Every couple has one core fight that replays over and over again, in different disguises, over the course of their relationship. In this series, couples analyze the origin and mechanics of their One Fight. To pitch your own One Fight (we’ll also accept pseudonyms, if necessary), email email@example.com.
Allison Benedikt and John Cook have been married for 14 years and live in Maplewood, New Jersey, with their three sons.
Allison Benedikt: Let’s begin with something I think we can both agree on: We fight a lot. I love you very, very much and you make me very, very mad a lot of the time. And I know you feel the same about me. We’re meant for each other! We fight about how best to manage our debt; we fight about what “look” we want our house to have; we fight about all the dumb rules you impose on our children in your fits of frustration. But the issue that animates our most long-standing and frequent fights is that I have a running spreadsheet in my head that keeps tabs on who has done more laundry/dishes/child rearing/socializing/band practicing at any given time, and you don’t like that I’m always keeping track.
John Cook: I love you too, and I regard all our fights as symptoms of that love—unavoidable byproducts of our mutual decision to never part from one another. I think you’re right that you have a propensity to keep mental track of the various parenting and household workloads, and that you get resentful if you think I’m not pulling my weight. And I definitely get resentful when I feel like you’re applying some sort of time-sheet management philosophy to what I view as an “everyone pitch in where they can” household. I don’t think it matters that you did the dishes two nights in a row if I had to spend two hours fixing the silicone bond on the shower stall doorstop, or made chicken and rice. (One complication here is that I think you often don’t credit me in your internal ledger for the work that I do because I actually tend to enjoy fixing things around the house and cooking—when I’ve done all the shopping and prep work and cooking for a 30-person barbecue we’re hosting, you’ve accused me of abandoning you with the kids all day.)
But I don’t think that’s actually the core fight. I think underlying that tension is a more basic dynamic, which is that you view the status quo through a lens of anxiety—you look at whatever troubles you about the current state of affairs and project it out into a dark, permanent future. And you usually try to bottle up that anxiety while nursing it internally, as I unsuspectingly carry on with whatever I’m doing until your bubbling resentment and fear becomes impossible to avoid. And then I get mad at you for holding it in until it becomes a fight.
So it’s not quite that you’re keeping track—it’s that the reason you’re keeping track is that you fear that you’ll be stuck forever with whatever temporary imbalance we’re going through.
Our two biggest, longest fights involved cases where I was going through professional stress that, for the time being, took me away from our family life. I don’t dispute that my side of the ledger was awful light during those periods, but what I couldn’t get you to see was that I was going through tough times, needed a little help, and that I’d get you back later. I think you were so angry not because of the basic unfairness, but because you were holding your ground that you wouldn’t put up with that forever. But I never expected you to. In my less anxious brain, it was the marriage version of asking you to buy this round because I’m a little light. I think that dynamic—our different attitudes and anxieties about the future and what can be done about it—is really at the core of our fights.
Benedikt: Hmmm. So either our core fight is about my scorekeeping or about my anxiety. The ref in me says that’s one too many in my blame column, and the head-case in me worries that you’ll always view my legitimate gripes as just angst.
Anyway, I’m not sure I agree with you! It’s true that I worry more about the future than you do, particularly when it comes to our kids’ happiness. I am more likely to say, “But what if he never has friends again?” And you are more likely to say, “It will all work out.” But when you were going through a tough time at work and never around, I wasn’t worried that it would be like that forever. I was convinced that you could be doing more at home in that moment, that if you wanted to, you could leave work earlier and get the kids, or stop taking work calls on vacation. It felt like a choice to me, and therefore I felt taken for granted.
Same goes for the BBQ example, actually: You’re right. I do get mad when you are cooking all day and I am saddled with the boys. And I know you see this as absurd because I don’t cook and we all need food to live. But cooking can take a little time or a lot of time, and when you unilaterally decide to cook a time-consuming meal, it does feel to me like you choosing to not be around, and then I get resentful that you have the room to get to do what you want to do. As you said, you like a lot of the responsibilities that are in your bucket. I don’t really like mine. Finding new babysitters every six months, managing family logistics, and doing the laundry are not enjoyable! That’s probably why you don’t do it! But you have a way of twisting all of that around to make me look petty and difficult. Which … maybe is what’s at the core of our fights? The fact that you see yourself as a selfless pitcher-inner and I don’t?
