Sean Moncrieff: A universal truth is that we can all be annoying. That includes you
Want to avoid rows this Christmas? See your loved ones as they are, not as you want them to be
Christmas fear: if there was ever a season for arguing, we are just about to enter it. Photograph: Michael Goldman/Photographer’s Choice/Getty
Sometime over the next 48 hours you may find yourself having a screaming row with someone you love. Admittedly, that’s at the extreme end. More likely you’ll find fury bubbling within you that you’ll work hard to bury or displace. Family members will ask what’s wrong. You’ll insist everything is fine, you’re fine, but the more you deny it the more it seems to nudge up your internal temperature, and the more likely it becomes that you’ll make a snide comment or give a catty reply to an innocuous question. The anger will screech out in a situation that may well have nothing to do with what caused it in the first place, which you can barely remember now, which has something to do with something somebody said. Or the way they said it.
If there was ever a season for arguing, we are just about to enter it. Fighting is rarely a pleasant experience – and nowadays is made even less so by the smiley hordes of relationship gurus who tell us there is a “healthy” way to have a row. If you feel angry and frustrated afterwards it’s your own fault for not doing it right. Cheers.
During the disagreement stage it was about who should peel the spuds. But during the row it’s about who’s going to win the row. It becomes a battle of status
Well, they’re wrong. Repeated studies have been conducted on what happens to the human brain when people find themselves at the point where a difference of opinion ignites into an argument. The part that deals with logic and reason shuts down, to be replaced by the Stone Age fight-or-flight response. During the disagreement stage it was about who should peel the spuds. But during the row it’s about who’s going to win the row – and unpeeled spuds, along with any other subject, can be deployed to service that aim. It becomes a battle of status, where victory will consist not of winning the other person around to your point of view but of being more forceful or loud or plain horrible.
The argument will come to an end, but the issue that provoked it will remain. Having an argument about peeling spuds is literally pointless.
If you’re finding this depressing, brace yourself: it gets worse. A psychologist called John Gottman has been working with and studying couples for decades. He has produced the usual stack of books filled with pithy lists to secure emotional bliss, but he has also come up with a few fascinating statistics. He claims that 69 per cent of the problems experienced by couples are perpetual. They never go away, yet couples still argue about them.
If you sign up to spend your life with someone, you’ve signed up for a set of insoluble issues. A couple can spend decades trying to change each other’s minds. And failing
In other words, if you sign up to spend your life with someone, you’ve signed up for a set of insoluble issues. A couple can spend decades trying to change each other’s minds. And failing.
But here’s the hugging and learning bit: the reason why couples do this – why people do this – is that we haven’t worked hard enough to see each other as we actually are. We haven’t fully accepted that she’ll always be a bit ratty in the mornings or that he’ll always be slow to get off the couch and do the hoovering.
There are bits about each other that we’ll never, ever change. A universal truth about humans is that we can all be annoying. That includes you. Embracing our shared annoyingness might just set us free.
So here’s a gift suggestion, and it’ll work for mothers, fathers, siblings, kids and life partners: have a good long look at who they are, not who you want them to be. And try to accept them for that, if only for a day.
But get them a physical gift too. There’ll be a row if you don’t.