Equal Squabbling

I overheard a woman in a row behind me on an airplane say, with a loud angry voice, “I just wish for once you wouldn’t analyze and criticize every little thing I do and say.”

That’s all I heard, for she and a male voice lowered their volume. But I surmised they were married. By the way she said, “I just wish for once…” it seemed they’d been together for years. I thought I recognized a depth of bitterness in her voice.

 I automatically made another assumption: that he was a know-it-all controller who judged her every action. The words to an old popular song that reminded me of a creepy stalker rose up in my mind, …every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you.

At this point, I wondered how much personal projection I placed on this anonymous couple. Perhaps, a lot. My plentiful past experiences with controlling types might have spoken into my inner ear.

Maybe the accused man simply demonstrated an abiding compassion for his wife’s whims. I mentally ran a reality test on couples I knew. Mostly, I found positive examples of ideal equality in the people I didn’t know well because I liked to think pleasant appearances were real. Once I got familiar with friends’ relationship dynamics, I usually found one person dominated in an unpleasant way, except for Mona and Joe, Gervais and Julie. All of them seemed to be truly kind without domination proclivities, rare exceptions in my experience.

Our society still supports male superiority still today, if you notice wage differences as a small example. If I were male, I doubt I could resist expectations that I know best in all situations. 

When my son’s friends turned twenty, more or less, they began dating younger women, a situation that made them automatically superior, a male senior in college with a sophomore date, a world of difference at that age. Or a guy who was a couple years into his first “big boy” job with a date who had just graduated and, as often happened, floundered around in the job market for the first time. If I were a male, it would be heady to automatically be assured that society expected me to be the smarter and stronger one. I would probably not resist the temptation to put myself in situations where I was loftier, thereby meeting society’s expectations.

I’ll never know what that’s like. Whenever I stood up for myself or expressed an opinion, either personal or professional, it usually proved to be a lonely experience; my belief in myself my sole support.

I didn’t turn around to stare at the couple on the airplane behind me, although it took all my willpower to stop myself. I reminded myself that appearances rarely revealed the true story about couples.

On a recent large tour group, I sat on a new bus each day with a different couple behind me, unwillingly listening to them.  After sixteen days, I noticed, most couples bickered and spoke rudely to each other, as if in a perpetual competition. I’d been in relationships where the guy expected that kind of repartee and I found it grating; hence my single state.

One couple so harshly harped on each other, I hoped I would never speak to them one-on-one. As it happened, I sat next to them at a lunch and found them delightful, all their negativity apparently stored in their mental basements. The woman was a professor and the man, of all things, a psychologist who, at seventy-five years old, couldn’t bear to retire because his clients needed him. I was astounded by their personality transformation. Sure enough, once we boarded the bus, they started up again, “Well, that’s stupid. Your always do the dumbest things. Why would you even think that? It’s ridiculous.” I could hardly reconcile Jekyll and Hyde. But, at least, one did not dominate the other, no matter how hard each tried to do so.

As I thought about it, perhaps squabbling was one step up from automatic domination by one person. With most couples I heard on the bus, my voyeuristic listening did not reveal a clear dominator. Perhaps egalitarian male/female relationships meant ongoing vigilance, defending one’s psychic territory, minute by minute. 

I tried to look on the bright side.  Maybe quarreling itself produced a type of bonding for couples. One psychologist couple I knew claimed this was true and had made the conscious decision to bicker and complain to each other to “release tension,” they said. I couldn’t be around them for long. A year later, they were on the verge of divorce. 

From the evidence of sixteen days on buses, it seemed negative posturing between couples produced a type of equality, like a cold war between two nuclear powers. Perhaps this was the new frontier of relationship equality. But, as an introverted non-arguer, I had to find another way which has not yet evolved in any of my relationships in this lifetime. Luckily I’m a Buddhist, so there’s always the next life.As for the woman behind me on the airplane, complaining to her mate for criticizing her every word and action, I’d say, If you’re an extrovert, fight back.If you’re introverted, like me, go find your peace, whatever it takes.

Cate Burns is the author of Libido Tsunami: Awash with the Droll in Life, in which she unearths the ludicrous in the emotional live traps surrounding us — in families, friends and disastrous romances. Get it on Amazon today.