Cook: We may be getting somewhere. You’ve mentioned two things that you frequently bring up when we fight: that I view myself as generous and selfless, and that I portray you as petty and selfish. I plead guilty to thinking of myself as a selfless pitcher-inner, and I’m sure that you often don’t view things that way. But I think this dynamic—you think I demonize you and lionize myself—comes from my fighting habit of saying things like, “I wouldn’t hassle you about kid duty if you were going through what I’m going through,” or “When you needed me to deal with the kids last weekend, I didn’t make you feel bad about it.”
That’s not me saying you’re selfish. It’s my way of trying to show you how I see things—that I see the job of spouse as doing what your partner can’t, when she can’t, without asking her to feel bad about it. That I don’t ask you to be grateful or thankful to me when I’m picking up slack, and that I don’t think it’s my job to be grateful or thankful when the reverse is true. This is a version of another difference between us: You are intensely aware of when we incur any kind of social debt, or somehow put out or inconvenience others. It makes you uncomfortable when we owe friends or have to ask neighbors for help. I don’t mind at all—people owe each other and they get each other back. Everything evens out, as long as you remember to repay what you owe.
Now of course, anyone reading this will be screaming THAT’S EASY FOR YOU TO SAY WHEN YOU DON’T DO ANY OF THE WORK, ASSHOLE. And it is easy to say. But I think you will testify that we actually do co-parent, that I actually do, overall, shoulder the burden in equal measure with you. There are of necessity divisions of labor. You do the laundry. That’s a huge pain! I do not want to do the laundry. I handle all the bills and finances. It’s a huge pain! You don’t want to do it. If this little glimpse at the division of labor in the Benedikt–Cook household looks gendered, that’s because it is: Home ownership involves a shit-ton of around-the-house work, from gardening and lawn-mowing to arranging for plumbers and electricians and fixing bannisters, etc. I do a lot of things that are traditionally relegated to men, because you either can’t or won’t do them.
This is from a recent to-do list when I took a little work sabbatical:
super bowl party
clean out garage
organize kitchen cabinets
honda battery fixed
fix washing machine
glass in door
storm door repair
closet light for sam
move kitchen garbage to new space
organize bathroom cabinets
organize linen closet
figure out wifi
light bulbs/attic light
subaru visual inspection
I actually don’t like arranging for the washing machine to be fixed. I don’t DISLIKE it, but it’s not, like, a hobby that I have. Same thing with cleaning out the garage. These are things that need to be done if we want to have a functioning household. And I do them without thinking about whether or not I’d prefer you to be doing them.
Benedikt: That is some list! And it’s true that you definitely do pull your weight when you are not going through a work crisis. It’s also true that you came up with that list after you quit your job and had all the time in the world to organize the linen closet and spices.
And you know what I say to that? THANK YOU. I say thank you! I say thank you when you clean out the garage and I say thank you when you visually inspect the Subaru (?) and I say thank you when you patch the hole that our middle son bashed into the wall (what if he’s like this forever?). This whole business about marriage being about us picking up each other’s slack without having to be grateful is such BS. What’s wrong with being grateful? What’s wrong with acknowledging each other’s contributions to the family? I see what checked-out dads are like. I am extremely grateful to not be married to one!
This was something I actually asked for over and over again during the dark days of your work trauma: Please just acknowledge how much I am doing to keep this family together and I won’t be so mad about it. But you always saw that as me not supporting you. Me needing gratitude for something that is just part of the deal.
Now looking back at that time, and after spending several hours with our wonderful marriage therapist who definitely preferred you over me, I do wish I had been more supportive and less pissed. I wish I had sucked it up and been the hero at home. I wish I hadn’t punished you when you were getting enough of that at the office. But, man, it’s hard! And I think on top of the anger at you was some anger at myself for being this way. For not being the understanding wife, for not being able to shoulder the burden without rage, and mostly for really wanting—and needing—credit.
