Great Sex or Fighting Fair?

In the first of a five-part series on love and relationships, Tom Matlack and author Laura Munson debate the question: What’s more important to a good marriage—great sex or fighting fair?

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MATLACK: Fighting is a part of every marriage, but not necessarily a useful part. I’ve never seen the benefit. I grew up watching couples going at each other with venom. Too often, it seemed to me as a teenager, committed couples got all tangled up and didn’t have the common sense to fight in private. It was right there for the kids, and the rest of the world, to see: a couple who loved each other so much they felt compelled to scream in each other’s faces. What does that achieve? I still don’t know.

Great sex surpasses all conversation; it is the greatest, most intimate, most complete form of communication. There’s a reason that, in Biblical times, the verb “to know” was synonymous with sex. Fights are about the basic disconnect between men and women. We use a different language to describe the same thing. More important, we display emotion in very different ways, and that leads every couple I have ever known to fight. If they aren’t fighting, it’s because one or the other has tuned out and given up.

For us guys, words often fail. The source of so many fights is our inability to be vulnerable, to admit that we were wrong, to ask forgiveness. But when husband and wife have great sex, there is a connection beyond the cerebral, beyond the differences. There is a connection, a union—a knowing—that is beautiful and healing and joyful. The world stops and two people crawl into a cave all their own to experience each other in all their nakedness.

Great sex takes practice, focus, and time. But it keeps a relationship fresh. Fighting—even well—is a waste of time and energy.

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MUNSON: I like what you’re saying about connection. Even though you say that fighting is a waste of time, you also admit that if a couple isn’t fighting at all, then there’s a strong chance they’ve given up. I think you learn how to fight as you learn how to have your unique physical connection in sex. It’s always growing and changing, but there are some baseline ways to have both ways of connecting work. The key is respect. If you’ve lost respect for your partner or vice versa, it’s going to come out in those raw, real, hot moments of fighting and sex. The other key is trust. If you trust and respect each other, you’ll have success in your disagreements and in your intimacy, but if those are lost, then the relationship can’t sustain either.

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MUNSON: I consider myself an excellent “fighter.” I rarely lose my temper, and I am skilled at talking through my emotions with connective tissue made up of empathy, forgiveness, and surrender. Sometimes I think my husband would rather not have to be on the other end of that. In his mind, this is not necessarily “fair” fighting. After all, he was the quarterback on his high school football team. He’s a textbook “guy.” And to me that means he deals with his feelings by going outside and chopping firewood, or driving his dirt bike straight up a ridge as fast as possible. I’ve come to see that maybe he’d rather I blew up.

After almost 20 years in this relationship, I’ve learned that talking through hard issues is not easy for him. Here’s what is: bullet-pointing his feelings in an email. Quick statement of conflict. Direct and practical suggestion for resolution. The whole thing wrapped up in a cyber-second. And when I meet him in this manner, you’d think we were seasoned psychologists. Years ago I’d call this mode of “fighting fair” a massive cop-out. I’d think our marriage was in ruin if our arguments were reduced to bullet-pointed email exchanges. I pictured emotional health in across-a-table heart-in-the-hand eye-to-eye conversation that didn’t cease until a resolution was found. And sometimes, that’s the way we fly. But not usually. We have learned what works for us and what feels fair—and that’s what matters. We deal in reality. Leave the fantasy for the great sex.

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MATLACK: My wife is Italian. She is used to dishes flying all over the place. It’s not that I wish she would blow up—she does blow up. But that doesn’t advance the ball of intimacy in my view. I’m with your husband on chopping firewood and driving a dirt bike up a ridge, breaking a phone or punching out a wall (once I called my contractor sheepishly after putting a hole in a wall with my fist—to which he responded, “Oh, yeah, we do those for free!”). Like I said, words often fail us, especially in the heat of an argument. And taking some time to get some distance—from each other and the issue at hand—to vent our anger, so we can think rationally, is a great idea. But I’m not sure I like the idea of bullet points—that seems a little too distant.

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Laura A. Munson, author of This Is Not the Story You Think It Is, wrote one of the most widely read and talked about New York Times Modern Love columns ever: “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.” She lives with her family in Montana. You can visit her website, and find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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—Photo kidarcos/Photobucket

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Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. David Wise says:

    Nice piece. True, nothing better than being in love and enjoying intimacy. I really believe soulmates don’t always get along. They’re usually working on karma together and may have serious problems in their relationship, and sometimes they break up. We usually learn more lessons with our spouses than anyone else.

  2. But sex isn’t always the answer to fixing a fight. Sex merely hides the problems, but doesn’t get rid of them. Actual talking gets rid of the problems. Sure, sex might make you forget the problems, but if you have another fight in the future, unresolved fights can be dredged up from the past, and that’s never healthy. Just better to solve them with plain old communication than relying on sex to fix them.

  3. What a great piece! Love it! I, for one, have felt that the intensity of fighting is usually in direct proportion to the degree of trust you have for your partner; if you believe s/he is out to hurt you, you’ll react from a “retaliation” place, which escalates. If you trust your partner, you’re more likely to stay connected during whatever it is you don’t agree with, or while you work out what disappointed you.

    • Sarah,

      You’re right. Talking can get rid of many problems.

      But it’s not the only solution, and at times not the best one.

      Laura and her husband showed that solitude and time spent apart can get rid of a problem. A partner getting medical or psychiatric attention certainly solves problems. Sometimes, sobriety fixes a problem…or, at least, reveals what the true problem is. Money might even solve a relationship problem or two.

