Whenever I see those half-arsed stories on the news about couples having their 70th wedding anniversary celebrationn with never had a cross word, I kind of despise them. They’re usually on a slow news day, because let’s face it, it isn’t news. Actually, it isn’t life. Okay, I know arguments are dumb, but let me say this, they are part of it, part of having a relationship with someone other than yourself. Searing, painful and irrational conflict is part of the human condition.
And let’s face it, politeness has its limitations, although if you are going to complain about your phone bill it makes sense to act nice.
I’m having an argument with Gail at the moment. We’ve been having a few lately, which upsets her and upsets me. I’m not saying I’ll never fight with her again but I want perspective, which is why I’m writing this short history of our arguments.
The history of arguments between me and Gail.
Methodology: case studies
Dramatis persona: She’s 44 and I’m 42. We have two kids, Jake, 15 and Tommy, 12. Jake is our star kid at the moment because he’s doing an exchange in Paris, France. It’s a dream way of parenting because it isn’t a real exchange. We don’t have to put up with some French kid, we just pay the French to put up with Jake. Tommy is a pain in the arse. He’s very argumentative, but he’s funny and street smart. People say he’s like me. He’ll turn out fine.
Case Study 1: The vacuum cleaner argument.
This argument happened before we had the kids, which is important. We were at a critical stage in our lives. We’d finished uni, we had both got proper jobs – Gail was teaching and I was working for a construction company. We’d moved out of the shared student house to something that resembled an actual home. Gail’s mother said we were nest building which freaked us both out. We thought she was wrong because we still drank and danced till dawn, albeit not on school nights. But it turned out that she was right. We were buying stuff, becoming aspirational although we were super cool aspirational – aspirational with an edge.
We had bought our first vacuum cleaner in a second-hand electrical goods shop – that shows how long ago this actually happened because you never see those shops now. The salesman told us it had been “reconditioned” which was over-sell. It had, at best, enjoyed a rock star/celeb style rehab. Which meant we didn’t have to wait too long before it started to give us mild electric shocks, then relapsed into spewing out dust rather than sucking it in. Plus it developed an ominous burning smell when you turned it on.
At this time in our lives a vacuum cleaner was a big purchase, approximately equivalent to a new car now, but being aspirational, we wanted to buy a really good one.
Gail was set on one of those ones you push, the big old-fashioned things. Her reason – they made a satisfying industrial noise which supposedly helped in the cleaning of floors. I made the point, with passionate sarcasm that I didn’t think noise should be taken as the measure of quality of electrical goods. At that time we were passionate about sex, love, gender equality, political causes and the colour of the bathroom tissues. Everything mattered a lot, even being cool and casual about everything.
The morning we set out to buy the vacuum was after a night when we’d drunk way too much red wine so I had a clanger of a headache and Gail had almost had to sleep with her head down the toilet bowl. Not ideal for an exercise in nest building. There was tension in the air.
We went to one of those shops on Parramatta Road. It had screaming flouro notices all over it promising best deals, money back if not totally satisfied, matching any price in the universe and it was chock-a-block with every shape and size of vacuum cleaner. All the usual suspects were there – young couples like us, students looking at the rehab models, old ladies finally lashing out on a new cleaner, little kids running amok and salesmen with a slick manner and little squares of carpet and a bag of dust to demonstrate the incredible power of whichever model you happened to be buying. It was noisy and crowded which was not a good environment for two people coping with the morning after.
Straightaway Gail and I went our separate ways. She pushed through the crowd to the far side of the shop where they had the big shiny noisemakers, lined up like spooky robots. She walked the line like a sergeant major doing an inspection, occasionally pulling one of the robots out of the line to check its hoovering position.
I was wandering round, open to the world of vacuum cleaners, carefully evaluating the qualities of each cleaner I came across. I was making a rational decision. I was too cool to have a notebook, but had I been a little older and greyer I would have gone there. But my rationality went up in a puff of smoke when I saw this neat little red number you carried like a back pack. Love at first sight. I hoisted the thing onto my back. It was astoundingly heavy. Perfect.
Why? Because it suddenly and without warning it slotted into an old fantasy I had had about mountain climbing – not quite Everest given I’m not naturally athletic but nevertheless, mountain climbing with real male grunt. The idea of mountain climbing had come up in a drinking session with some mates years ago, round the 2 a.m. mark. We never even got as far as learning to abseil but somehow, the idea had stayed with me. Now the dream was re-ignited.. A monster like this on my back would transform my body, preparing it for the toughest climbs, all the while keeping our house spotless – “See, Gail” . And I’d be in great shape, a real muscle man. No more snide comments about my tummy with this perfect training regime.
Maybe I would climb Everest.
While all this was running through my head Gail was wheeling the noisemaker robot towards a salesman but I got to there first with my backpack, which, he said, was so quiet that you wouldn’t know you were using it.
