During the best argument of my life,
1) I provoked my partner.
2) He yelled at me.
3) I thanked him.
More precisely, it went something like this.
One Saturday morning, I bring up the topic of possible weekend hikes.
“In an ideal world, today I would — ”
“Is this plan going to involve both days?” my partner Ben interrupts me immediately.
No wonder I dread suggesting weekend activities… he won’t even let me finish a single goddamn sentence!
“I didn’t say anything about plans! I just want permission to dream!” I explode.
This goes on for a bit, in tight and frustrated circles, until Ben suggests that I go and meditate. It’s the last thing I want to do, but I don’t have a choice: we’d both precommitted to disengaging in the middle of arguments.
On my meditation bench, I let myself feel all of my emotions. When I have an angry thought, I turn up the volume. Internally, I say all the meanest things I can come up with.
Ben is such a stick in the mud! Such a lump. I always have to fight him to have any sort of fun. It wasn’t supposed to be like this! We were supposed to be adventure buddies!
I feel constricted, tight, trapped.
He was supposed to expand my world, not narrow it! When did this happen? When had this inspiration, this beautiful altruist who chose his job based on the number of people he could help, become a constraining force?
What would it be like to escape this constraint? I am a blazing fire. I am a storm. I am untamable.
When I finish the meditation, I know that this is bigger than our weekend plans.
“I feel like I’m the keeper of travel and adventure in this relationship,” I start.¹ “Nothing fun ever happens unless I suggest it.
“At the start of our relationship, I thought we were adventure buddies. Like that time my friend had invited me to visit her in China, and I really wanted to go, but it seemed frivolous. And you said “why not? I’ll go with you.” And then that same year we went to Morocco and to Iceland — I wanted to do all those things eventually, but you were the one who said “why not now?” And now I feel like it’s always me who says those things.”
I hesitate, searching for the least hurtful words. “I think I… a part of me… is disappointed in our relationship. Before we met, when I set up my OkCupid profile, I wrote “I love reading — but ‘at home, curled up with a book’ is not my idea of a good time. I’d rather be reading on a train headed someplace new.” I wrote that because I didn’t want to be dating someone whose idea of a good time was sitting curled up with a book. And,” I take a deep breath, “there’s a part of me which is afraid that you are this sort of person.”
Ben lurches to his feet. He looks like he’d just been punched. “Reading a book is not my fucking idea of a good time!” He pounds the table, its rattle the only sound in the icy silence. I have never, ever seen him this angry. “My fucking idea of a good time is improving the world! Reading a book is what I do to recuperate when I’m too exhausted from that.” He strides to the other side of the room, panting.
He’s a storm, a blazing fire.
I say the only words that do justice to what I’m feeling: “Thank you.”
What the hell was that about? In the moment, I don’t need to know anything more than this: I am satisfied. I got exactly what I needed.
Later, I put words to the experience. I got my Ben back. The Ben who sees suffering and injustice as problems someone needs to fix, then asks “Why not now? Why not me?” The Ben who, if he helps in China, will help in Morocco and Iceland too. Who welds ambition and altruism into an inseparable whole. Who will fight for the things he believes in. The Ben who is passionate; the Ben I fell in love with.
That’s what scared me about a lump reading in the corner: a lack of passion. All of that stuff about travel and adventure was never the point.
Of course, on some level I already knew that Ben was passionate about improving the world; I knew that he chose to work on a mobile money service in Africa specifically because of its impact on people’s lives. But his passion manifests during his workday, which I mostly don’t get to experience. Instead, I’d been witnessing his exhaustion afterwards, and a part of me started to believe that the exhausted Ben was the true Ben.
There’s a difference between knowing something on an intellectual level and knowing it in an embodied way. Between knowing Ben would fight for his beliefs and seeing him do it.
Between knowing I love him and feeling it.
The tunnels of hatred and contempt always seem to lead to love and admiration. Not just in that argument; again and again, when I let myself experience my negative feelings, I end up feeling love.
