Sex

Should a Couple Fight in Threes?

Keeping fights with a partner private can give privilege a dark, warm place to grow.

by Sarah Miller
Feb 13 2020, 3:15pm

Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

When commitment feels rare and everyone’s lonely, Change of Heart is a Valentine's Week investigation of what makes relationships so hard—and how they can be better.

My boyfriend T. and I are, at once, innocents who fell in love and zombie inhabitants of a deranged, common, and revered institution: the couple-form. Whether you are in a couple-form or not, you know it when you see it—how it wakes and drinks coffee, greeting the news of the day as one entity looking at two phones; how it sits together on the plane, smiling and rising a few inches as the passenger traveling alone scoots to the window seat. The couple-form adopts a dog, partly because “we love dogs,” but also because the dog might be the one creature left on Earth who still thinks the couple-form is actually two people.

The couple-form (a term coined in the 2010 essay "Against the Couple-Form") is never so exclusive—so much itself—as when it fights. Fights are private, because they’re ugly, and because each couple-form’s survival depends on (a) being a good PR agent for couple-forms everywhere, and (b) capturing public envy. Keeping fights secret also gives male privilege a dark, warm place to grow. This is why I decided to widen the scope of a recent fight I had with my boyfriend, T., to reach beyond our tiny couple-form world.

On a Saturday about a month ago, our good friend Thea and her close friend—our new friend—Jay, arrived at our home to hang out. We went on a walk and talked about a zine we had all read called an aromantic manifesto. The theme of this tidy, interesting work is that “romance appears both natural and ubiquitous because of its cis heteronormative power,” or, in other words, What’s so fucking great about the couple-form? The manifesto questions the idea of romance as a "private cure to any deep unhappiness we may feel," and that "private life … is nobody's business but those privately involved," when attraction is skewed to favor of those with privilege by way of their gender, race, ability, and so on.

I served the extremely successful stew I had made as we talked more about being a good comrade in a world of couple-forms. How much do people hide about their relationships to make them look more romantic/more ideal, we wondered? What might it look like to try to concern yourself with your friend’s good opinion of you, the way you concern yourself with your partner’s? What if your emotional life and sense of well-being weren’t just centered on your partner, but spread around to your friends?

We were having a very good time.

My boyfriend T. was heading out to get dish soap when our friends Angela and Paul knocked on our door. In general, I am pro–surprise guests. I like Angela and Paul. Still, I thought it would be weird if they stayed, and I imagined T. would agree and possibly say something to this effect, but he just drove off as I awkwardly stood there, performing calculations in my head. T., Jay, Thea and I are all communist-leaning and it is rare, Christmas-like, to all be together speaking freely about shit most people either don’t care about or actively resent. Another reason to keep the party small, other than the obvious one that we were having fun, was that Jay is non-binary. The newly arrived Paul and Angela don’t know a lot of non-binary people and I didn’t want to put Jay in a position of explaining the pronoun “they." The idea of hurting Angela and Paul made me feel sick to my stomach, too.

Paul and Angela’s coats went from being half off to half on as I said something like, “Yeah, this is probably not a good time.” After they left, I was a little shaken, slightly annoyed that T. had left me to deal with the issue—though unsurprised, because didn’t women always have to do weird social bullshit like this—but also sort of proud, because I thought I’d handled it well?

T. suddenly burst into the house, visibly pissed. Why had I just kicked Angela and Paul, some of our best friends, out of OUR HOME? I'd expected him to praise me for having done something delicate and difficult. Instead, he was mad. I felt defensive and cornered. As Thea and Jay looked on, I explained that I hadn’t kicked them out of the house, not really, because mostly, they hadn’t wanted to stay. “They seemed kind of uncomfortable and they just sort of—left,” I said.

“That’s not what they said,” said T. “They said you wanted them to leave.” He had a look on his face of bewildered disappointment, like he’d just today discovered I was a terrible person.

At one point, I had a moment alone with Jay and I almost said, “I’m sorry you saw T. get mad at me for doing something totally normal.” When I managed to say to Thea, “T. was being weird, right?” her eyes widened in emphatic agreement. She mouthed something comforting like, “Jesus.”

After Jay and Thea left, T. and I avoided each other for a few hours. Then we got into the biggest fight we’d ever had in seven years together. I was furious that he had yelled at me in front of our friends, especially one who we didn’t know that well, and especially since they were feminists, and especially since he had acted like a typical dude and I had just felt like a wife who got in trouble for not doing what he wanted, which was ridiculous anyway. It was embarrassing for both of us. I told him that, since he didn’t have that many gay or non-binary friends, he had no idea what it was like to make sure they weren’t forced to accommodate straight people they didn’t know. I thought he was being incredibly rigid (in what I saw as an extremely passive-aggressive “everything is cool, what’s your problem, man” California way, and a sexist one) about this idea that guests were always welcome, no matter what. “No one can be 100 percent chill all the time,” I shouted. “Someone always suffers for someone else’s chill.” Finally, I was mad he didn’t respect the fact that social situations were difficult and that I, a woman, had navigated this only to be punished—big surprise there.

T. listened to all of this with a forced expression of patience that did not mask the fact that he thought everything I was saying was a load of crap. None of my points made a difference in his belief that turning friends away from your door, ever, for any reason, was absolutely against everything he stood for, and that I, not he, was the asshole.

The fight dispersed, but bad feelings remained on all sides. T. went to watch The Leftovers in the living room, muttering, “This show is so fash.” I lay on our bed soothing myself with my dog’s silky fur and texted Thea that T. was still mad at me.

