Two Sense: Couples Who Fight In Front of Other People
Q: For the most part, things seem pretty good between my girlfriend and me. But give her a few drinks at a dinner party, and the zingers start to fly—always in front of our friends. Last month she “joked” about my taste in movies and just the other night she made a very nasty remark about me not doing my share of housework. The next day, I usually confront her about it, but the discussion turns into a “You were nasty/No I wasn’t” one instead of a “Let’s deal with the underlying issue” one. What do I do?
He Said: I love inviting a couple like you two to dinner parties. As soon the dessert is done, your spats motivate the other guests to start playing a game or dancing. Anything to avoid being asked to referee a personal matter. Really moves the evening along and gives everyone something to talk about the next day.
Seriously, the best time to work through underlying issues is when they aren't prowling around the room. You obviously can't resolve anything during a public snipefest and the next day doesn't sound productive either. When you say you "confront her" the day after, that's just sounding the bell for round two of the fight.
I'm a big proponent of couples therapy. Hear me out. When you have a problem with your car, computer, or culo you go to an expert who sees issues like yours every day. Believe me, there are plenty of good therapists who have helped couples with problems like yours. But don't start clicking through Yelp for one. Instead ask your friends or coworkers who they’ve worked with. There are a lot of incense-burning gong-bangers in this town who are ok with any behavior if you are. Sorry our time is up, leave the check on the altar. Try to find someone who will call both of you on your bullshit. But if either of you isn’t ready for therapy, at least try to address the issues without witnesses, when you're both in a good mood, sober, open, and not bound to a position.
She Said: I've been on all three sides of this issue—the loose-lipped complaining partner, the taken-aback partner wondering why on earth my faults were being so unfairly aired aloud, and the horrified hostess. And I can say one thing for sure. For some reason, your girlfriend does not feel secure talking over her needs and grievances directly with you. If she did, then she'd bring them up in the moment, when you suggested spending hard-earned cash on Little Fockers, for instance, or when you forgot to load the dishwasher for the fourth day in a row. The fact that these comments are slipping out under the influence of alcohol—and perhaps, the "protection" afforded by a group of friends (after all, you can't really put up a coherent argument in that setting, can you?)—tells me that, in a word, your girlfriend is repressing her feelings.
People in relationships do this all the time, and women tend to do it pretty much 24/7/365. Why? Well, as they say on Facebook, it's complicated. Women are trained from day one to attune to others' feelings and needs, to create harmony. In the early stages of relationship, this is especially important, as two selves begin to rub up against each other with all their apparent differences in taste, rhythm, timing, needs, preferences. And as a relationship deepens, some of this "making nice" falls away to reveal each partner's true self, while other aspects of that true self become even further buried, for fear they will disrupt what has become an increasingly important partnership.
Here's the thing, though: Airing this true self and all its raw, honest feelings is almost always a good idea. For one, it really clears the air—sometimes just saying something relieves a lot of pressure, and no further action or change is necessary. For another—and this is a little secret from the School of Female Mysteries—the more she airs her feelings both positive and negative, the less uptight and more responsive and open she'll be, say, when you're hanging out having fun, or in bed having sex. Repression begets repression, and expression begets expression.
So here's what you do. On a weekend when you're both relaxed and happy, sit down and say to her, "Hey, let's take 15 minutes for you tell me anything that's on your mind. Your job, your friends, or us. I'll just listen." Then just listen. No matter what you hear, just take it in. If a simple solution to what she's saying occurs to you, offer it. If not, then at the end of the 15 minutes say, "OK, I'll digest all that. Now let's go do _____."
Do this every so often and your relationship will flow much more lightly instead of being worn down by unspoken feelings and the fear that can build up around them.