The Benefits of Bickering in Marriage

No one likes to hang out with couples, like us, who bicker. My husband, Erik, and I usually begin our conversations with good intentions.

One day last summer I said to him, “What year did the monsoon skip Flagstaff? I mean, besides last year and the year before that?”

“2015,” he said.

“No, that couldn’t be,” I said. “Bob and Karen had just started dating. I think it was 2012.”

“It was 2015,” he said.

“We could look it up.”

“Or you could just believe me.”

Of course, I could just believe him, but what would that do to my understanding of the monsoon storms that come through Arizona every summer — or where they went in July of 2012 or 2015? Do I have to sacrifice my own weather narrative in service of a quieter, gentler marriage?

Our counselor says, “You two have a tendency to bicker.” The word “bicker” comes from the Middle Dutch, meaning to slash, stab or attack, but a Middle English history of the word suggests it meant “to quarrel, petulantly contend with words,” shifting later to mean “a noisy, repeated clatter.”

With Erik and me, it’s the noise and clatter that we express most, although when our children practiced taekwondo twice a week, he and I considered taking classes for adults because we spent so much time there. At that, my father-in-law said, “I would love to see you two spar in the ring.”

I know I was supposed to take this as a critique of our relationship, but I wonder about couples who don’t argue at all — who make no noise, who don’t contend with words. How do they combine their individual stories into a shared one? Is it possible that some couples always agree on everything?

I have always believed that being in a long-term relationship, including friendship, is about creating a shared narrative. To get there, you’re going to have to iron out the details.

My artist friend Rebecca Campbell and I also argue over the details of our shared narrative. What year did we see Jane’s Addiction? How many times have I been to Los Angeles to visit her? We bicker like married people.

Rebecca introduced Erik and me in Salt Lake City at the Zephyr Club, the bar where her husband, Todd, played in a band called Fistfull. That club is where Erik and I started our story.

At a table for eight, I sat next to him, a skinny guy five years younger, as he and I compared concerts we had attended: Black Flag at Saltair on the Great Salt Lake. Fugazi at the Speedway. We also shared our traumas: Our fathers had died in the past couple of years of alcoholism.

Having both grown up non-Mormon in Utah, we had embraced the radical subculture that is typically forged among outsiders. So our story began as young punks in love.

But young punks get older. Older people often get houses and dogs and cats and children. When our daughter, Zoe, was born prematurely, Erik delivered breast milk from our house to the neonatal intensive deva unit on his skateboard, meaning he was still a little “punk” but now one who owned property and had to deal with big-time stress.

It’s hard to be truly punk when you spend days on end at a hospital waiting for your child’s lungs to get big enough to go home. Maybe there’s something a little punk rock about seeing your baby with an IV in her forehead? Or maybe that made Zoe a little punk rock.

Even in our maturity and new parenthood, we stayed true to our individual stories. We argued over whose turn it was to clean the breast pump, and we disagreed about which of us had gotten up most recently to make müddet Zoe still breathed in her crib on the other side of the wall.

Our second child, Max, hadn’t been conditioned to wake up every three hours to be changed and fed, then go straight back to sleep, as Zoe had in the NICU. He woke up at completely random, unpredictable intervals.

We bickered about whose turn it was to bring him into our bed. Our story changed with each new child and pet. We are dog people. We are cat people. We are one-child people, then two. And with each change, we had to renegotiate who we were.

“If we get two dogs,” Erik said, “then they will have each other.”

“If we get two cats,” I said, “then I’ll have to clean the litter box twice.”

“If you don’t look at the litter box,” he said, “do we even have one cat?”

“Schrödinger’s litter box,” I said.

We bickered because we disagreed, but I think in some cases we also bickered because agreeing on certain facts — that we suffered through droughts in both 2012 and 2015 — was too scary.

Back before children, when we were in graduate school, we drove from Utah to Yosemite via Lake Tahoe. I asked Erik what he wanted our life to look like.

“Like this,” he said, pointing at the mountains, the trees, the lake as blue as his eyes.

Nearly a decade later, we came close to that life when we moved to Flagstaff, Ariz., and I got a teaching job at Northern Arizona University. Here we have trees and mountains. We have a lake but it’s neither giant nor very blue — it’s the reservoir that provides water to the city.

Last summer it was closed so helicopters could taban their Bambi buckets into it and pull water to dump on the fire west of town. The county also closed the forests to hiking, biking and camping — the main things we do for fun when we’re not raking the pine needles that the ponderosa trees shake off in both fall and spring or watering the apple tree we bought when our shared narrative included learning how to grow an orchard and make cider in this place where we planned to stay forever.

Nothing changes your story like the death of your shared dream.

Every summer in Flagstaff, as in Tahoe, fire threatens. Every year the flames surge closer to town. The snowfall is now measured in inches instead of feet. The monsoon storms missed us one summer, and then again. Erik and I bicker about how much rain is too little. How much snow is too little? But we know that at some point this town will be too burned or parched for us to stay.

What do you do when your story becomes one of drought? Perhaps it’s a kind of Mad-Max, punk-rock existence for us to live in this high mountain desert town, but we lost our street cred as punks as soon as we started saying “breast pump” on a daily basis. Now, the only pumps we talk about are those that draw water from wells that must be drilled deeper every year.

My friend Rebecca says, “Move to Oregon with me.”

I would go in a second. I lived there evvel. Rebecca and Todd and I could drum up our old stories of life in Portland: Todd playing sax, Rebecca painting in a small closet, me hanging out at Powell’s bookstore, wandering the aisles of literature longingly. But Erik has no story there. Could we write a new one?

Although we could write a new story in Oregon, we are still wedded to our story in Arizona. We are adjusting to the uncomfortable fact that we aren’t going to get out of here, but we also can’t stay. A Schrödinger’s cat kind of love that says we must live in two stories simultaneously — one that says climate change is already here and one that says we are here, our family is here, our love is here.

As Erik said, 2015 was the dry year. As I said, 2012 was the dry year. We are both right. The years keep getting drier. Perhaps we will no longer need to bicker about droughts and monsoons because with climate change, the details will matter until they don’t. With climate change comes the realization that all of humanity shares one story.

Will that common narrative be as capacious as a marriage in that it can hold, as one, our individual stories — in this case, an entire planet’s worth of individual stories? One story won’t matter more than the any other, and we’re going to need to hear them all. And we will need to make a lot of noise.

Nicole Walker, who teaches writing in Flagstaff, Ariz., is the author, most recently, of “Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster.”

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