Thea said she and Jay had discussed the matter at some length, had felt uneasy about T.'s behavior, and had felt sorry for me. “You were taking care of us all night, hosting and so on," Thea said. "You should just get to hang out with your guests.” She added that, although T. might say he understood the extent to which women can be unfairly responsible for taking care of guest’s needs, did he reallllly? “Guys think they get shit a lot they don’t get,” she said.

“Right,” I said. Did T. actually know what it was like to have lots of queer friends and worry your straight friends would do and say hurtful, clueless things around them?

“I definitely think you were worried about Jay,” Thea said. “But it seems like you were mostly afraid to tell T. the main thing: that you didn’t want more people there because of YOU.” This hit me kind of hard. I like to think of myself as relatively tough—certainly self-actualized—but this was probably true. I was thinking about Jay, no question, but I had kind of conveniently not mentioned that I was also thinking of myself, because, indeed, I thought T. would be more sympathetic if my feelings weren't involved.

Thea pointed out that I’d said I hadn’t asked Paul and Angela to leave, even though I clearly had. She wasn't judging me, she said, but noting “the fact that you’d actually lie because you didn’t want him to be mad at you." She and Jay were upset to see that I was afraid of T.’s anger. Though it was shame-producing for me to see myself as the weaker person in this power dynamic, it was nonetheless validating to have it witnessed. Then Thea offered to talk to T.

At first I was like, Ugh, no. I did want someone other than me to tell T. he had no right to be mad at me, but I was also afraid I might embarrass T., or that he might feel ganged up on, so I said, “This is between us, you don’t have to.”

“Well, we are all friends with each other, so why not, and also, remember we all just read an aromantic manifesto?” She laughed. “Shouldn’t we, as they say in college, return to the text? Why should the couple-form fight alone under the banner of privacy? Shouldn’t we just drag this out into the light?”

Thea and T. talked on the phone for two hours—a long time. Wth Thea’s permission, T. told me about their conversation, and I was astonished by a lot of it. T. told Thea that when he came into the house, he had been thinking of our previous conversation about the sanctity of the couple-form, and its privacy, and thought, I can file this away and have it out later, just with Sarah, or deal with it now and share my feelings with the group, because, well, these other people are involved. Though I didn’t think he had been skillful about it, he had made an attempt to engage with taking our couple-form out of the private sphere.

Thea told him both she and Jay had been taken aback by how angry he got. “She said my voice got deeper,” T. told me, “and that I talked in a 'mad voice.' She didn’t get why I was so mad—that I might not have done the same thing myself, but you had just made us food and served it and took care of us, and I should have had your back about what you wanted to do.”

Thank God, I thought. I have a friend who has the guts to level with my boyfriend that, yes, he is a feminist, but, yes, he can also be intimidating and dominating in ways he might not be aware of. I had told T. I was afraid of his anger during our fight, and he had been kind of dismissive about it. Having been told this by Thea, he took it more seriously.

“I didn’t realize the way I was coming across,” T. said. “But I had to think about the ways that I might feel like I was completely right about everything, but part of me was just, I don’t know. Being a dude.” It was unfortunate on some level that we both needed outside confirmation of this, but a relief that T. was able to place our fight in a context outside of a two-sided disagreement, and to apologize: “I’m sorry I got so mad at you for doing what you thought was right,” he said, finally.

We are probably never going to agree over whether surprise guests are ALWAYS welcome, and I don’t know what will happen next time it’s an issue. I do know there will be much less of a chance of our getting in a massive fight where T. yells at me, because he told me point- blank, “The way that I got mad at you, and shamed you for doing what you thought was the right thing, even if I don’t totally agree, was fucked up. I really understood that after talking to Thea. And I wouldn’t do it next time.”

Men will readily admit that the world is sexist, will even cop to themselves being abstractly sexist: “Of course I have male privilege.” But when it comes down to specific situations with boyfriends and husbands (and friends, and co-workers, and dads, and and and), it generally turns into a “he said, she said” situation, where, instead of the man being able to see the sexist components of why he's wrong, the fight is misrepresented as one where everything is complicated and no one is actually at fault, which, I have to say, can be enraging. T. admitting that his anger at me had a gendered, privileged component was a relationship first for me, and proof that two "she saids" and one "they said" are more effective than one "she said."

I think about how much energy I spent in my life struggling to make my relationships look more presentable to the outside world, the idea being, I guess, that if I could curate what people saw, then I might trick myself into believing it myself. I am glad that T. and I took a step toward our couple-form being less of a closed-off unit, thanks to our friends. Because, try as it might to keep private life unburdened by social strains and inequities, the couple-form can sometimes be insulated by them.

Despite eloquent and well-deserved attacks, the couple-form persists. I am not breaking mine up anytime soon: Knowing that something is flawed and even wreaking havoc on civilization itself doesn’t automatically mean people can just quit it—how many of us had to drive cars today to jobs that we don’t want, ones that the world doesn’t really need, but we have no choice but to work at? I’m not quite at couple-form abolition, but I am interested in extending the privileges of intimacy beyond its boundaries. The success of this opened-up fight can't just be about the health of the couple-form, but about the extent to which it can shake couple-formness off, and, more critically, spread to others the attention, accomodation, and material resources it is accustomed to giving only to each other. If all this yields at first is that couple-form becomes less annoying, this will be a good start.

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