Monday, August 06, 2007

It’s OK to Disagree

My husband likes to tell the story of one of his early epiphanies in our relationship. We were dating at the time, I was living with my Dad and Stepmom, and one night we all went to have dinner with her godson. Now, her godson was a former seminarian who had gotten all the way to being a few weeks before his final vows, and, in what seems like a real head-slapping “duh” moment, he realized that he liked women too much to want to be a priest, so he backed out of the whole thing. He went on to become extremely well educated in the sciences and was studying at a university known for its abundance of Nobel Prize winners. He roomed with a grad student in another branch of science.

We got our going-out-to-dinner togs on and headed off. When we got there, the godson had some good wine breathing for us all to enjoy, and as he fixed dinner, we engaged in various discussions. I spent a lot of time gargling in German with the roomie, who seemed pleased to find someone who spoke German at least as well as he did. My dad was discussing the Soviet character (which tells you how long ago this was) with the godson, and Ellen, my Stepmom, and hubs were engaged in polite chatter.

The discussion about the nature of Russian Soviets carried over into dinner, with none of us really having a serious clue about what we were discussing, but all of us arguing over the nice spaghetti and wine with increasing fervor from positions of historical literature, wartime strategies, news reports, Russian poetry, and what we might have gleaned from news and magazine articles about life in the Soviet Union. By the time we got to dessert, some participants were waving their arms and using outdoor voices to help carry their points. It didn’t stop us from eating heartily or snorking up the wine, though. My date was, unnoted by me, sitting fairly quietly, absorbing food and the goings on without getting embroiled in them.

Ellen looked at her watch and, during a pause in a passionate point of argument said, “Oh, it’s after 10. We need to go or we’ll be standing around waiting for a bus much too late.” We put down our spoons and wineglasses, hitched up our drawers, kissed each other good-bye, said what a lovely time we’d had, and hustled out to the bus stop. As we stood there, we did basic waiting chatter… “Wasn’t that lovely?” “He’s such a good cook; I hope he finds a good wife who appreciates him.” “They were both so interesting!” “Did you have fun speaking German with his roomie?” “We’ll have to do that again soon, but at our place. I’ll have that Crème de Menthe dessert my godson likes so much.” And so on.

We hopped on the bus and headed home. When we got there, Dad and Ellen went to bed, leaving hubs and I alone in the living room. I offered him coffee, took off my shoes and innocently said, “That was fun, wasn’t it?” He looked at me with his mouth slightly open, shell-shocked, and said, “I never saw anything like that before in my life,” and clutched the hair on either side of his head and tugged it.

Alarmed, I searched my memory, trying to figure out what had happened that would cause someone to react with shock and dismay. I couldn’t come up with anything. “Are you upset that I was speaking German with his roomie?” I wondered aloud. “I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“No,” he said, “It wasn’t that. You all were arguing; you were arguing and waving your arms and it was like knives and spears were going to come out at any moment.” I furrowed my brow and looked at him quizzically, hoping for more information. “And then,” he said, “like there was nothing unusual at all, Ellen said it was time to go and you all acted like the best of friends, the argument stopped, and we left. Then everyone said nice things.”

“Yeah,” I said slowly, “I don’t understand. What bothers you about that?” “YOU WERE ARGUING!” he exclaimed, “And then afterwards, you all acted like it was nothing. You acted like you still liked each other!”

“It WAS nothing,” I said, taken aback. “It was a discussion that got passionate with the help of wine and good food. We do still like each other. We’ll probably argue about something the next time we get together. Unless we go to a movie or a play; we don’t argue during those,” I replied.

“Well,” he said, still shaking his head in disbelief, “I’ve never seen anything, or heard of anything like that before. We don’t argue in my family; we don’t even discuss. We don’t disagree, and if we do, it gets shut down really quickly like it’s something awful that polite people don’t do.”

“Oh, my God,” I said, “then what do you talk about?”

“Well,” he said and considered for a moment, “Nothing, really, I guess. The weather, things that have happened, church…” This time, my mouth hung open. “You don’t disagree with each other? You don’t talk about things like books or movies or plays or politics?” I asked.

