It's a new year, and as is my habit, I'm taking advantage of the occasion to reflect on how to be a better human being. For the second year in a row, this means making a resolution to be more stubborn, pick more fights and just generally be harder to get along with. See, taking stock of my past relationships - and my life in general - I've noticed a disturbing pattern: I've been too nice. I've been compliant and attentive to the point of becoming a conflict avoider. And, as many of you fellow conflict avoiders have probably come to realize yourself, I now know that when it comes to relationships, this type of behaviour doesn't bring peace but breeds only tension and resentment.
One drunken night not so long ago, I was hanging out with my stepsister - the one with a tattoo of two six-shooters crisscrossed on her back - and she sketched in black marker a rough draft of a ram bursting out of my chest. This was to be the image of my new head-butting and argument-inciting self. Shortly after that, I got chatting with a guy on the subway carrying a sword and by the time my stop came I had the name and address of a Kendo dojo. But getting an inspirational tattoo and learning the ways of Japanese sword fighting - both of which I intend to do in 2010 - are really just preparation for the real challenge: women.
I'm sure every conflict avoider has his own reasons. My stepfather once told me that he skirts contentious issues because he feels that if he ever let himself become even close to angry, he would quickly slide into rage. (This may explain his daughter's pistols, but anyway).
Scott Haltzman, a psychiatrist and author of The Secrets of Happily Married Men, says this cautionary approach is not completely irrational. "When men get exposed to conflict, it stirs up what we call an autonomic arousal," he told me.
"And for men in particular, because of their higher levels of testosterone and more competitive and aggressive natures, conflict gives them a feeling of wanting to do something physical. And the problem with relationships is doing something physical when you're upset isn't an option, even something as potentially benign as hitting your hand against a wall." Although Dr. Haltzman encourages men to learn to handle their emotions while engaging in conflict, he says the fear of this adrenalized "arousal" will sometimes lead them to avoid even verbal skirmishes.
Though it's true that I have, on occasion, bit my tongue when a woman picked a fight with me and later vented my anger by hurling innocent novels across the apartment, I think men also avoid conflict because they're not sure it's going to lead to anything good. A man's own unexpressed frustration is at least something that he can fully know and quantify, whereas he can't know how his partner is going to feel if he pushes back. Out of fear that they won't reach a resolution or that he will say the wrong thing along the way (we all know men are notorious for this), he may choose to cut his losses and shut his mouth.
Dr. Geoff MacDonaldv, a social psychologist who studies relationships at the University of Toronto, says there is a typical pattern that some couples fall into, which he calls "demand withdrawal." It's pretty simple: One person in the relationship wants to make a change in the dynamic and the other person, who is fine with the status quo, rebuffs. "Then the first person realizes, I didn't get the response I want, I guess I need to ramp up the demand I'm making," Dr. MacDonald explains. "So they make their demand in a stronger, more vehement kind of way, and the person who is trying to avoid the conflict feels like they need to do an even more extreme withdrawal behaviour and it basically goes back and forth like this in this cycle."
Besides being a recipe for relationship breakdown, Dr. MacDonald says, a major problem with not engaging in argument and expressing one's point of view - even if it's one you fear is not so pretty - is that your partner ends up having a relationship with only half a person. "You have to show your negative sides as well as your positive ones," he advises.
I have several strong, opinionated female friends who complain about dating guys who aren't willing to stand up to them, who are too agreeable and go along with whatever they want. "I know, it's a problem," I say, agreeing.
My friend Kate told me she is consistently attracted to guys who are more easygoing, but soon finds never being challenged is not so hot.
"It's ideal for a while because it's easy and you get to be in charge. But then it's boring and you're thinking, well, they're really sweet but I'm bored," she said. "And the other thing about it is that I think it's legitimate to want to be argued with because it makes a person feel valued. When someone is agreeing with everything I say, they're obviously not listening to me because I talk a lot of shit."
I guess I had never thought of it this way: being too nice as a form of disrespect. In the past, in my attempt to respect women to the degree I was taught by my feminist, lefty parents, I might have missed the point. Avoiding the expression of an opinion or not lodging a complaint because it may anger the person I'm in a relationship with is paradoxically a controlling behaviour. And, in the long run, once enough resentment builds and spills over, will even end up being cruel.
And so I resolve to make this the Year of the Ram. In reality, my plan to be more confrontational will probably likely make me appear to have grown a stiffer backbone or just a bit more adept at expressing my feelings. But who knows, maybe I will actually get into a weeklong fight filled with uncensored words, vented frustrations and a flood of tears. One can only dream.
Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published in the fall of 2010.