Q. Hi Jordan,
As I continue to read your blog, I find myself especially appreciative of your posts about life issues faced by young women. They’re definitely relevant to me and I love your honest and optimistic approach.
On that note, I’m really hoping you might be able to offer some advice about my relationship situation.
Ever since moving in with my boyfriend, I’m doubting some parts of our compatibility: we argue almost weekly. These fights usually end up being about the way we’re fighting rather than the original thing, and we have trouble getting on the same page.
My boyfriend says fighting in relationships is completely normal and that it doesn’t affect his total love and commitment to me. I know arguments are inevitable, but when do they become destructive and abnormal? I’ve felt insecure in past relationships too, is it possible that it’s me and not him?
Thank you so much for any insight.
A. I’ve had a lot of trouble responding to this question.
And the reason I’ve had so much trouble, I think, is because the first thing I thought about when I read it was the relationship I was in for about a year and a half when I lived in LA. It was a bad relationship, and created problems in my mind and in my life that in some ways I’m still unraveling to this day. The relationship was toxic for lots and lots of reasons, but a big part of it was how we fought: constantly, furiously, and in such a hopeless, hurtful way that it makes my heart pound to think about ever going back there.
When we finally broke up, that’s the exact thought I had: I can never go back there.
It would be easy to give you an answer along the lines of “My ex and I were bad; Kendrick and I are good; here is why”…but the truth is, there was a time when Kendrick and I fought in a way that wasn’t all that different from how my ex and I fought. So the answer, you see, isn’t quite so simple.
It was around the beginning of 2009, when Kendrick was in a band that was slowly coming apart at the seams and I was in a job that I hated, and both of us were so scared by what we saw when we looked toward the future that I think in a way we started to blame each other for our disappointments. When we fought, the goal wasn’t any kind of resolution: the goal was to prove that the other was at fault. Things are bad, we each said, and you are why.
I can’t even remember the things we were “actually” fighting about. It could have been the dishes, or who last took the dogs for a walk; it didn’t matter, because once we got going the fights spiraled off in any direction they could, quickly dialing us both up into an emotional state where there was no way we could even hear the words that the other was saying because our heads were so filled with rights and wrongs and blame.
It felt like I was going backwards to the person I’d been in Los Angeles – that person who I hadn’t liked very much – and like there was nothing we could do to stop ourselves from falling even further away from each other. I felt like that horrible way of fighting that I’d learned from my ex had become my own way, and like it was me who was toxic, incapable of being the kind of person in a relationship who I dreamed of being: thoughtful, respectful. Kind. Willing to listen.
But things changed. I didn’t think they could, or would…and they did.
Look, everybody fights. Everybody. Whenever you put two people with different backgrounds, values, and approaches to life in the same living space and then tell them to spend a concentrated amount of time together every single day, they are going to fight. The question is not “whether” you fight…it’s “how” you fight. Kendrick and I fought badly, but we wanted to learn how to fight better.
There was one afternoon, I remember, when we fought and fought and fought and it felt like we’d never stop fighting, and it was about so many things – big things, small things, but mostly just the fact that we were so unhappy. We argued for hours – Kendrick pacing the living room, me sitting on the floor – and were finally so tired and overwhelmed that I think we just gave up and said what we meant, and what we meant was this:
I do not like how things are and I want them to be better and I don’t know how to do that and I’m scared.
Once we both admitted that things needed to change and that neither of us had any idea how to change them – but that we did know that wanted to change them together rather than apart – that’s what made the difference. We wanted to pull ourselves back from the edge, and so we had to do our best to make our future together – not “winning”, or proving the other person “wrong” – our priority.
God, are relationships ever a lot of work. You know, my ex said a lot of terrible things to me, but I think that was worst of all, the thing that let me know once and for all that our relationship was doomed: he said that he did not believe that relationships should be work. That they should be easy, and that the people in them should not have to “try”.
He was wrong.
You don’t just have to “work” in a relationship…you have to keep working. All the time. It’s extremely difficult and very much worth it, and it doesn’t come down to the actions of one person. So when you ask “Is the problem me?”, of course I can’t say for sure what’s going on here since I don’t know the specifics of your relationship…but I can say that chances are the answer is that it’s not you, and it’s not your boyfriend: fighting without reason and without end is often a problem that lies not with either partner, but in the space between them. The space where the truth is getting lost in all those emotions and all those words.
What matters is not that you don’t fight, but that you’re both committed to seeing your way out the other side, to making it through the rough patches together, and to listening to each other. It’s the most important thing you can do: just listen. Let your partner know they’re being heard. And then make sure that you have a voice as well.
*Question has been edited for length.