“No,” he answered, “and if we do, we all express a polite point of view, or we don’t say anything at all.”

“Holy crap,” I said, and I spent a minute thinking. “It used to be like that for me when I lived with my Mom,” I said. “She interpreted disagreement as if it meant we disapproved of her, and if we disapproved of her, then we didn’t REALLY love her, and that was so incredibly wrong that we couldn’t talk, not really. That’s one of the reasons why I’m glad I’m living with Dad and Ellen now. Arguments don’t nullify the love we have for each other; they’re just opinions or points of view. We still love each other just the same the next morning. Arguments or disagreements aren’t personal attacks, they’re just people airing their positions or ideas. It’s not personal.”

“That’s so strange,” said hubs, “It’s hard to wrap my head around it. And you all really meant what you said after? That it was fun, that you were going to have them over for dinner and all that?”

“Sure,” I said, “they’re good company,” and I smiled at him. “They still like us, too. You don’t have to agree with everything someone says to love them. They’re separate things. I don’t agree with everything you say, and I still love you.”

“Oh, my God,” he said, “I suppose that’s true. I’ve just never really seen it before.”

So, I poured him some coffee and we talked about lighter stuff until he was ready to drive home.

He has never forgotten that evening. That night with my folks is burned into his brain because it was so different from the stifled, frightened way he grew up, where all dissent was silenced as if it stank and was a socially appalling crime. His family truly does not discuss; they chitchat, and they absolutely, positively never disagree, no matter what. Any disagreement, even over whether or not they like a movie, causes family members to rush to the site of the conflict and start mediating, smoothing things over, sometimes to the point where it’s offensive or bizarre, trying to get someone to back down so there won’t be any dispute or dissent – like so many white blood cells mindlessly rushing to a wound to overpower any germs.

It’s a little freaky, and it’s very, very sad to me. They’re stifled by a dread of conflict or disagreement, and I don’t think they really know each other as a result. They also view me as a disrupting influence because I’m not like that, and their conflict avoidance has caused lifelong, serious problems in jobs and personal relationships for them. They cannot separate loving each other from being of one hive-like mind, or behaving like an unthinking swarm when they’re together. Somehow they’ve confused love and acquiescence.

Fortunately, my husband knows life is different “out there” and that life is different here, at home, and he loves that about our life together. Sometimes, over the years of our marriage, I have occasionally sensed him backing away from disagreeing with me over something and called him on it, asking him to tell me his point of view because that was information I might not have. I’ve reminded him that his opinion is important and valuable too, that I’m willing to discuss things, compromise, and come to a mutually satisfactory agreement over whatever the issue is, or we can agree to disagree. If he’s still reluctant, I remind him of that evening with Dad and Ellen, and then he’ll usually speak up.

I believe that the ability to disagree, even vehemently, over something and not HAVE to back down for the false god of “family peace” and still be able to love each other without any change is very, very important. It seems to me that it’s the bedrock of a stable relationship, because if the danger exists that if I say one wrong word, I’ll become unlovable, or our relationship will be permanently altered with no chance of healing, I can’t trust you. I can’t trust you to see me as an individual with a separate life, a separate mind, a separate series of imperatives, and a separate point of view. It turns me into an unwilling, resentful, oppressed clone, and that will, to a very big extent, poison love and undermine trust.

I’m grateful that I learned that lesson, and that my husband did, too, before we married. Thanks again, Dad and Ellen. You did some really good stuff for the next generation, too.


Brigitte said...

I don't know. In our family, a discussion of different opinions is something entirely different from a screaming match. If it escalates to yelling, we all get upset stomachs and lose our appetites and get depressed, so we air our different opinions and stop there. But I have met people who seem to get a big charge out of major arguments, for some reason. I just think different people are made to enjoy different levels of conflict.

BoS said...

We're not perpetual screamers either. It was just so peculiar for there to be ANY disagreement for my spouse, that that was what caused him to be so amazed. Which is pretty sad, but he's adjusted to having some disagreement and conflict just fine.