“You two fight like an old married couple.”
The boy sneered at me, pleased his comment had stopped me in mid-sentence.
My cheeks turned hot. I glanced over at my friend. He was looking at the ground, distancing himself from me, even though he’d been arguing with me just as enthusiastically as I’d been arguing with him.
“Yeah, right,” I shot back. “Like you never fight.”
But even I knew this was different.
As a teenager, I knew how the world worked. Boys could argue with other boys. Girls could argue with other girls. But when boys and girls argued, it meant only one thing:
The old ball and chain.
Arguing is what couples do. It’s what OLD married couples do.
Marriage doesn’t have a good rap among high school students. It’s when two adults bind themselves to each other for life, then spend the next 50 years resenting every minute of it.
Other teens knew this from experience. They watched their dads and moms fight. It wasn’t pretty. Didn’t make for the best home environment.
Whatever else these kids did in life, they didn’t want to end up in a relationship fighting like an old married couple.
So they made sure they didn’t. If they dated, they kept it fun and breezy. Never too intense. Always in the moment. If they found themselves fighting all the time, they broke it off. Easy-peasy.
But I liked a good debate. And I didn’t see why I had to hold back from debating a boy just because I was a girl. What was wrong with fighting? Surely that just meant you both held opposing opinions?
Twenty-five years later, my friends are no longer high school students. They are old married couples. They fight like old married couples.
They don’t enthusiastically debate opposing opinions. They snipe at each other. Nitpick. Make each other feel bad.
He feels he can’t do anything right. She wishes he’d just try for once. He says, “Yes, dear.” She knows he doesn’t mean it.
Their marriage has a constant, low-grade level of friction. Even their kids know that Dad and Mom don’t always get along.
Is that the way it has to be?
Does being an “old married couple” doom you to a life spent irritating one another?
Dr. John Gottman found that 69% of the things couples fight about will never get resolved. They’re perpetual problems. They’re based in fundamental differences.
So, for many couples, it is true. You end up becoming an old married couple. You have the same fight over and over again. Over time, your fights become woven into the fabric of your relationship. You can’t stop. That’s just how you relate.
And you’re good at fighting. You know each other’s vulnerabilities better than anyone else. You know exactly how to hurt each other when you’re mad.
But old married couples also know something else…
They know exactly how to please one another.
They know each other’s sweet spots better than anyone else.
All those kids who grew up seeing Mom and Dad argue hopefully saw something else.
They saw Mom and Dad making each other laugh.
They saw Mom and Dad hugging and kissing.
They saw Mom and Dad surprising each other with gifts.
That’s how couples make it.
They fight, but they balance those fights with fun.
In my book THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE, I talk about why relationships die.
They don’t die from a lack of love. They die because being together feels more painful than pleasurable. Looking into the future, you can’t see that dynamic changing. This relationship will always be hard work without much reward.
Many couples think the answer is to fight less, or find better ways of fighting. And that helps, but it’s not enough.
You need something sweeter to motivate you. Looking forward to the absence of pain—or less pain—isn’t enough.
Your relationship starts to wither when you stop being a source of pleasure in each other’s lives.
Luckily, that’s easy to turn around.
Sit down together and have a talk. But this time, instead of talking about your problems, discuss how you might make your relationship more fun.
Has it become all work and no play? Are you so busy you don’t have any downtime anymore?
Then what can you change?
How can you reward each other for the fact that you chose to stay in this relationship another day?
How can you use your knowledge of your guy to make his life sweeter today?
How can you make your relationship a worthwhile investment for you both? Can you make future plans you’d both look forward to, like an amazing vacation?
When you both know that you’re committed to each other’s happiness—even though you irritate the heck out of each other now and then—life together feels a whole lot easier.
And that’s something teenagers could stand to hear.