Q: My boyfriend and I are college juniors, happily together 10 months and living together for five. An article I read said it’s healthy to argue with your partner, and I got a little worried. We sometimes bicker about what to watch on TV, but one of us quickly gives in, and that’s it. It does bug me that he’s chronically late and his car is filled with dirty cups, random CDs, empty wrappers, etc., but I basically just shrug this stuff off. He seems to do likewise with stuff I do that bugs him. Are we both just really easygoing? I worry that we may be missing some passionate connection.
A: Of course “Romeo and Juliet” is the great love story of all time. What were they, 14? Self-assertion doesn’t cause much conflict when you don’t have all that much self to assert — like when you’re in the primordial personswamp of your early 20s. Just consider the sort of questions that you, as a couple sharing a life in the edu-womb, are forced to gnash over: Jell-O shots or beer pong? Cup Noodles or Top Ramen? Why was “Arrested Development” canceled? If the universe disappeared, would the rules of chess still exist?
Sure, even now, you may be faced with one of the big relationship-crushing issues like money problems, forcing one of you to call your dad and then go out in the pouring rain to the ATM. But, later in life, when the issue may be which of you stands in the rain with your stuff the sheriff put out on the lawn, the arguing itself isn’t what breaks you up. In fact, it is important to engage and hash out your issues so they don’t burrow in. What seems to matter is how you treat each other when you aren’t disagreeing, in all the seemingly unimportant little moments.
Psychologist Dr. John Gottman, who does some of the best research on why marriages succeed and fail, calls this the “emotional bank account model” of relationships. He writes in “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” that romance is kept alive “each time you let your spouse know he or she is valued during the grind of everyday life.” He explains this as a consistent “turning toward” each other rather than turning away: remaining engaged in your partner’s world by reuniting at dinner and asking about each other’s day; consistently expressing fondness and admiration; showing love in the tiniest of ways. Essentially, Gottman explains, you need to treat your partner like they’re important even when you’re in the supermarket together and they ask something mundane, like “Are we out of bleach?” Instead of shrugging apathetically, you say, “I’ll go get us some so we won’t run out.”
At the moment, your biggest problem is that you two don’t really have any problems. This is what’s called a First World problem — like “I don’t have enough counter space for all of my appliances” or “I have to walk through the living room of this $350 hotel suite to get to the bathroom.” It could be that you’re both easygoing, or that you’re starter people in a starter relationship, or that you’ve yet to reach your poo-flinging, death-glaring annoyance threshold. Perhaps just try to enjoy yourselves instead of worrying that nothing’s ripping you apart — tragic as it is that you’re far too content together to have hate sex.
Q: My boyfriend’s fastidiously clean. I’m not. Before we moved in together, this was a source of teasing. Now it causes fights. I constantly upset him by letting dirty dishes sit, forgetting to dump the recycling, and allowing projects, books, papers and stuff to pile up all over. He’s tried to be more accepting, and I’ve tried to remember to clean up, but it’s not working. I suggested we each get our own place again, but he thinks that sounds like a step backward.
A: Your boyfriend could be more open-minded: It’s not just a kitchen; it’s a probiotics wildlife refuge. You point to the grout: “See this furry green patch? I’ve decided to name it ‘Pam.’” And sure, you could hire a weekly housecleaner with the money you’re saving by cohabiting and make filing systems and lists and chore wheels, but the reality is, you probably need somebody to follow you around with a shovel. Since you two were happy when you lived separately, the problem seems to be buying into the idea that moving in together is a step forward. For your relationship, the step forward would be living apart so you can go back to being lovingly amused at your differences — the way he sees the countertop as half-full and you see that there’s still space for several pots and a week’s worth of dirty plates.