It’s no doubt the last thing on your mind when you’re in the throes of a no-holds-barred shouting match with your partner, but some kinds of conflict can lead to growth and change. Other arguments, though, are downright destructive or just plain tiresome. Ingrained habits like bickering about the toothpaste or the constant drone of Radio 4 can be hard to break, and the most destructive rows are often about such seemingly trivial matters, when one person finally cracks and gets out the metaphorical chainsaw.
You can bury resentments and disagreements for years because you don’t want to bring the relationship to a crisis
Then there’s that angry sniping some couples go in for in public. Not a pretty sight, and not helpful to anyone.
But airing grievances which have been swept under the carpet for years has to be good, and there are many reasons why couples finally dare to address even the most dangerous stuff. For a start, conditions are so much more conducive to a good row now: there is no risk of upsetting the kids and no one to overhear you apart from the neighbours. Suddenly rocking the boat doesn’t seem so scary after all.
Relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam, author of Stop Arguing, Start Talking (Vermilion, £7.99), says: “You can bury resentments and disagreements for years, not only because you don’t want to upset the children, but because you don’t want to bring the relationship to a crisis.
“The freedom of having only each other to worry about, and getting unresolved issues on the table, can hugely increase intimacy, but only if both partners are willing to learn and to change. If there is love and a desire to get things sorted it can be the best thing that happens to a couple. You can start to be at peace with yourselves and with each other – and that in turn, if you want it, will lead to greater physical intimacy too.”
At the same time, the absence of the naive optimism that sees many younger relationships through conflict can go either way: a more realistic assessment of your future together may make you feel trapped, but equally it can bring home the sense that this is a last chance to say – and hopefully get – what you want. It is well known that women in particular get feistier at this age, as the menopause lowers the caring hormones and makes them more self-referential. As a result they are much more likely to stand up for what they want.
Meanwhile – and this seems surprising until you really think about the last row you had – many men actively dislike arguing about emotional matters. This can be a problem if couples have been tiptoeing around the big issues for years, and everything finally comes out in a massive explosion.
Susan Quilliam says: “Men in particular can get very physically overwrought with conflict – they literally respond more strongly than women, which is strange, because women are seen as the emotional ones. But while women can siphon off their feelings by, say, bursting into tears, a man will very easily feel uncomfortable, and his blood pressure and heart rate may go up.”
If one partner feels under attack, or it all gets too much, it’s an idea to go away for a weekend or have a couple of sessions with a counsellor, who will act as a referee and offer a safe place to air the powerful emotions that come out.
But what should help most is that by now many couples have learnt how to avoid causing too much damage when they row. They are generally more tolerant, and understand the importance of listening and keeping an open mind, of kindness as well as honesty, and of tempering vitriol with “I love you but….”
Stamina is required too, to resolve issues properly rather than making up too hastily. This is a lesson Rachel, who has been with her partner for 25 years, has learnt from experience: “There is a huge difference in the way we argue now. When we were in our twenties and thirties the same old things would get dredged up time and time again, and I’d burst into tears and he would comfort me or we’d end up in bed or get pissed. Either way, things were nearly always left unresolved.
“Now I understand – and I think he does too – that we have to hammer things out, because if we don’t and stuff lingers on under the surface, it gets harder and harder to let go of.”