If you ever watched “Seinfeld,” there’s a great episode where Jerry Seinfeld’s parents admit they can’t stand to spend time with the parents of his best friend. “They’re always fighting,” Jerry’s mother complains. “It makes us uncomfortable.”
If you don’t know the show, what makes it funny is that in fact, the couple in question—Frank and Estelle Costanza—truly do nothing but fight. Saying that they make other people uncomfortable is an understatement.
The Costanzas may be fictional sitcom characters and an exaggerated version of real couples that argue, but they do have something to teach us about arguing—specifically, arguing in public.
One of the biggest problems is that constant or charged bickering can make others uncomfortable to the point that you’ll find your circle of friends shrinking rather than widening. Maybe you’re a more private person who doesn’t care about socializing in large groups anyway, but it’s nice to keep your options open—especially when it comes to friends you enjoy as a couple.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not advocating putting on an act in front of your friends at parties to prove that you’re the happiest couple alive. That would probably backfire, anyway. Nor should you be obsessed with how others perceive your relationship. Instead, just think of social events—from intimate dinner parties to big weddings—as a good excuse to be extra courteous to each other. And who couldn’t use a good excuse for that?
Meanwhile, there’s another, lasting complication that comes from taking your disagreements public: People might begin to assume your relationship is in trouble, and the repercussions can reverberate. They take sides. They give you unsolicited advice—usually well-meaning, sometimes uninformed, never professional. In other words, if you have a problem with your partner or spouse that you need to discuss, choose carefully in whom you confide, and how. If you feel you aren’t getting anywhere discussing problems with your partner or spouse, a trained counselor is always a safe choice when it comes to discussing the relationship. The person seated next to you over after-dinner cocktails at a party? Not so much. Shows of public hostility tend to invite juicy gossip as well as genuine concern.
By fighting in public, you are essentially inviting people to judge and weigh in on your private life whether you mean to or not. And again, advice from observers can be good or it can be bad, but too often it only feeds into your own concerns about the relationship without a healthy sense of perspective that you can hardly expect an innocent bystander to provide.
We all have those nights—and sometimes weeks and months—of difficult times or even outright hostility in the relationship. When you’re going through one of those times, here are a few things to consider:
If you don’t feel up to participating in a social event, don’t. This can be challenging when one partner is closer to the people throwing a party or than the other and therefore has more reasons to go. It’s not a terrible thing to go alone—but you still have to be aware of your state of mind. If you and your partner have a terrible fight and then you head out on your own to see friends, you might be tempted to overshare and regret it later. It’s hard to take back strong feelings you’ve expressed because they felt genuine at the time. In the morning you might have a more nuanced view of things, but whomever you’ve confided in will only know what you told them.
If you feel it’s important to make an appearance at an event together in spite of an argument you’re having, agree to a temporary truce—and to cut out as soon as possible if need be. “Susan isn’t feeling well” clears the way pretty quickly (and may not be far from the truth) if you need to make an exit before you lose the energy to be civil.
Again, it’s not about putting on an act, but mitigating the damages if you have to go out publically when you’re not feeling too charitable about each other at the moment. It’s not constructive, and in fact can be very damaging, to air your grievances in the heat of the moment, where they might last in other’s memories even longer than your own. And when the healing begins, the last thing you want are constant reminders of an argument you’re trying to put behind you.