On Love And FightingS

Kim Barnes writes for Oprah.com about how her husband Bob's "rage" almost destroyed their marriage. Her essay turns into a meditation on what people can tolerate in relationships, and what they can't.

Bob's anger problems do sound pretty disturbing. Barnes describes him flipping off old women, beating sprinklers into submission, and, in one outburst, shattering their breakfast table, grabbing her by the arms, and asking, "Why are you making me do this?" Finally, with therapy, Bob learned to control his temper. But when a friend asks Barnes what "flaw" she would choose if her marriage had to have one, she says, "Anything but wrath."

It's an interesting commentary on what we can and can't accept in relationships. Even though Barnes has learned to deal with her husband's temper, she still thinks of "wrath" as the worst thing that can enter a marriage. Many people who watched their parents fight a lot, or who have been contentious relationships in the past, similarly think of anger as relationship-kryptonite, and some seek out calm partners as a result. But for others, early experiences of conflict seemed to normalize it — and some even miss it when it's gone.

It's important here to distinguish between anger and abuse, a line Bob's behavior seems to walk. People who were abused as children sometimes become abusive themselves, or enter a pattern of abusive relationships, and this is obviously unhealthy. But there's a certain amount of garden-variety yelling in every relationship, and people's appetite and tolerance for it varies widely. I've only really yelled at a boyfriend once — because he criticized my parking — but a friend of mine doesn't feel she's truly close to a partner until they can have a good fight. Whether you believe there's such a thing as a "good fight" at all may depend both on your natural temperament and whether you've had a lot of "bad fights" in your life.

So what's a "bad fight?" One that includes physical violence, obviously. One that involves emotional abuse, which HelpGuide.org defines as words designed "to chip away at your feelings of self-worth and independence." Beyond that, though, it's hard to distinguish between a fight that clears the air and one that just leaves it cloudy with resentment. Maybe the answer is different for every couple. Or maybe I just don't know the answer because I'm not much good at fighting.

One thing that's clear from Barnes's piece is how little our own love lives tell us about other people's. Barnes's friend Lacey tells her, "I want a husband like yours. Someone who reads me love poems over breakfast." She is unaware that Bob once broke their breakfast table, but her perception of Barnes's marriage is also colored by her own anger over her husband's porn viewing. Barnes's essay didn't really teach me how much "wrath" is too much — though Bob's clearly was, for them — but it is a good illustration of the fact that we tend to judge other people's relationships by what we can and can't handle in our own. And that this method, like many we use when trying to understand other people's private lives, isn't terribly effective.

With This Rage, I Thee Wed [Oprah.com, via CNN]