Why You Fight With Your Wife Husband
Why is the home a battleground? It’s simple, say psychologists—men frustrate their women and the women strike back
THE JENKINS family live a quiet life in their Montreal apartment. But their quiet life is rudely interrupted every three or four nights by a terrific commotion in the apartment across the hail. Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins look helplessly at one another. The children exchange knowing smiles. Everyone knows that the neighbors are having another one of their frequent family fights.
Most families don’t quarrel as frequently—or as violently—as the family in the apartment across the hall from the Jenkins. But every family has its occasional outbursts. One expert on family life once estimated that at least 100 new family fights flare up somewhere in the world every second—day and night, week after week, year after year.
Why do we have so many family quarrels and arguments? What’s behind the bickering between husbands and wives, and parents and children? Psychologists, sociologists and medical men haven’t all the answers but they have some of them. And the most important thing they have learned is that the family fight is a symptom of a deep-seated war between the sexes.
Most men and women want to lead a calm and peaceful home life, but few ever get the chance because the home is the world’s greatest centre of quarreling, squabbling, bickering and fighting.
When Joe Emerson married Mary Hill everyone thought that the marriage would be the smoothest and the calmest in the world. Neither Joe nor Mary had a hot temper. Both were easy to get along with. But in less than three months the newlyweds were engaging in a series of domestic brawls that were the talk of the neighborhood. It finally came to the point where Mary began to throw dishes at Joe. One day he turned around and blackened one of Mary’s eyes. A few months later the “ideal” marriage ended in the divorce court.
No one seemed able to understand what had happened. The most popular explanation was, “It’s human nature to fight—and you can’t change human nature.”
This is exactly what some of our leading scientists thought until a few years ago. “In many respects,” declared Professor William James of Harvard University, “man is the most ruthlessly ferocious of all beasts.” Other prominent psychologists in England and on this side of the water agreed with Professor James that people behave as they do because of instincts that are inherited. One of these instincts was supposed to be an urge to fight. Sometimes this urge was called the “pugnacious instinct.”
The modern psychologist no longer believes in instincts. He doesn’t even like to use the word because it doesn’t mean anything to him. He knows that people fight not because they have an instinct to fight, but because they learn to fight just as they
learn most of the other things they do. As one psychologist put it, “People fight because they are trained to fight from the day they are born until the day they die.” “People become frustrated whenever their desires are blocked,” explains one well-known psychologist, “and when we are frustrated we become aggressive and want to fight.” The earliest frustrations take place when we are still in the cradle. We want to move around and explore our environment but the sides of the crib prevent it. Frustration number one. We want to cry but we are forced to be quiet. Frustration number two. We want to eat when we are hungry but we are forced to wait until it is “time” to eat. Frustration number three. Every time the infant turns around he is prevented from doing the things he really wants to do. He feels frustrated and he wants to fight back. So he kicks, screams, howls, bawls, and holds his breath until his face turns purple.
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Conflicts and frustrations follow each of us every step of the way through infancy, childhood and adolescence. “Sibling conflict”—the technical name given to rivalry between brothers and sisters—is probably more frequent and more intense than that growing out of any other human relationship. Brothers and sisters fight with a viciousness that is seldom seen either in fights between husband and wife or between parents and children.
Fights among brothers and sisters almost always involve—either directly or indirectly—the feeling of preference or rejection by the parents. Any child who feels that his sisters and his brothers are preferred by the parents will feel rejected. And to feel rejected is to feel frustrated.
The Unconscious Villain
The conflicts between parents and children are only a little less intense than those between brothers and sisters. When parents quarrel with their children it is usually due to a lack of adjustment on the part of the parents or the children. Sometimes both are to blame.
I know a Mrs. Johnson who used to have sharp words with her son every night. Sometimes the flare-up would be about schoolwork, sometimes it was about late hours, sometimes it was about spending money, sometimes it was girls. The dinner table was a perpetual battleground. Friends of the family tried to talk to Mrs. Johnson and her son but it was no use. The fights went on month after month, year after year.
What was wrong in this family? Why was the calm of every evening broken by the constant bickering between mother and son? A psychologist could have solved the problem in a few hours. The real trouble was Mr. Johnson—although he didn’t know it and no one else suspected it. Mr. Johnson was a good husband but he was so superior to his wife in most ways that she seldom received recognition from him. More important, she never was able to exhibit any authority over him. As a result she tried to satisfy these needs by exhibiting her authority over the son.
