May 21, 2006

The Argument Clinic

You two need to hurry up and have an argument.
Our therapist Ron said this to Larry and me during a pre-marital counseling session. We had taken a test to identify our strengths and weaknesses, and we’re so compatible, there’s little to hammer out. The areas we disagreed came down to semantics.

I.E.: Statement. “My partner and I know how we want to raise our children.”

Larry: (5) Strongly agree. Susan: (3) Undecided.

I checked “Undecided” because there was no number for “Not Applicable.” Larry checked "Strongly Agree" because we both know we don’t want kids. (Hey we love kids. We’re 44 and 51, and too old to raise any from a wheelchair.) So semantics aside, we’re in agreement. In fact, we’re so much in sync, that the test identified us as a “Vitalized Couple.” Or actualized, or self-actualized, or mutually empowered. Whatever. We scored the highest level.

But this test can also identify idealization distortion,” our therapist cautioned.

Sure. We’ve been dating six months, we’ve got a lifetime to be disappointed, then get over it. Then again, we’re 44 and 51. We’re already over it.

RON: So, you two need to hurry up and have an argument.
SUS: Why? So we can have some passionate post-argument snogging?
RON: No, So we can see how you resolve conflict.

I had post argument snogging on my mind. I’d just watched Pride and Prejudice. All that scorn and derision made for some hot sexual tension between the two main characters.

Elizabeth: Your arrogance and conceit, your selfish disdain for the feelings of others made me realize you were the last man in the world I could ever be prevailed upon to marry!”
Darcy glares at her, hot breath fogging up the cold air between their lips. He moves closer. Her lips part in anticipation. And, and and….
Darcy: Forgive me, madam, for taking up so much of your time.
And he’s outta there.

Dang that kind of arguing is hot! Well, in the movies, it is. But in real life, arguing wears down your soul. It kills the trust, and eventually the love.

On the other hand, when someone really “gets” you? Knows you, loves you? When you trust them and feel safe enough to be your best and baddest self? That’s what’s really hot.

Still the question remained. Why haven’t Larry and I had a big argument? Are we hiding our true selves? Are we codependent Yes-men? Are we not getting close enough to hurt each other? Or could it be: we’re honestly well matched and resolve issues well? Funny, it’s so hard to accept the happiest answer.

My parents rarely argued, because A) they didn’t get close enough, and B), we never talked openly and honestly about things. Well, until the 11th hour. Then my father lobbed some apocalyptic denunciation at us.
“You’re immature and irresponsible! We never should have let you skip full-day kindergarten!” He said this to me, the Class Valedictorian. Okay, so I was sneaking in at 3am. But still …

Not long ago, I said something that stung Larry. It was uttered in a noisy, rushed cell phone call. A while later, I had the intuition something was wrong. I asked him, he told me. I explained what I really meant, he was no longer hurt. And it was actually a healing moment. I saw Larry could deal with an issue, even when he was hurt, in a mature, graceful way. It made me trust and respect him so much, I wanted to rip all of his clothes off. But I’m a good Lutheran girl.

But what happens when what I say IS what I meant, and it hurts him? Or he does the same to me? What happens when we don’t notice something’s wrong? Or we don’t have the grace to explain how we’re hurt?

Since Larry and I hadn’t had those arguments yet, I brought up an argument I’d recently had with a friend; one we weren’t having success resolving.

RON: When you’re in an argument you shouldn’t emotionally react.
SUS: Where did you get your license, Codependent University?

Of course I didn’t say that. But I sure as heck wasn’t going to do that psycho-speak:
I'm having issues around that statement, or, Your truth isn’t compatible with my personal meta-narrative. Instead I looked at Ron and said, “That’s a load of crap!” I’ve known Ron for a few years, I can tell him when I think he’s full of crap. Larry’s only recently met Ron. Larry went about it more tactfully.

LAR: Can you clarify what you mean, Ron?
RON: If you react emotionally, you just ignite the other person.
SUS: You can ignite someone with a calm intellectual reaction, too. Remember Hannibal Lechter?
RON: Susan, you’re not supposed to react at all. You are supposed to show empathy.
SUS: Empathy is an emotional reaction, Ron.
RON: But it’s empathy toward the other person’s feelings, not your own.
SUS: Don’t I ever get to share my feelings? That’s not resolving an argument, that’s burying it for another day.

I spent my childhood having to stuff my emotions. I spent my early adult life trying to talk and empathize with my father. He talked; I empathized. After a while I realized we weren’t really communicating; he was just reciting his Life Monologue, and I was his current audience.

So Ron, Larry and I proceeded to argue over how to have a constructive argument. And again it came down to semantics. Ron’s points, after his psycho crap, were these:
  • It’s okay to RESPOND emotionally, just don’t REACT emotionally.
  • Empathize with the other person BEFORE responding with your feelings.
  • If you can’t empathize, take the time to try. Try to listen. Try to see from their point of view.

