Protest Polka,” the more one person approaches, the more the other one turns away, often through numbing out or detachment; and #3: “Freeze and Flee,” which is when both partners run away from each other.
“What do you think of this book?” I ask Pat.
“I’m into it, actually, but I’m going to bed.”
Hours later, when I eventually join Pat under the covers, I keep tossing and turning and eventually wake him up (that’s another fight: why can’t I be more considerate getting into bed?), and I ask, since he’s up now anyway, does he want to do what the book advised and try naming our fights?
He squints at me sleepily. “Seriously?” he asks.
“Here,” I say, “I’ll go first and try to verbalize our relationship-fighting pattern, okay? So, I think that what happens when we fight is that the more I feel rejected, the more I numb out with anger and start accusing you of shit, and the more you feel not seen or heard, and you just detach from me completely.”
He stares at me with weary eyes. “Okay, yeah, that sounds about right,” he says.
“But she also says that we should give our fights their own name,” I continue. “So, like, what do you think we should call our fighting pattern?”
“You want me to name it now?” Pat asks incredulously. “You want me to be like a little branding agency for our fights?”
“Please,” I say. “Let’s give it a name so we can refer to it when it’s happening next time.”
“Fine,” he says. “How about we call it: ‘Fart World.’”
I laugh out loud. “Fart World?” I repeat.
“Yes,” he says. “Fart World. When we fight like that, we are in Fart World.”
“You know, you’re right,” I say. “That is where we are. That’s a good name. Fart World.”
I fall asleep with a smile on my face.
The next time two whole days of not fighting ends, I am reminded of that special land known as Fart World.
“You’re purposefully acting dumb,” I complain about an issue so small I can’t even remember now. “That’s what makes me feel like I can’t trust you, and that you’re just, like, this untrustworthy piece of shit.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he says. “Fart World.”
I stop and am forced to look in horror at how I am behaving.
It is totally Fart World.
“I’m sorry,” I say immediately, and I realize that we have had a breakthrough.
Because I don’t want to go to Fart World anymore. I hate Fart World.
Naming your own fighting pattern (and my husband’s instinct to go with something so silly it’s impossible to say it without laughing) serves three purposes: It breaks the tension; it reminds us of the same shit hole we are falling into yet again; and it prevents us from going any further.
My therapist tells me that breaking down and then naming a fighting pattern is healthy in the same way that discovering primary relationship triggers is important: It helps you stay aware that you are usually upset not just about that specific argument, but also because you are reexperiencing a lifetime of pain that has accumulated to make something a trigger in the first place.
No one wants to go to Fart World. But once you know where it is, once you can see it coming, once it has a name, you can speak aloud instead of denying it exists, you finally have a road map to avoid it altogether.