Several years ago, during the wee hours of the morning, my gay buddy Nate and I learned a little something about the psychology of relationships. We hadn’t expected to… we were merely stayed up really late one night together, drinking cheap red wine out of plastic cups and making fun of trash TV. It was one of those completely self-indulgent, luxurious experiences you tend to have in your early twenties, that era when you are rich with time and freedom but poor with money and personal direction. We were knee-deep in idle revelry when an old rerun of “The Newlyweds” started to play.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with “The Newlyweds,” this is how it works: each show includes three newlywed couples who play against each other. First, they take the husbands offstage and ask the wives a series of questions. The wives write their answers on a card. Then they bring the husbands back and ask them the same questions The husbands write their answers on a card, then each newlywed couple holds up their respective cards, gaining points when the answers match. Then the show goes through the same process with the wives. So, the winning couple is ultimately the one with the greatest number of matching answers, meaning the ones who have the best collective memory and/or are best able to predict their spouse’s answers.
What was particularly entertaining about this episode was the behavior of one of the couples. They were chipper and attractive, but woman seemed sweet and terribly eager-to-please, whereas her husband had one of those cocky, self-satisfied grins that probably means he likes to slap his teammates butt after a good game, roll up dishtowels to twack people with them, and when his wife asks him if a certain pair of pants make her look fat, he tells her that her butt makes her butt look fat before slapping his thigh and howling at his own sassy cleverness.
At any rate, “The Newlywed Game” loves to trap its couples with risqué or loaded questions, and this guy was snapping his ankle in all possible bear-claws and falling into every leaf-covered pit with a sandwich on top. It was so bad, you had to wonder if he was doing it on purpose. For example, one question was, “Did it take you the longest to fall in love with your wife’s face, body, or personality?” Granted, there is no great answer to such a question, but the least objectionable one would clearly be”her personality,” since presumably he would’ve talked to her after seeing her face and body, and therefore would’ve gotten to know her personality last.
The most obnoxious answer is obviously “her face,” since that’s simultaneously more personal and less changeable than her body, and that ended up being this jerk’s answer when he flipped his card. To make matter worse, the wife had expected him to say “her personality” too, because that’s what she had written on her card. As if the husband’s crappy answer weren’t insulting enough, he actually elaborated on it by saying something negative about her face, though I don’t remember what it was because Nate and I were too busy shrieking about the horror of it all. Fully expecting to see the wife react with disbelief and horror, we were then shocked when nary a twinge marred her serene smile and she nodded in affirmation of her perceived defects.
Next, the husbands were asked whether, if given the chance, they would alter the quantity or the quality of their wives’ lovemaking. Again, there is no spectacular answer here, but the less insulting one be “quantity,” because it’s far nicer to say you want even more of a great thing than say that thing really isn’t so great in the first place. The wife expected as much, since her card read “quantity,” but she was again publicaly humiliated when her husband’s card read “quality” and he dug himself even deeper into his douchebag pit by rambling on about how great his ex-girlfriends had been in bed and how much of a dive his sex life had taken since getting married. Throughout his entire speech, the wife smiled angelicaly and nodded repeatedly, as if to corraborate what a stud her husband used to be and how frustrated he must now be with the current state of affairs.
By now, Nate and I did not know what we found most startling: the husband’s incredible penchant for douche-baggery, his wife’s infinite patience with it, or her continued expectation of chivalrous answers from a guy that most viewers could increasingly count on saying the most obnoxious things possible.
Nevertheless, the wife appeared to be taking this all in good stride. Finally, the husbands were asked to recall the last dinner their wives prepared for them. The smug husband flipped his card to reveal his answer… “spaghetti.” And it was at this point that the wife completely lost her shiznit.
“It was FISH, you IDIOT!!!” she shrieked, while whacking him over the head with her “Fish” card. “That was an easy one! You never remember anything I do for you,” she yelled, “It was FISH! I made you baked sole and garlic bread! How could you forget that!?” She had a complete meltdown and crossed her arms while the husband sat in perplexed bafflement for the remainder of the episode (which, of course, they lost).
Nate and I were absolutely howling at the sight of this bizarre interaction. After all the godawful insults her husband had publicly thrown at her, this woman was freaking out about the fish? After all her saintlike patience about her unacceptable face and their terrible sex life, she was going to attack him for forgetting about a dinner? It was absolutely ridiculous, and became an inside joke between Nate and I for ages. Whenever we saw someone getting irrationally agry about something, we would look at each other and yell, “It was fish!” before breaking into knowing giggles.
But we learned something that night, something we went on to notice in our respective relationship… sometimes you are fighting about the fish, but it’s not really about the fish. Relationships are tough, and people can be intensely vulnerable in them. We struggle with insecurities about whether we are lovable enough, attractive enough, and whether we are happy. We build protective walls. Sometimes they are built of denial, a happy, intentionally-ignorant smile when feeling bullied deep down. Sometimes they are built of coldness or insult, feigned indifference toward our current partners or an exaggeration of the greatness of former exes. And sometimes people have recurring fights and power struggles about relatively insignificant issues that are “safer” to talk about than the really vulnerable underlying fears that we worry might topple our relationship or self-esteem if they were approached.
I don’t know if that couple eventually split up or if they went on to fight about the fish for years. I don’t know if the wife would have been better off recognizing how mean her husband tended to be, or if she should have directly confronted him for insulting her appearance or comparing her unfavorably to his exes, but I do know that pretending she was okay wasn’t working. That hurt and anger was teeming under the surface and welled up in an exchange about fish vs. spaghetti that probably never would be resolved and wouldn’t fix the underlying issues in their relationship even if it were.
Either way, it gives us some valuable insight into what might be going on when we are having that argument for the billionth time about who changed the toilet paper roll and what direction the roll should face.
Sometimes, it’s not about the fish.