Relationships

The Oxford Debater vs. the Debate Team Quitter

Every time we fight, we’re replaying an old argument that has more to do with our different fighting styles than whatever we’re fighting about.

A couple pours over academic journals as a dog watches.
Doris Liou

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 humaninterest@slate.com.

Kit Neill and Leo Wan have been dating for about four years and live in London.

Leo: Part of our relationship’s dialect is meandering conversations that sometimes lead to what I’d call “debates.” I say “debates” because that’s how I see them: There’s something of the precocious school pupil about them. And the source of tension is not the subject of the debates themselves but the way in which the debates are being conducted.

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Kit: I remember one fight when we were walking back from a pub somewhere and we were talking about poststructuralism. I was arguing that there are no objective morals or fundamental truths because I’m edgy and interesting.

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Leo: I think I was saying whatever I could say to get Kit on the ropes. It was quite early on in the relationship and I think I was really just trying to figure him out.

Kit: We completely agreed at the end—and probably all of the way through, underneath it all—but it was a pretty painful process to get there.

Leo: I have the vague recollection of having to apologize for being too aggressive in some conversation about England’s former Work and Pensions Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith, over some cured meats at my old house.

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Kit: We both tend to default to playing devil’s advocate for fun in conversations.

Leo: We both come from a background of college debate—which is to say, we enjoy interrogation for its own sake—but I suspect my approach is more abrasive. I’ve always had a competitive streak in me. However, with neither muscle mass nor hand-eye coordination and unable to suffer a certain kind of masculinity, sports were never an outlet for me. Instead, conversations can turn into games to be won or lost. But I still see debating as a game, a form of play.

I was involved in the Oxford Union Society, which is this incredibly pompous debating club. I’m not sure I really honed any skills there. Victory was achieved by winning over the crowd with rhetorical flourishes or swingeing quips rather than anything substantial.

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Kit: After doing some debating in school, I stopped early on in my first year of college because after rowing, socializing, and some actual study, there wasn’t much space left for it. Also my career highs were being laughed at for making up the term “surrogate mothercy” and causing my team to lose a competition by not knowing the difference between patents and copyright. So there’s that.

I’d say your emphasis is generally more on winning than on taking the conversation somewhere interesting. So you get really entrenched in your position as the conversation goes on. And your style can get much more forceful, bordering on aggressive or dismissive.
I’m not a fan of that.

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Leo: Sure, it’s fair to say that part of arguing is about notching up a win for me. But I also think you get to the most interesting places by being entrenched and aggressive. And I’m being dismissive of the argument, not you as a person.

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Kit: Whereas I completely disagree that this kind of conversation gets us anywhere interesting or new. We’re people, not academic journals.

Leo: We realized we both have the same Myers-Briggs profile: “The Debater.”

Kit: Gag. When Leo’s friends found this out they declared us “monstrous.” Fairly.

Topics I remember as notable ones we’ve fought about include tattoos (my position: they are clearly great), people watching loud videos on their phones on buses (a positive sign people aren’t as buttoned-up these days), and “is reality TV OK” (inconclusive).

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I remember your housemate once reminding us the next day that he had overheard a really heated drunken argument through the wall at 2 a.m. At first he thought it was serious and that he was listening to us break up. After a while he realized we were arguing whether actors are artists or not, and gave up and went to sleep.

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Leo: I have vague recollections of this and being very insistent that they aren’t. I have no idea why. Today, I have no strong feeling either way and don’t know why anyone would. Or why they would force their long-suffering partner to argue with them about it for hours.
Sorry, Kit.

I will say we don’t have big fights and we certainly don’t hold onto our fights—which is a sign of something, I think. Other than the hazy half-formed memories we’ve already mentioned, it’s hard to think of the specifics of any argument. But I have very vivid memories of good times—from our first kiss to the first and only time I saw Kit cry. It was from laughter and inspired by watching a documentary about Dame Judi Dench’s relationship with trees.

Kit: I am not at all ashamed to say that’s true.

In general, I think you feel like “telling the truth” is more important than the feelings of the person you are talking to, in all situations.

Leo: Yes, that’s fair. I do have this somewhat fanatical obsession with some idealized notion of the truth. But I also think most people go around day to day with a lot of cognitive dissonance and manage to hold all these conflicting views about the world. One of the real values of a partner is to be able to challenge that bullshit so you can learn something, rather than just blindly plodding through noise.

Kit: I’m not on board with your noble quest to argue people up to some unachievable standard of rationality  I don’t think that’s a thing that works, or a thing at all—your stance relies on ignoring what people are actually like in real life.

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Also, I don’t think a relationship is the place to play that out. Ultimately I’m with you to have a nice time, not to act as a training ground for achieving some lofty theoretical goal. Everyone having a nice time in a situation comes from reading the room and recognizing the limits of where people want to go in a conversation—and how far you can reasonably push them to try and change their position.

Leo: I do wonder if you being an only child has somethign to do with your feelings on this—if you’re just not as used to being challenged on things.

Kit: I can’t rule out being an only child having an influence. I’ve definitely spent a lot less time dealing with pointless needling than anyone who has grown up with siblings.

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Over time I think I’ve gotten better at noticing when a fight is happening and learned to just stop having the debate when I’m not enjoying it any more. This is why a bus full of strangers never found out the definitive answer about reality TV—instead they got 20 minutes of awkward post-fight silence. So maybe there’s a little more work to do.

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Leo: I hope I’ve learned to apologize for unintended consequences.

Kit: Amends were indeed made after Big Brother–gate.

Leo: In spite of all of this, I think our honesty is a big part of why our relationship works. Alongside that is our a shared realism—we tend not to get carried away, even while we’re arguing. I also think we know on a very fundamental level that we would never want to hurt one another. Of course, sometimes we do so, but we recognize it’s never intentional.

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Kit: Right, I think we both are willing to take a step back from what we know is fundamentally a pointless argument and, when we’re not in the moment, acknowledge when it’s getting too involved. Also we both tend to have an understanding of the other’s reasons for being frustrated, even if we don’t agree with them.

More broadly, I think part of the reason it’s fine is that we’re both so similar in this way. It would be a lot tougher if we were actually invested in what we were fighting about—or if we didn’t, on some basic level, enjoy it.

Read other entries in Slate’s Our One Fight series:

The Action-Taker vs. the Second-Guesser

Stability vs. Adventure

The Sharer vs. the Withholder

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