Cook: This dynamic—you needing credit and me not really thinking of marriage like that—plays out in other ways, too.
For instance, I’m open and unapologetic about doing things—band practice, or cooking, or running—that give me some time on my own, because I think I deserve that. I remember being angry once when you confessed to me, when our kids were super young and exceedingly difficult to deal with, that sometimes the reason you took forever in the bathroom was that you would hang out in there and read your phone just to get a break. I shouldn’t have been angry: I should have been sympathetic and understanding that you needed that time. But what that anecdote shows is that you were so uncomfortable with the idea of indenturing yourself to me by carving out your own space to get away that you would rather deceptively sit on the toilet rather than just say you are going for a walk or to a café to read a magazine. I don’t have a problem asking for those things if I need them. And I think your reluctance to ask for them, or your over-the-top apologies when you take a long time at the gym or the trains are late getting you home—which, I don’t care at all! It’s fine, I’ve got it!—are indications that, when the reverse happens, you feel the need to mark it down on the scorecard.
Again, I don’t think that’s petty, or selfish. I think it’s anxious. It’s worry. As we’ve learned from various kids’ behavior charts, tallying up deeds and keeping balance sheets are ways of imposing order and predictability on emotionally chaotic situations. I prefer to just let it ride.
Benedikt: So I guess we agree that I feel like we’re in this together if we’re both pulling our weight and acknowledging each other’s contributions, and you feel like we’re in this together if we’re selflessly helping each other out, regardless of the balance sheet, and don’t require a pat on the back for it.
The good news is that I think you’re adapting! The Bad Work Period was a real low point in our marriage, and though we still fight plenty about this stuff, you’ve gotten better at showing and saying how much you appreciate me.
I also think our fights have gotten less intense because we’re so tired all the time. I still store up resentments and then explode. Not cool. But after 14 years of marriage and three kids, I can’t stay mad for as long as I used to, at least. My ability to really hold and nurse a grudge has declined. And although I am not getting less anxious as I age, I am more aware of the ledger problem. I haven’t quite managed to stop keeping score, but I do try to keep it to myself.
Cook: It’s good to know that our marriage is the kind of conflict that de-escalates over time, like Northern Ireland, as opposed to one that intensifies, like Syria. You’re right that it takes effort for me to do something that should be effortless—to show gratitude for your presence in my life and for all the work you do to keep our family functioning. I have always had this idea that marriage—and parenthood—is an achievement, the unlocking of a goal that releases you from the mundane obligations of relationship maintenance. Part of that is obviously that we’ve snared each other in traps and can safely be ourselves now because we’re stuck, but part of it is a (selfish) belief that our vows carried with them a perpetual and implied “thank you” for the entire term of the marriage. Of course I appreciate you! I’m married to you, aren’t I? I thanked you at our wedding—that one is still in force.
For me, the deal we struck was that you’d always be here, so I don’t need to worry about doing the stuff I always did to keep you around. For you, the deal was that I’d promise to keep doing that stuff. I know I need to change my attitude.
I’ve never really been good enough at expressing gratitude. I’ve never been good at romantic gestures. I’m a terrible gift-buyer. You knocked my socks off with a surprise 40th birthday party that I could never hope to match. I took you skiing—which you don’t really like that much—for yours. Even as we exchange these messages, you had to gently remind me to “say something heartwarming” here at the end, lest I seem cold and unsympathetic in print.
The thing is: I get my warmth from you. That’s why I fell in love with you—you have a light and an emotional generosity that I lack. What I’m truly grateful for is that I have you in my life to remind me that I should always try to be more loving, that marriage needs to be tended to no matter how certain we both are that we’re in this for the long haul, that I need to say heartwarming things. Thank you. I love you. And in the future, if you feel under-acknowledged, please refer to this paragraph for a public and irrevocable expression of gratitude.
Benedikt: Thank you for taking care of the E-ZPass.
Read the other entries in Slate’s Our One Fight series.