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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Megan Roberts and Jimmy Ryals have been married for seven years and live in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, with their three children.
Jimmy Ryals: I like to move slowly and deliberately. You like to move quickly and decisively.
Megan Roberts: I’d say this dynamic can be traced back to our very first date. We met for coffee and I paid for mine before you could fish your wallet out of your pocket.
Jimmy: I was very clearly making a move for my wallet. But you had no patience. On our second date, you sped away the second I got out of your car at the end of the night. I was sure the speedy drive-off was a sign that I wouldn’t get a third date.
Megan: I don’t remember it as a speedy drive-off at all. We’d said goodbye, and I was on to the next thing. Probably a hot bath.
The first time I began to see speed as our core issue wasn’t really a fight. But it did rub me the wrong way. It was when I waited for you to say “I love you.” We met around Thanksgiving in 2007. I remember being very, very ready for you to say it by Valentine’s Day in 2008. (Yes, the feminist in me cringes at “waiting” for the man, especially on a corny holiday like Valentine’s Day, but it’s the truth.) We went to this romantic dinner. We danced. I remember I was wearing a beautiful purple dress. I looked good. The moment was just right there. You waited about another month. Why did it take you so long?
Jimmy: The record should reflect that I still said “I love you” before you did. Faster than you did, one might say.
I know I’d been thinking about it for a while before I said it. I remember why I didn’t say it on Valentine’s Day, though. We’d had our first real fight a few days earlier, and I wanted to give that some time to marinate before doing anything that would change the nature of our relationship. I don’t remember the details of that fight, but I bet all the hair I still had in 2008 that it was over me being too slow to do something. Or you being too fast. Probably that.
Megan: Yes, and in my mind, that fight was long gone and over with, in the past. Once again, I’m focused on the future, and you are looking backward.
Jimmy: It may not have been the most explosive version of this fight, but our lengthy argument over when to have kids feels like it was the most significant one.
We really started getting into it a little more than a year after we got married. I had a lot of financial anxiety about having kids—we’d taken pay cuts to move, and we still weren’t able to sell our old house. (Thanks, housing crisis!) I wanted us to take our time and build some savings. I also had some relationship anxiety. We’d been together for four or five years then, but I didn’t feel like our marriage was ready for kids. There was a lot of tension about how we shared a household, where we stood vis-à-vis our extended families, our financial priorities … and meat. We argued a lot about eating meat back then.
We eventually settled on a date to start trying. It was farther out than you wanted and closer than I did, and that felt perfect to me. A few weeks later, though, you reopened the argument.
I’d been so happy about finding a compromise, and I was so angry with you for withdrawing from it.
Megan: How could I forget the baby-planning fight? It was a marathon. We had it on and off for years.
The November before we started trying, I had to decide whether to sign up for short-term disability, and I’d already done my research and knew I should, but that meant making a decision about having a baby in the coming year. I think the plan at that point was to start trying in the spring. I wanted to get pregnant by May or June so that my maternity leave would lead into my summer off from teaching. I knew it took three to four months for most couples to conceive so I thought we should actually start trying to get pregnant in February, and I think that’s what we did end up doing. Does this all sound as anal as I think it does? However, I must say, in this instance, my plans worked perfectly. We were pregnant by late May.
I learned through this very long and drawn-out fight that it would just take time for you to make decisions. If I could respect that, and if my idea was logical and made the most sense, you’d usually come my way. But before we came to any understanding on that fight, we slept in separate bedrooms several times. While we both seethed, our poor Boston terrier, Arthur, would run back-and-forth between the two rooms, unsure whom to show allegiance to. I got even angrier when Arthur picked you. I’d have to listen to you and the dog snoring from the other room.
Jimmy: I didn’t doubt your reasoning. I just wanted time to reach my own conclusions about such an important decision. But you were right from the start on nearly everything. Poor Arthur … all his anxiety was in vain.
For me, I’d say that this fight starts at the intersection of my love for process and my fear of failure. When a big choice looms, I love to start a spreadsheet, find my decision criteria, identify the universe of options, cull them down to a manageable 40 or 50 choices, set up a round-robin bracket to compare each one head-to-head, add a sheet to my spreadsheet, and start the semifinal round of deliberations.
