When you watch the New York Times performance of Kate Soper & Erin Lessor, you want to turn it off. Why? Because it is that good. It is that uncomfortable. It re-enacts in art what most couples’ fights feel like, at least the all-time awful ones. It’s no comfy fight.
The composer Kate Soper and the flutist Erin Lesser perform “Go Away,” from Ms. Soper’s 2011 piece “Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say.” Their work got my attention because of the saying: “Only the words themselves mean what they say.” It’s clever, and I had to reread it twice to get the gist.
So again: “Only the words themselves mean what they say”
Initially, the expression is about as clear as mud. And, when listening to their performance, your heart and mind want to escape. The overall tumult unsettles our wish for loving security. Yet, the performance’s refrain of “only the words themselves mean what they say” delivers sage, hard-to-reach wisdom.
It basically means “The person does not literally mean what they are blurting out at you.” But, as the artists of this performance intend, the words still deeply hurt. Deeply hurt. This is when Soper’s voice fades and faints. Her fading voice is as if you are amidst the most harmful fight. It unhinges you. You just want to escape, quit the video, and seek refuge in any daily life’s boredom.
Soper’s voice goes hush, then loud! You can’t make out the words wisely if at all, which seems intentional. Your head is aching and confused from the “fight” they convey.
How Differently A Fight Could Go
Soper’s lyrics peek at how differently a couples fight could go, if we’d just speak more honestly about what we really mean. If we would say something like “I’m angry and hurt” rather than “Go away! I hate you!” We don’t really, really mean “I hate you!” (Okay, maybe in the moment, but not overall.) Only the words mean what they say, but not the person’s overall heart-of-the-matter.
To speak more deeply and accurately during a fight (or on any given day) takes concentration and practice. Hell, it took every therapist-fiber in me to stay engaged and attentive to Soper and Lessor’s jolting, tense performance. I wanted to hit the stop button, and I’m well trained to tolerate conflict. Training ignores the neuroscience. The mind wants to instinctively leave, if not lash back. Neurologically, when in a lovers’ fight, the minds wants to amp up in a primal way, much like you hear Soper and Lessor do with their music.
Neurologically, when in a lovers’ fight, the minds wants to amp up in a primal way, much like you hear Soper and Lessor do with their music.
Almost Comfy? The Skills.
The skill is to stay flat footed (albeit still upset) and to resist the fight-flight-or-freeze impulse.
In his book After the Fight, leading scholar on couples’ fighting Dr. Daniel Wile advises that none of us are good at fighting. No surprise there, and that we mostly “do not want to know we are fighting when we are.” His words. Even if we do know we are fighting, we usually don’t want to admit it. Why? Because we’ve been socialized to think that fighting is bad.
Even if we do know we are fighting, we usually don’t want to admit it.
Fighting Is Not Bad. It’s Inevitable. We all do it. We fight because we’ve lost our voice. We can’t seem to explain our underlying fear or longings. That’s normal.
So, we may as well become experts at observing how we fight ~ when we are in the HEAT of it. Specifically, know when you are lunging in and attacking another.
Hey, this happens long before you think it does. It starts small and then you notice you’re partner threw the “obvious” first punch; but, they really didn’t. Rather, notice levels one & two, below. These early levels of attack are so innocent, but ignite wars over time.
Levels of Attack
Level 1: Behavior
You pick at or critique your partner’s behavior
“You never talk to me anymore.” “Oh, yeah? What about last Wednesday I sat with you…”
Level 2: Feelings
You pick at or critique your partner’s feelings.
“Geezes, you should appreciate the good things we have instead of always dwelling on the bad.” “Dwell? You worry about things as much as I do.”
Level 3: Character
You pick at or critique your partner’s character — Name calling.
“You’re such an angry man.” “I wouldn’t be so angry, if you weren’t such a nag.”
Level 4: Psychoanalyzing
You make assessments and interpretations about the other.
“You’re just nagging me because you’re really angry that you didn’t get a call back from so-and-so.” “That’s not it at all. I’m nagging you because you put me in the place of taking care of you just like your mother had to do for you.”
Level 5: Motives
You mind-read the other’s intentions or motives.
“I don’t believe you for a minute. You do these things to make me feel guilty. You’re trying to manipulate me.” “No, I’m not. You’re the one trying to ruin the day. I don’t think you want things to work out between us.”
A lot, right? And, it takes a lot of practice for us to realize these level of attacks in the heat of the moment, much less try to override primal, neurological instinct to (again) fight-flight-or-freeze. So how about we all give each other a “hall pass” ~ because unless we’ve taken fighting lessons with a couples counselor, we fight unfairly.
Have your attention? If you seek a couples counselor, please inquiry about their training regarding fighting. Some say they are trained. Ask how so? Otherwise, you may end up with a referee, who’s own needs and perspectives (aka, blindspots) are crowding your dilemma. A couple just needs someone to share the knowledge of fighting’s dynamics. Then, you can take it from there. After all, fighting is inevitable and not bad. It’s only bad if you fight badly.
The Real Problem.
The real problem is the human discomfort to “have” a problem, period.
The word “comfy” will not snuggle up to any fight you have. But, maybe we will, at least, stop thinking that fighting is bad. Instead, maybe, we will learn to tolerate and navigate the conflict and the hurt more wisely.
In other words, comfy is the couple that knows how to fight and make-up* well.
*Next month, I will write about “After The Fight.”