Sometimes the lack of adjustment is not on the part of the parent but of the child. Mary Jane Wilson—who seldom quarreled with her parents—transferred to another high school in her second year. It wasn’t long before her parents noticed that she was becoming irritable and “touchy.” Soon these minor irritations broke out into open
rebellion. Mary Jane quarreled and fought with her bewildered ' parents at every opportunity.
Hard to understand? Not at all. When Mary Jane arrived at her new school she found that she no longer had the status and position she had in the old school. She was frustrated and she took it out on her parents. When she was finally “accepted” at the new school her attitude at home changed and the fighting ended.
“The Women Started It”
The conflicts between husbands and wives are no different from other conflicts. The cause is always some kind of frustration. The fight is simply the overflow of aggressiveness that is generated by the frustrating situation. These frustrations may grow out of any phase of the marriage—the difference in personalities of the husband and wife, family influences, former friends, financial problems and social dissatisfactions or many other causes.
“The important thing,” explained a marriage counselor at a large university, “is whether the marriage raises or lowers the status of the husband and the wife. If the marriage raises the status of both partners, there will be few quarrels. But if either the husband or the wife feels that his or her status has been lowered by the marriage— watch out! Such a marriage will be filled with family fights.”
The battle of the sexes is one war that the U. N. won’t be able to do anything about. Men and women may bury the hatchet during the excitement of finding a husband or a wife, but the truce is only temporary. Even before the glamour of the honeymoon wears off, husbands and wives dig in and begin preparing for the long, relentless series of battles that is almost certain to follow.
These battles only rarely reach the point of flying dishes, broken vases and blackened eyes. Women are ordinarily prohibited—by the conventions of society — from taking such direct action. But they are allowed to use aggressive words as weapons. And every nagging, sharp-tongued wife is simply making the most of her opportunity to do so.
A medical student at McGill University once asked the psychiatrist who was giving a lecture on the problem of frustration and aggression, “If there is a battle of the sexes, who started it?”
The psychiatrist didn’t hesitate a second. “The women started it,” he declared flatly.
And most experts would agree that the war between the sexes is really the fault of the women. Women bear the children, women nurse and feed the children, women rear the children and (in Canada and the United States, at least) women educate the children. It’s easy to see that most of the frustrations cf our early life come to us at the hands of women. And this is the real basis for the conflict between the male and the female.
If this is the case, you might ask, why don’t the women stop frustrating their children? The answer is that the women can’t stop frustrating the children. The women are too frustrated themselves. “It’s a vicious circle,” explained one authority. “Men frustrate their women, the women frustrate their children—especially the male children. And the male children grow up to frustrate a new generation of women. It’s like a merry-go-round that won’t stop to let anyone get off.”
One reason women are frustrated is that the world appears to be a man’s world. Our civilization has made most women socially and financially dependent upon men. Women feel—-with good reason—that they have been shoved into the background. And they resent it.
But even more important, most women are frustrated in their love life. Few women receive all the attention and affection they need to satisfy them. Men—with their many interests outside the home—turn their energies in a dozen different directions. A wife receives only a small share of her husband’s emotional output, but a husband usually receives all his wife’s interest and affection. It’s this inequality that disturbs and frustrates the women. And the frustration leads to aggressiveness that has to be taken out in one way or another. Usually it is the husband or the children who suffer.
The Menfolk Are Losing
Who is winning the battle of the sexes? Most experts would be inclined to say that it is an uphill battle—but the women are winning it. “For better or for worse,” declared Dr. Karl Menninger of the Menninger Clinic, one of the continent’s best-known clinics for mental disorder, “the dominance of the male is undoubtedly passing.” Slowly but surely, he claims, the women are gaining a hold over men. The time may not be far off when the male of the species will become completely dependent upon the female.
Even today, in certain primitive tribes, the men are considered the “weaker sex.” In these societies the women fight the wars, do the hunting, build the houses and run the government. The men stay home and sing and dance, do the sewing and cooking, and take care of the children.
“There is no fundamental difference between male and female aggressiveness,” declared Dr. Paul Schilder of Bellevue Hospital. “The only difference is in the way the aggressiveness is expressed.”