This fight has been so intense for me because of where we were in life when we met. I’d been adulting for a few years, and I was used to (eventually) making all my own decisions. When you made up your mind about a decision before I even started working through it, I felt insulted. What was the point of my presence if I wasn’t going to be part of deciding things?
Megan: And at the time, I was thinking, “Why do I need to run it by you if I’ve already figured out what should be done?”
I’ve always been very independent. I come from a family of decisive, hardheaded women. It was normal for my mom to make all the decisions. My dad didn’t care to be consulted. While that dynamic gave my mom a lot of control, it also put all the work of the family and household on her, and I didn’t want that for our marriage. I needed to make a conscious effort to stop and remember to consult you on decisions, and it took a while to learn how and when to do that.
Jimmy: Planning our wedding was maybe the platonic ideal of this fight. We had no money when we got engaged, so we originally decided on a long engagement to give us time to save. Then your dad volunteered to pay for everything, and our engagement shrunk from 18 months to six. That made every decision an urgent one, and I didn’t want to be the sort of passive “yes, dear” groom most men are. I have opinions about colors and invitation typefaces and all sorts of wedding-relevant things. I even made an amazing spreadsheet!
Megan: I think you were in the bathroom when I got the news that my dad would give us the generous gift of paying for our wedding. By the time you got out, I had probably already created a guest list and emailed some venues. I was so excited. In retrospect, I did need to slow down and just enjoy the moment more. I can get lost in the planning. And I’m pretty sure this spreadsheet was the result of one of our “You are not getting things done fast enough” fights, so this was your concrete way of showing your completed tasks. “Research photographer.” “Conceive engagement photo.” “Choose invitation distribution method.”
Jimmy: But this thing helped!
Megan: It did help. It helped me to see that you had a specific deadline in mind.
Jimmy: Every year, we also have a version of this fight over holiday shopping. You want to do it all on Amazon in the waning hours of Thanksgiving night. I want to spend a few weeks listening to Christmas music, thinking about loved ones, and conjuring the perfect gift.
Megan: I’ve never understood your love of malls at Christmastime.
Jimmy: Over time, we’ve both gotten better at these fast vs. slow fights. The biggest change from early in our relationship is that we just treat each other with more respect. Marriage counseling helped with that. So did having to make some big, difficult decisions together.
Megan: We made one of the biggest decisions of our lives last year, and we made it within minutes. We had our second child, a son, in April of 2017. In July, I received a call that a family member had lost custody of her premature newborn. Were we willing to step in and care for this baby boy?
I remember calling you that day and thinking you’d need a lot of time to think before giving me an answer. I wasn’t completely sure what to do myself. I called and told you this baby needed someone to make medical decisions for him and that we wouldn’t know where this was going or how long we’d care for him.
You asked a few questions and then said, “Well, I think we can do this.” We’re now his permanent guardians. That fast decision and this challenging past year have really sealed our trust in our abilities as a couple and team.
Jimmy: There wasn’t time to dawdle or deliberate on that decision, and I’m proud of how we pulled together to make it work. We never dreamed of having a third child (and certainly not like this), but it’s made our family stronger. And cuter.
I think having three kids has made us handle this fight better. It’s definitely made me learn how to move faster on a daily basis. And it’s forced both of us to let a lot of stuff slide. We’re just too tired to go argue over things that would have caused huge fights a few years ago.
That also gives me some concern. Is it possible that this conflict is just lying dormant, ready to re-emerge when we have the time and energy to fight more? I think that’s unlikely. But it is a thing I worry about.
Megan: It’s not dormant. We probably fight just as much, but we’re better at it. And I’ve totally accepted that your pace is not going to change and that acceptance goes a long way. Now I just have to accept that you passed your sluggishness down to our 4-year-old daughter.
Jimmy: Waiting for her to walk to the car every morning has given me a new appreciation for what it must be like living with me. Dear Lord, she is slow.