fight club

Here’s the Key to a Long-Lasting Relationship

Even George Clooney didn’t see it coming. He was best pals with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, yet the end of Brangelina surprised him. As Clooney and the world mourned the demise of Hollywood’s most active humanitarians and prolific parents, we became worried for ourselves: If these two couldn’t make it work, what chance did the rest of us have? Some relationships (like Drake and Rihanna’s) seem destined to end badly—exploding as quickly as they ignite. But for most of us (and Brad and Angie), love melts away slowly, over time. Like a Walmart ice-cream sandwich on hot concrete.

When love falls apart, the straw that breaks the camel’s back can often seem trivial, even petty. Was it truly the affair rumours, drug use and/or anger-management issues that unravelled the Jolie-Pitts? Or was it that Brad never put his dirty underwear in the hamper? The possibility that it’s the small things, not the epic battles, that undermine a relationship is not only fascinating but, according to the results of FASHION’s online survey, entirely possible. The survey, which attracted close to 400 participants, revealed that when it comes to sources of negativity and friction in a relationship, the biggest culprit isn’t sex (13 per cent) or even money (9 per cent); it is “minor annoyances,” a.k.a. the little things* (28 per cent).

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The survey also discovered that if there were a pill that could eliminate conflict from a relationship, 26 per cent of respondents would consider taking it.

Dr. Peter Smyth, director of The Counselling Institute in Woodbridge, Ont., winces at the thought. “There’s an old Irish saying: If two people agree on everything, then one of them isn’t necessary. In the long run, couples who argue actually tend to do better,” he says.

According to Smyth, many couples find conflict so off-putting because it comes from a place most people don’t understand. “Arguing and bickering are part of the transition from the early stages of love, when two people agree on everything, to the longer term, when they realize they’re two separate individuals who don’t see the world in the same way,” he explains.

There’s an old Irish saying: If two people agree on everything, then one of them isn’t necessary. In the long run, couples who argue actually tend to do better.

Arguing over small things can be a way to cut through the tension and insecurity that this realization can create. Fighting because he watched Game of Thrones without you (versus because you went clubbing without him) is a way to assert control over a changing dynamic without upsetting the apple cart too much. Seen in this light, conflict can be viewed as positive—as an attempt to re-engage your partner. The danger of frequent micro-fights is that they can create a communication style where power, not connection, is the endgame.

Picture this simulation: Angie finds Brad’s shirt on the ground after his late night out with Clooney. Brad shrugs and says he hung it up, but it must have fallen. She demands he put it away. He refuses. Angie shreds the shirt to pieces with her butterfly knife.

GIF relationship survey

“When each person feels the other is indifferent to their needs, it can lead to a lack of self-awareness and the knee-jerk reactions that are more about releasing tension than seeking resolution,” says Smyth. In our bid to be loved, we behave in the most unlovable ways. It invites the question: Is there a cure for bickering?

The danger of frequent micro-fights is they can create a communication style where power, not connection, is the endgame.

After years of watching couple friends and strangers argue over the correct way to load a dishwasher, how much cleavage is too much and whether to keep a rusty old lawnmower to build a go-cart for an unborn child, I’ve got a few ideas. What if, long before the point of no return, disgruntled couples agreed to entertain the following possibility: The thing that we are arguing about isn’t actually what we are angry about.

Is the spat about who was supposed to drag in the garbage bin or empty the dishwasher really about how lazy your husband is? Or is it because he’s busy prepping for a business trip to NYC while your MBA diploma gathers dust behind the Diaper Genie? Put another way: No matter what two people are arguing about on the surface, perhaps the real issue is each person’s conviction that she (or he) is the one getting the short end of the stick.

I ran my theory by Smyth, who agreed there might be something to it. “Little things become big things, and unspoken matters are upsets waiting to happen,” he says. “Any technique that separates the problem from the person helps keep the empathy level high and reduces the buildup of hidden resentments that can turn loving partners into fault-finding machines.”

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A final thought: Next time you and your honey find yourselves squabbling, why not settle into Robert Eggers’ 2015 horror film, The Witch. Ostensibly, this film is about a Puritan family that is plagued by forces of evil on their New England farm. Supernatural plotline aside, here is a husband and wife who embrace the short end of the stick with equal relish. He works the crappy, non-arable land, shouldering the constant worry that his family might starve to death. She, having survived childbirth five times, handles the domestic drudgery that is her lot: laundering the family’s only change of clothing in a barrel, cooking the family potato-themed dinners and tending to the increasingly demonic children and livestock.

As the family is torn asunder by unseen foes, the husband and wife don’t turn on each other. They don’t criticize or second-guess each other’s parenting styles or the decisions that brought them to this place. Instead, they focus on trying to make the life they’ve chosen work. Maybe the end isn’t pretty. But there is something to be said for the fight.

*The remaining percentage points were made up of stresses caused by other people (22%), day-to-day responsibilities (12%) and N/A (17%).

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