RON: Arguments don’t have to be bad. Handled rightly, arguments can be Growth Opportunities! You see where your weaknesses are; you get to love the other person. You get to grow up a little at a time.

THAT EVENING Larry and I got ourselves a Growth Opportunity. An AFGO as I’ve heard it called. “Another F’ing Growth Opportunity.”

I read another piece from my dating blog at a public venue, called The Waiting Was the Hardest Part. It didn’t just chronicle my anxieties about dating, about the battle between hope and cynicism. It chronicled the awkward beginning of my relationship with Larry: specifically, the awkward fortnight between our first emails and the first time we saw each other face to face.

Larry came to the show. He’s come to most of the shows I’ve done since we met. He’s always enthusiastic and supportive. He met some of my friends. He was the new fiancé, they loved him. It was great.

Until he drove me home.

SUS: How did you like the show? (Girl Code for How did you like MY PIECE?)
LAR: It was pretty good! Some of the pieces weren’t as strong as the others, but overall it was a great evening.
SUS: Well, what ones did you like?
(Girl Code: What did you specifically love about MY PIECE?)
LAR: I liked X’s piece, liked the flow of her story. Didn’t like Y’s piece as much. Z’s was good but too long. But hey, I commend all of you. It’s a huge feat, just to get up there and be that raw and honest. It’s almost as vulnerable as having sex.

SUS: Yep. It is.
(Girl Code: HELLO?!)

Larry gave me a clueless kiss goodnight, and turned to go, but I tugged on his hand.
SUS: Uh, I feel weird, Larry.
LAR: Why?

SUS: I just recited in public a vulnerable piece about my anxieties of dating. About dating you! And you didn’t say anything.
LAR: I’m so sorry! I guess, because we still hadn't met face to face, it was just your story, not mine. Maybe that’s why I didn’t comment.
SUS: If I'd been talking about cheddar cheese, I’d want to hear your feedback … You just said talking in public is so vulnerable.
LAR: God, I’m so sorry, Susan.

I looked at him, calm and sober. I wasn’t going to cry.
SUS:I won't be the girl who says, "I love you" first every time. I won't be the girl who has to ask to be loved. What love is it, if you have to beg for it? I spent my life doing that with my father. I won’t do it anymore, Larry. I won’t be in a relationship like that.

LAR: And you shouldn’t.

He drew me into his arms to comfort me. When you get up there and speak, I’m transfixed. You’re so talented and honest and real, and I love it. I am SO proud of you. And I’m not just saying it.

I stood there, allowing my body to know what it felt like to be held, encompassed, contained. That’s when the tears came. A lot of them. Not just for this moment, but for the years I spent hoping, asking, despairing to hear my father say the words.

SUS: You didn’t cause all these tears, Lar. You just hit the iceberg.
LAR: I know. I still feel horrible. Please forgive me.
SUS: Of course. I’m going to need it when I hurt you.

Maybe that’s the grace of love. The Effing Growth Opportunity. Loving the other person, you participate in their healing, a little at a time. I pulled away and thanked him, but he drew my face up into his, and his eyes sharpened with pain.
You mean so much to me. I love you so much. His voice cracked. You have no idea how much. Some day you will.

Later that evening, I called that friend with whom I had a conflict. I heard myself say, “Empathize, Susan. Just empathize.” And whaddya know? I started to feel how she must have felt. The light went on. And yes, I got around to sharing my side of things. She and I grew a little closer in the process. I got to pass on some of Larry’s grace along.

That whole thing about not reacting? It works. I guess Ron isn’t so full of crap. But don’t tell him I said so.


Spc. Freeman said...

I have an enormous amount of respect for the therapist's profession. I believe the work they do is important. The problem here is that so many attempt to eliminate conflict from any human bond, when the simple fact is, conflict is an essential function of bonding. It can and should never be truly eliminated, only managed.

By the way, thanks for the visit again. I'm actually glad you dropped by, because I lost the name of your site and couldn't find it again. That said, I appreciate your comments, and wish to say that my deepest sympathies are with you and your friend. Stay strong. I hope to hear from you again soon.


LarWilson said...

I think you make me look a little better than I deserve, but you're right about one thing: some day you will know how much I love you. I look forward to a lifetime of showing you — and saying the words.

Now, try and argue with that!

Anonymous said...

Lovely piece, Susan. And as I happen to know Lauren fairly well, I can also tell you this: He wouldn't be as in love with you if he didn't think you were profoundly talented. (And the guy is nothing if not picky about such things.) Next time, just slap him upside the head and say, very sweetly, "Hon? Quit farting around and tell me what you thought about ME."

I bet that does the trick.

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