A few months ago, back in my flat in Cambridge, I started eavesdropping on our new downstairs neighbours. I'd crouch on the living room carpet with my ear to an upturned pint glass, like in the movies. It didn’t work very well. Fortunately their rows were loud enough to hear even if I’d got the telly on.
They were a young couple who’d just moved in together. I'd tell myself I was concerned about the state of their relationship, but that was a lie. I listened in because it was a good way to put off cleaning the oven. And because pretending I was in a spy novel helped me forget I’d nothing better to do on a Thursday evening than lie alone on the floor with a pint glass to my ear.
Given the frequency and intensity of their spats, the odd thing was, neither of them seemed to enjoy arguing. For example, one of their earliest barneys, from what I could tell (I’m only alerted to a row once it’s escalated to yelling, so it usually takes a bit of detective work to figure out how it began) started because he was talking on the phone when she called for him to help her unload the washing machine. When he didn’t answer, she did the only sensible thing and flung all his freshly washed laundry out of the window.
As usual, his response was to adopt the whiny, nasal tone of a petulant eight-year-old sulking at being made to visit a much-hated relative.
‘Why-eee?’ he mewled, stretching the word out to two shrill syllables. ‘Why-eee? It’s not fay-yer!’
Her sigh was loud enough to hear through the thick barrier of floorboards and underlay. ‘Because you were annoying me!’ With this sentiment, at least, I could sympathise.
As a fully qualified armchair psychologist, I decided their relationship was doomed. They seemed totally incompatible. With all the anger and bickering, I couldn’t imagine them lasting another two months. However, the current thinking on long-term relationships suggests I may have had it all backwards.
Dr John Gottman is a leading researcher into marital stability and divorce. He claims to have developed a methodology whereby he can predict with 90% accuracy whether a couple will still be together four to six years later. Partners get wired up to heart monitors, then asked to discuss a topic they disagree on.
The recordings make for gripping listening – some couples squabble with a gladiatorial intensity that makes my battling neighbours seem like the picture of domestic bliss. What’s even more startling, however, is Gottman’s finding that legendary bickerers often have the most stable and long-lasting marriages. Angry squabbling doesn’t necessarily mean a break-up is on the cards.
Indeed, according to The (possibly slightly right-wing and horrible) Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education: ‘The number one predictor of divorce is the habitual avoidance of conflict.’ For many couples, it seems a spirited ding-dong is a great way of letting off steam and expressing one’s feelings. All partnerships involve issues on which the two people involved fundamentally disagree. The difference between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one is that, in a healthy one, opposing perspectives get listened to and acknowledged. For some couples, sometimes a row is the best way to achieve that.
Habitual conflict avoidance is something I know all about. After all, I spent the best part of a month with my ear to the floor like an under-resourced Stasi officer, when really, I should have just walked downstairs, knocked on their door and politely asked them to keep their voices down.
But a funny thing happened. After a while, the rows just sort of tailed off. Just before I left for Norwich (to move in with my own girlfriend), I saw them walking together, arm in arm, looking the very picture of sickening romantic contentment. So maybe a bit of verbal jousting is good in the long run. And if you disagree, don't keep it in. Let's argue about it.