Friday, June 01, 2012

Fighting Within Marriage


I did it.  I came down to the beach for a very short vacation and I didn’t bring any books.  How foolish of me.  Fortunately, I carry a list of “books I’m willing to read” as a note in my iPhone and I was able to pick some up at the local “Books A Million” outlet.  I’m now enjoying one of them.  And wouldn’t you know it, it is “fiction” – a very rare pursuit of mine.  When one of the serious magazines I read (yes, there are a few still out there) recommends it as must reading for its readers, I try to find it when a need arises as it did this week.

Such is the case with the American 1885 classic The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells, Penguin Classics, 1986.  Howells was a contemporary of Mark Twain.  I won’t try and sell you on Howells ability as a writer – it’s quite impressive – but I wanted to share some of his thinking and wisdom that he injects into his work so well.  Let me begin with some of his thoughts on fighting within marriage.

He concludes chapter III of his book with a real affecting fight between his main character, Silas Lapham, and his wife.   He commences chapter IV with this paragraph:

THE silken texture of the marriage tie bears a daily strain of wrong and insult to which no other human relation can be subjected without lesion; and sometimes the strength that knits society together might appear to the eye of faltering faith the curse of those immediately bound by it.  Two people by no means reckless of each other’s rights and feelings, but even tender of them for the most part, may tear at each other’s heart-strings in this sacred bond with perfect impunity; though if they were any other two they would not speak or look at each other again after the outrages they exchange.  It is certainly a curious spectacle, and doubtless it ought to convince an observer of the divinity of the institution.  If the husband and wife are blunt, outspoken people like the Laphams, they do not weigh their words; if they are more refined, they weigh them very carefully, and know accurately just how far they will carry, and in what most sensitive spot they may be planted with most effect.

How true.  If you’ve been married for a while, think back at some of the whopper fights that you have had with your spouse and see if Howells is not exactly right.  A strong marriage can withstand such an interchange like no other relationship.  In my experience, even the blood-bond between parent and child is not that capable.

And is it not also correct that for some crazy reason, two people that otherwise may love each other very deeply, can, as a result of some triggered emotion or memory caused by something done afresh, something seen anew, and something said again, start tearing each other apart verbally, emotionally, and god-forbid, sometime physically?

In this day and age when so much is being said about what is and what is not a marriage relationship, I found it interesting that Howells writing 125 years ago gives us a new reason to consider its divine origin – the very fact it was built to withstand such storms and be able to successfully forget them.

Finally, Howells manages to work in yet one more clever observation and that is the two main different styles couples use when engaging in such battles – the one, like the Laphams that allows them to be perfectly blunt with each other, and the one that employs careful calculations to disguise the sending of the missiles but not the hurts that result.  Although we can never be too sure, because he is author who does not impose on his readers, he seems to me to be recommending the former as a much more honorable approach and one that allows both players to remain whole in every respect.

Perhaps it’s time for all of us to rethink how we approach doing battle with our spouses.  A healthy domestic fight can and should often strengthen the marriage, not scar it.

Where we may part company with Howells is how he describes the end of fights between the Laphams a few pages later:

With those two there was never anything like an explicit reconciliation.  They simply ignored a quarrel . . .

While the key is to come to a point of peace and start to re-engage with each other positively, there is, I believe, a better way than simply calling a truce.  To call a truce especially by ignoring to continue quarreling leaves the parties with no lessons learned, no reason to do anything different, and perhaps nothing settled with respect to what may have given rise to the dispute in the first place.  Yet sadly enough this is exactly how many couples, if not the majority, seem to handle their clashes.  They never talk about the conflict itself and how it impacted them or how it could have been handled different.  And before they know it, they repeat the performance soon thereafter – with either a different issue or sometimes, even the same one.

Can that change?  I believe so.  Let’s start with being aware of how we fight.  Let’s admit that Howells has got a pretty good front row seat by our marriage’s ‘boxing ring’ that enables him to peg us oh so well.  Then let’s commit to doing something different, something better, something that will bring about more lasting change in our approach to handling the wrangles in our relationships.

For those of us who are people of faith, our relationship with our Heavenly Father, His Son our Savior, and Holy Scriptures, provides us each with additional resources for success in this regard.


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2 comments:

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