Saturday 19 October 2019

Where there's love, there's war

Many of us believe arguments spell trouble in a relationship. But the thrill and puzzle of the dialectic is an essential part of intimacy, says Olivia Fane

Couple fighting
Couple fighting

Olivia Fane

I have always loved a good argument. I hate bad arguments, and rarely indulge. Do people really argue about how the toothpaste is squeezed out of the tube or is that just part of our domestic mythology? In my first marriage we had arguments all the time. I found myself filled with adrenalin, purpose. We argued to win. I was always being accused of being a Platonist, an accusation I was rather proud of.

I fought for truth, I didn't know what it was, but I fought for it nonetheless; whereas my husband was a follower of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, who believed that all was flux, and that you can't step into the same river twice. My husband would say to me, "You need to throw yourself naked into the sea, and let the waves take you where they will."

My parents argued; my first husband's parents argued; we argued. Arguing made me feel alive, intimate. Sadly, that's not the case with my second husband. In 20 years of marriage he hasn't raised his voice once, and his parents certainly never raised theirs. But I'm hard-wired to argue. When we first started going out together, I felt so frustrated.

How is it possible to get really close to someone without having arguments with them? How is it possible to know what they think about things unless you challenge them on their beliefs? My idea of hell would be a polite, considerate marriage. I need to be so close that I live in my husband's skin, I need to become one.

Both Plato and Hegel believed in a way of arguing called "dialectic", in which there is a thesis, where an idea is first mooted, and its antithesis, which represented the opposite point of view. Then after the friction comes the peace, the synthesis, the place where all comes together. The synthesis then becomes the new thesis, which has its own antithesis, and lo and behold a new synthesis emerges which is subtler still, and closer than ever to something called "truth".

This process of dialectic is what is referred to as "Plato's ladder": you go on arguing until you reach truth at the top. Hegel applied it to the movements of history. I would like to apply it to the movements within a marriage. You argue, you persuade, you shift, you argue again, you get closer.

Yet those people who are brought up in outwardly calm families feel incredibly anxious when that first argument happens, as though their relationship is about to fall apart. I'm quite sure there are many who recognise: "We'd never had a cross word till the day my wife/husband walked out on me." Tranquillity is no substitute for intimacy.

One of the most interesting aspects of an argument is that there is the rational and the emotional content, and after you've had a humdinger it's quite fun to look back and see what was actually going on.

For example, I've had arguments with both my husbands about how to fill the children's Christmas stockings. When I was a child, my mother never wrapped the presents inside it. I would plunge my hand into a real woollen sock and feel the treasures it offered me, one by one, before taking them out. The experience was sensuous, exciting; I wanted my own children to know it too.

But both my husbands had had their stocking presents wrapped first; both wanted their own sons to open a dozen little parcels on Christmas morning and accused me of being lazy. I reasoned that all little parcels felt the same, namely paper; they said, no, the parcels came in different shapes, that was the whole point of them. But, I said, why stick at a different shape when you could have a different texture as well? Our arguments all posed as rational. But none of them was. They were based on loving what we had known, and wanting to take it to a new generation. It was as simple as that. Perhaps in marriages the majority of arguments do have this emotional underlay.

Perhaps the argument about how to squeeze the toothpaste tube is more important than it looks: this is who I am, this is how I do things. I'm tidy, I don't believe in waste; there is even a certain satisfaction rolling up the metal tube, and can't you see it looks better? Are you really someone else when I want you to be an extension of me? When I need you as an extension of me?

The main trouble with being married to a man who won't argue is that we do argue, it just takes an awfully long time. About seven years ago, we had an argument that lasted three months. We could have raged for a couple of hours and all would have been well. Instead of which we were both completely miserable.

This is what we were arguing about: is a nettle a beautiful wild flower that attracts butterflies and makes a delicious soup, or is it a weed that stings and looks a sight, particularly in quantity, and particularly growing in the middle of what used to be a lawn?

I was accused of wanting to live on a golf course. In a matter-of-fact, cold way, I was told my soul was suburban. My soul is not suburban. I just didn't like the nettles on the lawn.

I hatched a plan. While my husband was away on a cycling holiday with friends, I unilaterally bought a ride-on mower and a strimmer and set to work. Every morning I got up at dawn and began weeding and strimming, clipping and mowing. When he got home the garden was immaculate He wouldn't speak to me.

I carried on; my husband took to playing his violin in the attic. I began to shift scrub that had been there for tens of years. When he went out to work, I asked my neighbour, a Spaniard, whether he would help me. His English might have been better: when I came back into the garden I saw that he had cut down a beautiful copse of red- berried hawthorn trees. They lay discarded in a pile, like dead bodies.

I wept like a baby, wept for the trees, wept for my marriage, wept for my part in everything. When my husband came home from work I confessed to what I had done. He shrugged, and carried on opening the mail. He didn't even look at me.

I ran away to my parents' house on the pretext of keeping my mother company while my father was in hospital. She was incredibly grateful, and never knew the truth. We watched television together, lying on her bed. When the adverts came, she said, "So, Olivia, how's your marriage going?" I said, "Great. But we are in the middle of a bit of an argument at the moment, and I'd love to know what you think."

She listened, and said, "Darling, he loves that garden in a way you could never understand. He must have it how it wants it." That was the answer, she was right. All my reasoning came to naught compared to love.

When my husband rang a few minutes later, I didn't even see the need to take the phone into another room. "By the way," I said lightly, "My mother says, you love the garden, so you do what you like with it. If you want nettles, have them. I'm sorry."

The next day he told me he thought the lawn looked better without the nettles, and he mowed it himself.

Olivia Fane is the author of 'The Conversations: 66 Reasons to Start Talking' (Square Peg, £15.99)

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