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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
♦ ♦ ♦
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.