Like the time I hate a friend for her fakeness.² She gives a compliment to an acquaintance, then turns around and whispers “I don’t really believe that, but we need to support him.”
When I let myself feel the hatred, I realize that what bothers me isn’t fakeness, but honesty: I also say nice things I don’t believe, but I don’t go around admitting to it. My friend, it turns out, has more integrity than me.
Or the time I allow myself to find a friend unbearably boring. I imagine myself pounding my fists. Energy courses through my body; it feels exhilarating. “He’s pitiful,” I think. “Why did I ever want to be friends with him in the first place?” Then I remember: he’d worked so hard as a student, spending all his time on schoolwork, retaking every test it was possible retake, coming to all the office hours. All this to get what I would get by totally slacking off. Grit. Determination. Resilience. This is why I admire this pitiful person.
How can hatred lead to love? Here’s how I think of it. When I don’t let myself feel hatred and contempt towards my loved ones, I’m boarding up the doors to those feelings. Love can’t reach the places I’ve boarded up, and so it shrinks. (This narrow type of love, born of flinching from people’s flaws and my feelings about them, is sometimes called duty.) But when I open the doors, love floods all.
You know those couples who have everything going for them, then one day wake up and realize that they’re each other’s worst enemies? The ones who never argue, then find themselves in a bitter divorce? Who turn seamlessly from love to hate, with no gradation in between? They’ve always puzzled me, but now I think I understand.
It’s precisely because they didn’t argue that their love turned to hate. A part of them had always hated their spouse, but that was never the problem. The problem was that they never faced that hatred. Afraid to lose their love, they’ve been forcing it into tighter and tighter spaces. Eventually, all that remained was the very hate and contempt they’d been trying to avoid.
Another thing I think I understand now is teenage rebellion. A child loves her parents in a constricted way: she doesn’t see them as full, flawed human beings; she shuts her eyes when she sees something she doesn’t like.
“I hate you, mom!” is cause for celebration; it’s the first step towards mature love.
Periodically visiting your hatred and contempt strengthens your relationships, but that doesn’t mean you should do it — let alone express these feelings — every day. Before our argument, I had been processing my thoughts about Ben’s “lumpiness” for several weeks. If I had expressed them in their raw form earlier, I would have only hurt him. (This is also why disengaging in the middle of an argument is so helpful.) And there will be stretches of time when you or your partner (or friend) won’t have the emotional resources to process your feelings, to crawl through the dark tunnel of hate towards love. If one of you is having a particularly difficult month at work, or if your newborn has been keeping you up all night, it makes perfect sense to store your hurtful feelings in a sealed-off cellar and briefly run on the fuel of duty instead of love. But in large quantities, this is a fuel which corrodes. Eventually, you’ll want to find some space and time to convert it back to love.
You don’t always need to involve your partner (or friend) in this process, but it often helps. How do you do that without causing unnecessary suffering? That’s another thing Ben helped me understand.
Later that Saturday, on a hike on the Florida Trail (Ben’s suggestion), it occurred to me that I had essentially said a bunch of mean things to provoke an angry response out of him. “Thanks for that, again,” I say. “You put up with a lot today, and I think it was basically all for my sake. I’m not sure that you got anything out of it.”
Ben furrows his brow. “I don’t think of it that way. A part of you had been getting in the way of our relationship. We reassured that part, and now it’s no longer in the way. That’s good for the relationship — and what’s good for the relationship is ultimately also good for me.”
When I think of what makes an argument good, this is what I keep returning to. Throughout our quarrel — even when I was saying the meanest things about Ben, even when he was pounding the table — we never completely let go of this overarching sense that we are on the same team. That by fighting for our rights and our autonomy we were also fighting for the relationship. Even our hate had only one purpose: love.
 I’ve condensed the argument into a near-monologue because I don’t think you, the reader, would get very much out of the details of the actual back and forth — but please remember that what actually happened was a lot messier than this portrayal.
 Some details changed to protect identity. Hatred strengthens relationships if expressed properly, but these descriptions are the opposite of proper expression, so I don’t want anyone to see themselves in them.
All illustrations mine.