Lisa Larson-Walker

Order vs. Chaos

Every time we fight, we’re replaying an old argument that started nearly two decades ago at Buy Buy Baby.

Every couple has one core fight that replays over and over again, in different disguises, over the course of their relationship. In this series, couples analyze the origin and mechanics of their One Fight. To pitch your own One Fight (we’ll also accept pseudonyms, if necessary), email humaninterest@slate.com.

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Hanna Rosin and David Plotz have been married for 20 years and live in Washington, D.C.

Hanna Rosin: I bet just reading the words “Buy Buy Baby” makes you shudder. The name itself celebrates the corruption of the sweet and domestic. And the Rockville location, you will surely recall, is the site of one of our most spectacular arguments, one that has in many ways continued to this day.

In case you’ve forgotten the details: I was very pregnant. You were very present. We were standing before an aisle of 10,000 baby strollers confronting foreign terms like “fuss-free compact fold” and “carrycot inside.” We’d already been at the store for two hours, which is two weeks in pregnant lady time. Pretty quickly I got bored of reading the descriptions and just scanned for broad aesthetics—something I could carry up the stairs that wasn’t ugly. You, on the other hand, dug in. By which I mean that you, for reasons that have become less mysterious to me over the years, got fixated on the phrase “fully-flat recline.”

Now why would something so boring take on cosmic significance? That’s on you to fully answer. The particulars of the fight are so mundane they’re barely worth writing down, but I will write them down because they make you look bad. The urgent question you were engaged with was: Does fully flat mean FULLY flat, or does a quarter-inch of incline mean the baby will slide onto the hard concrete or choke to death or whatever was depicted on the gruesome warning sticker?

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My response was: Are you kidding? Yours was to take the instruction manual seriously. So there we stood, screaming at each other before an audience of bewildered moms at the mall. Viciously tearing each other apart, over a quarter-inch.

Seventeen years later, as that fetus is about to go to college, I can see that the groundwork of our future spectacular fights got laid down in that Rockville mall. You: fixated on lists and rules. Believing authority. Channeling authority. Claiming authority even in the absence of any data. Taking the chaos that is life and trying to contain it in a quarter-inch box. Confusing human things with object things. Me: always reasonable. Always right.

David Plotz: Do you remember that your mother was also with us? I can’t imagine how much restraint it took for her to stay silent as we trashed the Buy Buy Baby. I’ve always admired her, but never as much as that day when she watched the soon-to-be father of her first grandchild shout insanely at her pregnant daughter.

The fight was exactly as you described.

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The dispute: Would the Peg Perego’s 10 percent incline endanger our newborn? The means for resolving the dispute: 15 minutes of top-of-lungs, did-someone-call-security, this-could-end-up-on-Cops superstore screaming. I’m not going to re-litigate the substance. We bought the dumb stroller you wanted. The child thrived, despite never, ever being fully flat.

Even I, a notoriously obtuse person, realized that the fight was not really about the degree of stroller incline. So what was it about? We were about to have a baby! We were about to take lifetime responsibility for a new person—a person who would pose an infinite variety of unknowable challenges, a person whose happiness, health, education, everything else would be on our heads. Every day for the rest of my life I would have to worry about that child. I had successfully managed to control almost everything else in my life, but this baby would be beyond my control, and that was terrifying. So I clung to what I could control at that moment: a totally flat, and thus totally safe, stroller.

Your interpretation of the Flat Stroller Fight’s broader meaning is, of course, self-serving. In your exaggerated telling, I am rigid, controlling, rule-bound, and condescending as I enforce order. And you’re the fun one!

But I’m not rule-bound and controlling! I am rule-bound and orderly only in comparison to your astonishingly chaotic self. You jaunt through the world careless to the obligations of adult life. It’s this sense of “fun” that causes you to run out of gas in the middle lane of Dupont Circle—having driven past four gas stations in the previous 10 minutes. It’s this wonderful “flexibility” that causes you—when we were young and poor—to misplace a $15,000 check and not realize it till your agent called two years later to wonder why it was never cashed.

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But the thing about 20 years of happy marriage is that even though this remains a fundamental Rosinplotz fault line, we have (mostly) trained ourselves to smilingly endure rather than Buy Buy Baby it. When you misplace your phone or keys or wallet for the nth time, I don’t make the snide, passive-aggressive comments I once would have. And when I rent a sensible, hideous minivan for a summer road trip, you may look longingly at the Mustang across the rental lot, but you feign enthusiasm for all that backseat space!

Hanna: “Astonishingly chaotic?” “Careless to the obligations of adult life?” I don’t think anyone who knows me would describe me as “astonishingly chaotic” or even “medium chaotic” unless that person had extraordinarily high expectations of order. (Also I wouldn’t recognize a Mustang if it drove over my foot. Also it’s not 1972.) I think the truth is we are both chaotic and fun and rule-bound in different contexts, and we both know that about each other. That’s the noise of our fights, but it’s not what our fights are really about. I am going to try and find the questions that get to the heart of the matter and then you can answer them or amend them if you disagree. OK, here I go:

Do you, David, sometimes treat the people you love in an instrumental manner? Do you sometimes talk to us, your family members, the same way you talk to your employees? Are you confounded when one of us displays irrational behavior, sometimes for more than a day at a time? Do you get a confused look when one of us whimpers that we would like to be picked up at the airport, because, inefficient? Does your hunger for squaring logistics crowd out other conversation? Did you just last weekend rush ahead of me to the ramen place because in your mind the eating hour had already begun?

Do I, in my visceral aversion to being an item on someone’s list, show disdain to the list-makers I love?

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P.S.: I have learned not to mock your obsession with where the keys are.

P.P.S.: I think it was $20,000.

David: You’ve nailed it. Our axis of argument aligns around those two questions.

I do treat people—mainly you—instrumentally in the interest of getting things done or conforming to my internal schedule. And you do treat people—mainly me—disdainfully when you feel managed.

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But I still contend that 20 years of having the same fight has made us gentler rather than sharper. You’re less contemptuous, and I’m less officious. Plus, we’ve never been back to Buy Buy Baby.