The woman must do most of her fighting in the home because that is where most of her life is spent, so her targets are her husband and children. But the man of the house has all sorts of opportunities to get rid of his aggressiveness. He can take it out. on the newsboy at the corner, on his neighbors in the bus or on the other drivers' on the highway, on his fellow workers, on the waitress in the restaurant—on any one of the dozens of people and situations he meets in his struggle to make a living. By the time he gets home in the evening he is completely “fought out.” But the wife is just ready to start. All of her pent-up aggressiveness is exploded into the face of her husband the moment he opens the front door.
Fortunately we don’t always show our aggression openly. When a policeman stops us for driving too fast or when the boss reprimands us for taking too much time out for lunch, we don’t talk back. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to fight. We simply take
our feelings out on something—or someone—else. This is called displacement. When you kick a chair instead of the “enemy” or when you quarrel with your children when you are really angry with your husband or your wife you are displacing your aggressive feelings.
Sometimes our displaced aggression takes strange forms. Suicide—although it means giving up one’s life—is often used as a means of getting even with someone else.
When the police found a well-known banker hanging from a rafter in his expensive home the newspapers said the reason for the suicide was “ill health.” Only a few people knew the real story.
The banker and his wife had been quarreling constantly for many years. Each tried to find new ways to humiliate the other. Finally the banker hit upon the idea of suicide. He really didn’t want to die but he knew that his wife could never get over the scandal and disgrace of having had a husband who took his own life.
The Man Who Went Stiff
Many people try to hide their aggression, only to have it crop up in some unusual manner. A man had a series of quarrels with his wife about where they would spend their summer vacaj tion. The husband wanted to take a j fishing trip; the wife insisted that they visit her relatives. The conflict generated aggressive feelings but the husband wasn’t willing to recognize them and they were repressed. A few days later he complained of a pain in his shoulder. By the time a doctor arrived the entire arm was paralyzed from the shoulder to the fingers.
Several doctors examined the arm but they could find nothing wrong. Yet there was no question about the paralysis. The patient couldn’t even feel a pin when it was stuck into his palm. For almost five months— through the entire summer — the paralysis continued. And then one day early in September a neurologist “cured” the patient. “The paralysis,” explained the neurologist, “was nothing more than a weapon this man was using against his wife. There wasn’t anything physically wrong with the arm. It was entirely psychological. The paralysis prevented him from taking his fishing trip. But it also got him out of the visit to his wife’s relatives.”
The battle of the sexes is such a serious problem that all sorts of activities are used to displace aggression. Boxing, wrestling and fencing are t some of the ways men can release their j stored-up combativeness in a socially acceptable manner. Baseball, football, | soccer and hockey come under this ! heading, too. And our newspapers are filled with other forms of socially acceptable “fights.” In an English “rag”—or student fight—the victims j are pelleted with bags of soot, flour, j and rotten vegetables. Before the war | the Glasgow rectorial battles used up as many as 60,000 eggs and dozens of ; barrels of overripe fruit. Recently the ! girls in a Florida college engaged in a tomato fight.
Peace Can Be Taught
When men and women don’t get rid of their aggression by engaging in competitive sports and aggressive ■ games they get rid of it by watching prize fights, professional wrestling shows, and in some places cockfights and bullfights.
When the fighting urge is completely disguised and turned into other channels psychologists say that the urge is sublimated. The sublimation of aggressiveness can lead to almost any kind of greatness or folly. Some of the world’s most prominent novelists, painters and composers—as well as j some of our most notorious criminals —have reached eminence because of the sublimation of an overpowering , urge to fight with someone.
I Our international politicians might very well take a lesson from the battle of the sexes. War is nothing more than the aggressiveness generated by the frustrations of nations. And if individuals can learn to displace and sublimate their aggressive tendencies then nations can learn to do the same thing.
There are a great many people in the world who believe that war is inevitable. They say that we have always had wars and that we will always have them in the future. But the facts tell us something else. Wars are no more inborn than are the quarrels between men and women. Even today there are primitive societies that know nothing whatever about war or fighting.
Fortunately the world has a great many husbands and wives, parents and children, and brothers and sisters who manage to get along very well together. They lead calm, peaceful and happy
lives and they enjoy each other’s company. Such families have learned that a talent for compromise and adjustment will more than offset the damaging effects of conflicts arising out of everyday frustrations, disappointments, thwartings and repressions.
A fight-free home—like a fight-free world—is one in which the aggressiveness of the individual members is used wisely and economically. Individuals and nations learn to fight. And if they can be taught to fight they can be taught not to fight. It isn’t easy. But it can be done. if