The Great Banana Wars: Marital Conflict, Communication, and Dispute Resolution

Published with permission. Adapted from article The Great Banana Wars.

Marital disputes are an inevitable fact of life. It is the way that couples deal with these disputes that makes the difference between a viable marriage and one that is too unpleasant to bear. Usually, people are quite unreflective as to what is at the root of the arguments. People get angry, the speech gets “hot”, and the couple goes down the road of hurtful communication with no resolution in sight.

Fortunately, for many couples, there is a safety valve, which has been called the “Positive Sentiment Override” (“PSO”) by marriage expert John Gottman. What this means, is that no matter how hard you’re fighting and no matter what angry words have been uttered, if the positive interactions outweigh the negative (and if the couple basically respects one another and has a high level of fondness and appreciation for the other spouse), they tend to ignore the small disputes, even if quite nasty and unproductive. In other words, if there is enough positive sentiment in the relationship, the positive sentiment will overcome negative interchanges. However, in some relationships, the negative interchanges far exceed the positive ones. Those are relationships which may be doomed to divorce, unless the couple works on their communication and dispute resolution skills.

It is important for all couples to address their disputes and to see if they can understand where the fighting is coming from. By deconstructing their marital disputes (an exercise very similar to literary analysis), the couple can identify the deeper causes of their quarrels. Knowledge is power; knowing the roots of their differences in attitude and why they push each other’s buttons so strongly may lead a couple to mutual understanding and more peaceful interchanges.

Let me give you an example:

As a marital mediator, I have asked couples to keep a pad and take notes as to the arguments they have had between sessions. These notes, when “mined”, can become fruitful areas of discussion and lead to furthering mutual understanding. It’s best to take the notes out of eyeshot of the partner. However, it is especially good to write down the notes close to the time the dispute ends.

For instance, a couple may have a marital dispute involving a banana. Actually, it might be a dispute about a half of a banana. The dispute would present as follows:

One of the spouses may ask if he could eat one half of a banana. The other spouse might become extremely angry and may vocally express intense anger. When asked by the banana-eating spouse why she was so upset, she might say that did not want to have to take care of the leftover half of a banana. Does this sound like an important argument? Not really, and yet this could result in a ferocious verbal brawl between the spouses, eliciting great emotion and anger, resulting in some very “hot” words. When parsing this dispute, deep-seated issues can be uncovered, and deconstruction of the “Great [Half-] Banana War” may turn out to be especially fruitful for the couple. (Sorry for the pun!)

How does one deconstruct this argument? First, one must look at the initial flashpoint of the argument: what will happen to the uneaten half of the banana? We’ll begin with the spouse who initially voiced distress. When asked why she was upset, the caretaker spouse would say that she felt the eater spouse would not take care of the uneaten half, and that she would have to do so. When asked what she meant by “take care of”, the spouse would reply that she would have to take responsibility for storing the uneaten fruit, tracking of how long it remained uneaten and eventually disposing of it in some way. She felt irked at the perceived added responsibility and the belief her spouse neither recognized the responsibility nor appreciated her for taking it.

It is only with this answer that her deeper concerns begin to come to light. There are several issues at play here, those of contribution in the marriage, gender, family of origin and fairness. If asked to analyze her feelings about the banana incident, the caretaker spouse might say that she feels all the work around the house is up to her, even when her spouse is off work. She might say that she feels her efforts are ignored and that her contributions are not appreciated — reminding her of how her mother worked around the house (not so happily) during her childhood. She may also voice that the eating spouse’s mother did everything for him around the house when he was growing up and continues to do so, and so he has become used to being served at home.

The deconstruction would not be complete without the eating spouse’s perspective. Again, analysis reveals separate, but also key, deep-rooted issues. Based on his spouse’s reaction, he would say that he felt like he was being pushed into eating the entire banana, when he only wanted to eat a half. (This raises issues of control.)

Being somewhat overweight, the eater spouse would say that he did not want eat the whole banana and did not want to function as a garbage disposal. (This raised feelings that he was being unprotected by his spouse, and therefore not loved. Did his spouse want to do him physical harm?) He also was very concerned about throwing away the uneaten half. He would be wasting food in a world in which people were hungry. (Deep-seated political and social values are relevant to him in this dispute.) He had been taught to clean his plate at meals as a child because of “all the starving children in China”. (He is responding to family values and family-of-origin training) And as the primary wage-earner in the relationship, he also thinks that by wasting a half banana, the other spouse is wasting the money he earns with much effort. (This raises financial issues that are at the root of many marital disputes, and also contribution in the marriage and gender issues.)

What does the deconstruction of this argument show? It shows how seemingly unimportant disagreements are rooted in important martial issues. As detailed above, this little argument over one half of a banana has revealed virtually all of the basic issues over which spouses struggle in their effort to achieve a harmonious marriage. If thoughtfully analyzed, the most innocuous and ridiculous-seeming arguments can provide fodder for mutual discussion of significant areas of concern for each spouse.

Summarized, these mega-issues are contribution to the marital enterprise, concern for the other spouse, gender roles and financial issues. Further analysis will show how the family of origin has shaped each spouse and how a spouse’s personal belief system, political and social views and values, form the basis of his/her thoughts and behaviors that color almost every interpersonal interaction in a marriage. Heavy food for thought, even if only about a banana. (Well, actually, only about half of banana.)

So, the next time you enter into the Great Banana Wars with your spouse, write some notes when you have cooled down, and set aside some quality time to discuss the root issues with your spouse. When you peel away the surface of a marital dispute, such as this one, you will mine a great wealth of information that can help you and your spouse improve mutual understanding, and therefore lead to a better marriage.

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