“Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” Proverbs 27:5
“All fierce passions tangle in the knot of marriage.” Jane Clark Scharl
We are neck deep in summer break here at Camp Jolman. My wife and I feel every bit like camp counselors, well, except without the youthful vigor of our twenties. And with the kids up later and the family activities lasting all summer, we often only get the last hour or two of the day together.
Sometimes we veg together on the couch or our bed. We may sit outside to watch the last light pass West over the mountains while we sip something yummy. We’ve read books together or made love. There are nights we get work done. But sometimes this space for connecting sparks a fight. No one started out thinking this sounded like a great use of our evening. Neither of us like fights. But there we were fighting.
How does this happen? How do any marriage fights happen?
Why We Fight
We all fight for the passion. A fight is a great way to get out lots of burning desire without any risk of vulnerability. And in that sense we fight for the self protection too. Fights are this very dreadful combination or passion and protection.
The human heart cannot bear dispassionate love. We need regular experiences of passion in any love relationship to know we are loved. We rightly don’t trust a love without it. We wonder, where did it go? Do you not love me anymore? Or worse, if its not with me, where is it? Who’s got your heart? This is why hobbies can feel like affairs. So can friendships or work or a smartphone. Your heart is somewhere because, in the words of James KA Smith, “to be human is to be a lover.” Or as Larry Crabb wrote, “In our deepest selves, we are more passionate than reasonable.”
Passion could be great sex or a deep conversation. It could be a rousing game of cards together. Or just a big solid hug. We may bond in the vigor of a shared house project. It could be flowers or a sweet text or a moment of just saying “I love you” with your heart present. It could be tears of joy at an accomplishment or holding each other when it hurts. Or laying on the carpet and praying together or a spontaneous dance party while cooking dinner.
Or it can be a fight. And that’s the awful reality. Fights can consume so much passion in a marriage.
Sometimes at the end of the night, when Amanda and I have not connected for so long, the space between us feels a little uneasy, risky. She’s tired. I’m tired. Can we really be heard tonight? And when we aren’t up for risking vulnerability, sometimes that desire spills out in a fight.
I’m not saying anyone started out wanting this or feels connected after it. Its not a warm fuzzy sorta connection. Fights don’t make for great intimacy and rarely make people feel close. But its passion and passion bonds. So why would we do this?
Dan Allender has pointed out that anger cycles mirror sexual arousal cycles. Every fight, if uninterrupted, will build with increasing intensity and lead to something like an anger orgasm—the moment the fight gets most raw and undone. A new name gets called, someone threatens divorce, a door gets slammed, someone stonewalls or walks out. In domestic violence, this becomes a new injury, a new broken door, or hole in the wall. This is why domestic violence is so abusive, wrong, and unbearable. The violence and the rage bleed with high-proof passion but not one ounce of love. Someone mad with “love” is crazy making for the human heart.
And yes, there are fight hangovers for all of us. Passion without love turns every stomach. It has no nourishment. Rather than feeling joyful and connected, we feel shameful and lonely. We vented our passion without really getting close. We weaponized our desire.
That nasty self protection—that’s the intimacy killer. Sometimes we don’t want to risk on our lover’s heart. So we protect ourselves. We bring ourselves in anger or defense or shutdown. We look out for us. When we guard our heart and stay armed up, it leads to pure madness. Commingled desire and defense will drive us all crazy.
How We Get Out
Someone must step out from their armor and opens the door for safety. Intimacy requires passion and vulnerability. Vulnerability literally means in Latin, “able to be wounded.” It means we need to come disarmed and open, to entrust ourselves to our spouse, to risk on them, that they don’t want to just hurt us. We trust that we’ve known their open, tender heart before and their willingness to apologize. Let me clarify: I am not talking about opening up to an aggressive spouse, someone who uses violence and control and does not humble or soften themselves. I’m not asking you to put yourself in harms way.
Most fights resolve on connection, not content. We don’t “sort out our differences” and then connect. We connect first, we get the love right and then we talk it through. Someone needs to come out, get bold with desire, and announce, “I don’t want to lose you to this fight.”
Then we get curious. Have you ever had a moment where you suddenly forgot why you were even fighting? That’s because all fights with any teeth to them always become about deeper things.
There is desire in every fight. We don’t just want blood. But we do want something.
So what is it? What are you really fighting for?
Its probably not the thing that started the fight. The bill your spouse didn’t pay. The time they chose to go mountain biking too long. The off handed comment. Those are all provocations of some deeper longing and deeper fear. A good fight gets more vulnerable. It moves away from the rigid, legalistic arguing over details towards desire.
We need to be curious about your spouse’s desire too. Can you see in your partner another person with desire? Another person embattled in a place far bigger than you? If we only see the face of an enemy, we will never disarm. But fights that give us some of the greatest opportunity to understand ourselves and our spouses deeper desires and deeper pain.
Fights happen, passion tangles. We all dance our love east of Eden. Don’t waste the passion of your next fight. Disarm and get curious.