“How would you know if you’re vacuuming if you can’t hear it?” she said. And suddenly, both of us were accessing deep wells of bitterness and resentment we hadn’t really known existed.
Now we’re two people in love, right? We were making a life together. We were so passionate, so into it. We cared too much to take rationality into consideration. Like most people in the first throes of love, our love involved a bit of a power struggle about who was going to set the agenda for our lives together. We were young so we were competitive and righteous. Being in love actually heightens all these things.
We started talking price which raised the ante. Evidently the salesman had training in handling couples making vacuum cleaner purchases because he quickly disappeared. That didn’t worry us. I said the industrially noisy one was way beyond budget and she pointed out the neat little back pack was even more expensive. I didn’t mention the mountain climbing. I said, “Buy whatever you want then,” at the exact same time she said “Buy whatever you want then.” Then we both said “Fuck you,” under our breaths at the same time and turned our backs on each other. So in that way, we were perfectly in sync.
I was in the mood to show her that I was flexible and I had the interests of our domestic economy close to my heart. I’d show her I was not wedded to the backpack model, even though it meant the loss of my dreams. I’d be the morally superior person. So I bought a cheap, cute looking piece of plastic shit that you pulled along behind you. It made a noise like a pug dog on life support. I couldn’t see Gail anywhere and since I had the car keys, I decided I’d rush home and vacuum and really blow any of her remaining moral superiority right out of the water,.
But as I was driving up Parramatta Road, I saw her carrying the very same machine I’d just bought. So I put the car window down and shouted, “I just bought one of those you silly bitch get in the car.” She walked on with her nose in the air.
I can’t remember what happened to our extra vacuum cleaner, but evidently it didn’t ruin our lives. In fact, we sometimes laugh about how young and silly we were. I even told her about the mountain climbing. She thought that was totally hilarious. I would have been more comfortable if she’d just found it slightly hilarious, but you have to let some things go in marriage.
Case Study 2: The children
By this time, we’d moved on. We’re married, we’ve procreated, we have small children who are the only people we spend time with at 2a.m. We never have enough money and a lot of things go wrong.
All those surveys on happiness tell us that people without children are happier, but people with children have a deep contentment in their souls and have discovered the meaning of life, which is true if you think you can find the meaning of life on a forced march.
I was in love with Gail, still, I adored my children, but I hated my job and I was sick of pooey nappies and while we had moments of great joy, we were two tired and emotional people with full-time jobs trying to deal with two tireless and emotional people who thought the way to get a Kinder Surprise was to lie on the floor of the supermarket and kick your legs and scream. It is.
Gail and I were a bit like ships passing in the night. She was off sex. “Look,” she said to me in a moment of searing frankness. “I’ve had people growing inside me, then they’ve just pushed their way out. I’ve had people looking up my vagina while they’re chatting about what they saw at the movies, I’ve had children sucking on my breasts for months and months. My body has gone all flabby and soft. Can’t you get that I’m a bit over it?”
The way she described it made me a bit over it too.
I’ve got great photos of that time as a family with little children. Gail and I like to look at the photos together and talk about how beautiful the kids were. We don’t talk about the shit that happened. We know it happened, that there were times of tension and panic, but the truth is we’ve repressed the memories of the bad times although I know we had a lot of arguments. Maybe we did find the meaning of life.
I do remember her getting out of the car on the freeway and saying she’d rather walk home than spend another moment of her life with me. She shouted to me, “What sort of example do you think you’re setting for the children?” which suggests the argument was about the children, who were in the back of the car having a completely separate argument. But the substance of our argument (and their argument) has passed from collective memory.
Case Study 3: Baking pans
This happened yesterday. Today there’s still icy politeness. We’re way past that high stress kids and high stress money period of our lives. We still argue, but it doesn’t have the passionate edge. Still, it’s nasty and stupid.
We have a deep drawer under our oven where we keep baking dishes. Sometimes, often, Gail stacks them carelessly, the drawer jams and is hard to open. Sometimes I do too. We have way too many baking trays. This afternoon she was cooking, preparing the dinner for my parents who were coming to dinner, I heard her swearing and things clattering, then she yelled for me to come and help her. Her exact words were: “This fucking drawer is bloody stuck again, do you think it would be too much trouble to give me a hand opening it?” Even written down, without the tone of voice, you can see that there’s not only frustration there, but blame.
So as I’m opening the drawer, I point out that there is no need to blame me, to wit “It’s not my fucking fault. You don’t stack them properly.” Which batted back the blame to her.
To which she said, “It’s your parents coming tonight.”
Which makes no sense because at some point in our lives someone would have had to get the baking pans out. And they would have stuck. But my parents coming does complicate things because Mum gives Gail a hard time about her childrearing practice with Tommy, our youngest.
