What’s your fighting style? Are you a screamer or a sulker? When you fight with your spouse or significant other, do you scream or sulk? Marital (or extramarital) strife can be classified into two broad categories. Some couples fight as if they are in a battle. Issues, however small, spiral out of control. They yell, scream, throw things, threaten to walk out and then act on the threat. Quarrels escalate quickly and get really ugly; voices screech to a peak before calming down. Bruised and bloodied, these screamers stagger to the couch and sit in shocked silence before coming up with a semblance of a compromise. After calling each other names; and calling each other’s bluff—“Where will you go after you walk out: to Olive or Kimaya”—they usually resolve the issue at hand.
Fight right: Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston play a warring couple in The Break-Up.
“Okay, fine. I won’t spend all Sunday at the golf course but you’d better not drag me to your boring relatives’ houses all day.”
“I won’t nag but you have to promise to help with the kids’ homework.”
“Chalo, let’s hit the gym together. Enough of this carping about each other’s weight and fitness.”
To get to this stage is a costly process. Mom, dad, siblings, family, friends, colleagues, work habits, the security guard, nariyal-wala (coconut vendor), everyone gets dragged in; everything is fair game. The good news for screamers is that they rarely take their problems to bed. Often a bed is involved after their quarrel but as a pleasurable instrument of making up.
Contrast this with the sulkers. Sulkers are more civilized when they quarrel. They weigh their words and take care not to spell out ugly truths. Ever sensitive, they realize that what they say can wound their opponent so they choose their accusations carefully. Mostly, they simmer. They mutter half-heartedly and bang doors. When they feel that they aren’t being heard, they sulk. They don’t talk to each other, sometimes for days; and in one case, for three months. Another sulker variant is the sulk plus hunger strike, when both spouses stop talking and eating.
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If the screamers use sadism as a tool for spousal battles, the sulkers are masochists. They inflict pain on themselves, hoping that at some point their partner will relent and sweet-talk them into talking, eating, or both. The partner, meanwhile, is gloating in his or her suffering and expecting the other party to relent. So it goes on, for hours, days or months, till events catapult them out of this masochistic rat race. A beloved aunt comes to visit and they are forced to talk to each other. A birthday comes up and the husband is forced to say “Happy Birthday” to the wife. A party needs to be planned and the wife is forced to make sure that the husband doesn’t sulk before her guests. Children start complaining about the silence in the house. They start talking, slowly at first, and fall back to normal. Nothing gets resolved and the problem either goes away or gets postponed to the next quarrel.
It is not as if sulkers are gentle passive types relative to screamers. Sulkers can be quite assertive Type A personalities. They can play hard-ball and often are better negotiators than the screamers. It is just that their tolerance for harsh words—from their spouse, not from the world at large—is much lower than the screamers.
The problem compounds when a screamer marries a sulker. Halfway through an earnest, high-voltage quarrel, just as the screamer is making his point with pointed fingers and clipped intonation, imagine his surprise when his opponent just walks away with a “That’s it. I’ve heard enough,” raise of hands.
The screamer is not done. “What about the last party, huh?” he screams at her retreating back. “You were chatting with other people all evening. You forgot I was even there. What does that prove, huh?”
She is long gone.
These are oversimplifications. Not everyone who walks away halfway through a quarrel is a sulker. Often, they are screamers too, who can give as good as they get. But they can only take so much relative to true-blue screamers. Screamers show high tolerance for what psychologist John Gottman calls the “Four Horsemen of Apocalypse”, that can throw a spanner in the happiest of marriages: criticism, contempt, stonewalling and defensiveness. Screamers do all of the above; they pull out each of Gottman’s horsemen and use it to their advantage in a quarrel. They fight dirty, in other words. But this doesn’t mean that they are worse people than the sulkers, who inflict as much, if not more hurt in a passive-aggressive way.
Gottman says that he can predict with 96% accuracy whether a marriage will survive or not based on how a couple argues. He would have trouble with Indian marriages, many of which hold up under societal pressure. That said, Gottman’s tips on effective spousal quarrels might help both the sulkers and the screamers: a soft start, repair attempts, self-soothe, compromise, and tolerate. Instead of launching into a diatribe, he says, start the quarrel softly. When your partner holds out an olive branch, take it, even if you are beyond furious. Then, return the favour and engage in a “repair attempt” too. Give yourself time out if you feel that your head is about to burst. Go into the bathroom and dip your head into a bucket of cold water. These are doable things in a quarrel. The last two, however—compromise and tolerate—are part of an extended process.
To compromise, you have to apologize. These days, several couples have learned the art of a “no-sorry sorry”. But that’s a topic for next week.
Shoba Narayan likes olives, if not in a branch, at least in a dirty martini. Write to her at email@example.com