      Talk serves a purpose. But it’s not a panacaea.

      “For us guys, words often fail.” Tom’s sentence brought me up short when I read it.

      At first, it sounded like the old chestnut that men can’t talk about their feelings. But on reflection, Tom offers a much more nuanced view.

      There are times when words fail both genders. Actions like a gentle kiss, making love, giving your partner some space, or fixing the damn porch can put things right in ways that words simply can’t.

      True intimates know what these actions mean, instinctively. Words would confound them.

  4. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    Nice! In my experience, great sex and fighting fair *do* go together. Short communicative fights, even if emotional, are great. I actually think overly-long “reasonable” fights can be a problem, if they don’t lead to an agreement, and occur in the same way over and over again. My first marriage floundered with an overly rational partner, who never changed emotionally, and who wouldn’t get therapy. (For some reason, the great sex was good till almost the end though.)

    My current wife and I have 30 second fights, often emotional ones. Then they’re over. We never have sex right afterward, nor have I ever done this with anyone. As an ex-counselor, I’d recommend against people doing this, because it’s part of a mini-addiction cycle, and abuse could become a term in it easily…

    We have great sex too.

  5. Mervyn Kaufman says:

    I consider this is a terrific start to what should be a very worthwhile series. I think Tom nailed the subject matter brilliantly, vividly shaping his point of view, but I’ll admit that it did bring back childhood memories I wish I could forget. My parents fought all the time. No dishes flew, but the rage my mother expressed—and my dad tried valiantly to deflect—was frightening. It was years later, when I was well into therapy, that I learned that children like me invariably blame themselves for parental conflict—particularly divorce. I wish I could say that my parents’ combat was counter-balanced by great sex, but I doubt that very much. While I agree that verbal fisticuffs may have a place in any relationship, particularly marriage, I’m not convinced that it ultimately solves anything or brings two people closer…or has very much to do with sex, healthy or otherwise.

    Meanwhile, I look to future additions to the series and perhaps to other variations on this theme.

  6. Tom Matlack says:

    Thanks Mervyn. You and I have very similar experiences. I suppose what I left unsaid was that when I do fight in my own marriage it brings up that fear I experienced as a boy. So I retreat and my fear turns to anger. That’s why the connection of physical contact, even just holding my wife at night as we fall asleep, has proven to be far more important in building the strength of our marriage. @tmatlack

  7. What a fantastic piece. Relationships really do need working at and some people need to seek guidance in this. It not just about Love but communication, values, beliefs, and many more which are rolled into a package to create a unique partner. Hopefully your soul mate!! I saw the note fighting is a waste of time and energy – totally agree as what is the point. Its the love, affection and friendship which we need to focus on to build the relationship stronger and understanding I guess of each other.

  8. Great piece, it mirrors some of my own personal experiences with marriage. Unfortunately, for myself and my soon-to-be ex-wife, I think the sex faded over time and we never quite figured out how to effectively fight with one another. Both are very important, but not necessarily in a one-to-one correspondence (i.e. you don’t need one to have the other).

    Looking back on things, especially all the events in the three years since my wife sat across the table from me and said she didn’t love me anymore, she didn’t want me and she wanted a divorce, I know now that tensions are unavoidable (but blowing up is avoidable) so learning to fight fair is critical. However, I also know (having found out in spectacular fashion; story for another time) that the intimacy of honest, freely-given sex between two people in love is one of the most empowering, humanizing experiences a person can ever have. And I much prefer the sex over the fighting (fair or not).

    The bottom line: if you don’t fight fair, and you don’t care to give/get good sex (which I do NOT define solely as manipulation of the naughty bits), eventually you will find you have no one to fight with, or to make love with. That, my friends, is truly a sad state to inhabit.

  9. Tom Matlack says:

    Here is Laura Munson ‘s blog http://bit.ly/MunsonSexFight

    • Thanks for all these wonderful and educational comments. This was a very interesting exersise and one that I enjoyed. So much of how we operate whether as men or women, is in fear, especially in our primary relationships. We so often look at the clashing of minds as a problem. When our partner says they have an issue with something we’ve said or done, we often take it as truth. Like we’re bad or wrong. We take it personally and we go into defense mode, rather than looking at it like somone’s opinion that we don’t have to share. Yes, it’s important to own what there is to own and be responsible for our part, but that doesn’t mean we have to fly off the handle and attack or withrdraw in victimhood. We can be powerful without fighting and to me, that happens when we can remove fear. Then fighting becomes more like discussion and can prove wildly useful. When I feel a conversation escalating, I try to check in with my fear level. It’s usually pretty high. Deep breaths help. It’s so much more powerful stepping out of making people right or wrong, and into clear communication and a committment to resolution.

  10. Fighting fair. Definitely fighting fair. Now, great sex can make you fight fair, let’s not be stupid…

  11. wellokaythen says:

    I appreciate what Munson says about the fact that her husband communicates his feelings differently than the way that she does. I think too often women think men can’t or don’t communicate their feelings because the method of communication is not the same as the more common forms that women use. It’s a truth when being with anyone who is different from you – communicating in a different style doesn’t mean the person is not communicating. Put another way, there’s more than one way to fight fair.

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  1. […] were illuminating for me. See what you think. We’ll publish them in a series on both of our blogs and you can also find a few featured on the Huffington Post. I’ll link those here too when […]

  2. […] others in this series: “Great Sex or Fighting Fair?“ and “Looks and Longterm […]

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