“Spoiling him.” Mum says that under her breath and then she sort of snorts. Gail knows I support her (Gail) and that I’ve asked Mum not to make those remarks. In fact, I had an arguments with Mum about whether saying things under your breath was worse than saying them out loud, to which Mum batted back, “I thought there was free speech in this country, but I’ll keep my mouth shut in future.” She doesn’t. Nor does she ever help us out with Tommy who is a pain in the arse but that’s only because he’s 12 and we’re much too kind to him.
Mum has never helped with the kids.
“I’m not that sort of grandmother.” She says it as if it makes her a better grandmother.
On my own account, I wouldn’t notice this because my Mum has always made indiscriminate moral judgements about everyone. Dad makes his own comments back under his breath which annoys her because she has a hearing problem, as well as a listening one and a talking one. But I have come to understand that Mum’s moral judgements are particularly destructive when they land on someone who has married into the family, a different from us person. Gail however, has made it plain that she doesn’t mind being different from us. In fact, in some of my arguments with her about the children, she is pleased to be different from us and she hopes the children will carry the different from us gene too.
The baking dish argument was taken to a new level by the mother-in-law problem. I should have kept my mouth shut, but this thing with the drawer happens all the time, so I said, very reasonably, “Why don’t we get rid of all these baking dishes ? We’ll get two new ones with racks that fit.”
“The baking dishes aren’t the problem, it’s the cake tins,” she says. “You can’t stack them because they’re all different shapes and sizes. Anyway, I’ve got to get this roast on, so I don’t want to talk about this now. ”Now” was a reminder that she was cooking dinner for my parents.
But there’s no time like the present so I persisted. “You could put these round cake tins on top. And the square one inside the oblong one and stack it on its side.”
She looked at my stacking demonstration disdainfully. “We use the baking dishes all the time so it doesn’t make sense to put the cake tins on top. And anyway, my mother gave me these baking dishes.” This is so loaded, because her mother, admittedly much easier than my mother, died two years ago.
“How long do you have to hang onto baking trays after someone dies?” I said this out loud which was a big mistake. No, not really because how long do you have to hang on to someone’s grotty, blackened, chipped enamel baking trays after they die?
“The enamel on that one matches the saucepan.” She hasn’t got tears in her eyes, but she nearly has. The matching saucepan has a wobbly handle.
“Do we need to live out your mother’s life through a baking dish and a saucepan?”
Temper, tears, logic, illogic, none of which were confined to either party – except the tears. I don’t do them, which makes me a cold unfeeling bastard.
Eventually she says, “Do what you like.” That isn’t what she means, but I take it literally and go out and get the two new baking trays with roasting racks. And even though the roast leg of lamb is half cooked in the pan when I get back, she ostentatiously transfers it to the new pan and then spends an overly long time scrubbing the old enamelled pan.
“If we’re throwing it out,” I say, “Why clean it?”
“We’re not throwing it out,” she says. “I’ll put it in the Salvos bin. For somebody else.” I try to hug her, but it doesn’t work.
I’ve made her sound less reasonable than me. Which feels true to me although I score lower on empathy.
When my parents arrive for dinner, Dad picks up on the frosty silence. He’s developed an ear for frosty silence from living with my mother. “You two having a blue?”
Mum says, “Are you going to let that child just lie in front of that television all night?”
Gail says, “Yes I am.”
My mother says, “Of course it’s your business.”
Gail says, “Yes it is.” The rest of the evening is frosty all round. After my parents go, I insist on cleaning up, but I think I might have done it in a morally superior way. I tried to hug her, but it was too late.
Two days later, baking pans haven’t been mentioned. We’re a little tender and a little too polite. I don’t think this is a kiss and make up argument, more of a fade-away. People argue. That’s a given. Look at chimps, our nearest living relative on the evolutionary continuum. We share all but 3% of our genes with them. As I write this I realise I was recently in an argument with somebody at work about us sharing 97% of the chimp genes – I can’t remember whether he said it was 97% and I said 95% or whether it was the other way round. I can’t remember which one is the correct figure. But whatever, chimps are argumentative little bastards. You’d think we’d have moved up the evolutionary scale, but we haven’t.
Arguments are about being right, getting your own way, garnering people to your cause by manipulative means and being morally superior. That sounds like the usual level of political debate? Yeah, that’s how we conduct peace negotiations and the nuclear debate. It’s distressing to think the future of the planet will be decided by someone in the same state of mind as a man buying baking pans in a fit of righteousness.
But when Gail comes home from work I’ll tell her I’m sorry about the baking pans. I’ll tell her my theories about arguments being unproductive, about storing up long-term resentments and about the evolutionary basis of bickering. I’ll tell her I’m sorry about my mother, I’ll tell her I love her and I hate arguing with her. I’ll tell her that at all costs we have to avoid the frosty silence, remarks under your breath type of marriage my parents enjoy. (I do think they enjoy it). I’ll hug her and hope she hugs me.
Because if she doesn’t, I’ll probably suggest that instead of giving the old baking pan to the Salvos that she fucking gets it framed as a bit of shabby chic and hangs it in our front entrance hall.