The other day my friend Joni was telling me about a disagreement she had with her husband. Joni’s high school friend Denise wanted to bring her husband and kids to visit over the summer and stay with Joni’s family.
Joni’s husband, not a fan of Denise, formed an extensive argument. He made a case against Denise, against the actual request, against the logistics. Michelle just listened.
A few days after the disagreement Joni shared all of the details with me on the phone. “I just let him talk and talk until he had nothing left to spew,” she said, “to be honest, towards the end I really wasn’t even listening.” A few hours after the one-sided conversation, Joni’s husband approached her and apologized. He acknowledged that he wasn’t being fair or generous. “Of course your friends should come,” he conceded lovingly.
When Joni shared that story with me I was trying to sort out a marital conflict of my own. I’m a prizefighter. I grew up with two sisters close in age and we fought for everything — to be seen, heard, acknowledged. From those roots, I grew up to believe that being right is the most important thing. In conflict, I battle to the finish. But even when I win the war I never feel better. I feel bruised and broken. I feel like shit.
At first listening to Joni’s approach, I felt appalled. How could she just sit there and let him go on and on. But as she explained it further it started to make a lot of sense. So often conflicts with my spouse become bigger than they need to be because each of us insists on getting our side heard. The conflict grows when the two sides fight for air space.
I launch my side of the story like a rocket and she launches hers. The opposing sides either collide mid-air and create a giant explosion or they miss each other and we continue firing missiles until either we are out of weapons or have created devastation.
But what if I could just sit there and let her perspective pour out? What if I just listened? When Joni sat quietly and let her husband vomit his tirade out into their living room she wasn’t saying, “you’re right and I’m wrong.” She was simply listening, keeping her perspective to herself, waiting it out.
Instead of a cannon ready to launch, Joni sat like a mermaid basking in the sun. Mermaids are of both the land and the sea. In ancient Assyria, the goddess Atargatis transfigured herself into a mermaid because she accidentally killed her human lover and she wanted to escape the shame of this horrible deed.
Atargatis found a new home among the stingrays, tiger fish, blue marlins, and sea tortoises. She submerged herself into the quiet darkness of the ocean to cleanse away her shame and sorrow. I’ve never killed a lover but I’ve experienced deep shame and sorrow and escaping into another world seems like a wonderful reprieve.
I want to be a conflict mermaid. I want to retreat to the sea before the conflict, taking the baggage from my life on land into a dark, calm place, a place where the language of the land is not spoken or understood. A place of peace, no sides, just water all around. In my mermaid life, I would glide through great coral reefs, slither through curtains of kelp, and rest for the night in a dark, hidden cave, letting the stress and tension from life on land wash away.
I’ve tried the experiment of being a conflict mermaid with my partner once since my conversation with Joni. It was a tiny conflict but I stayed calm and let her say her piece. I held onto my perspective, but I kept it inside. Instead of firing back, I just let her words come. I listened. And it worked.
In not saying my side out loud, I didn’t lose my perspective, I simply gained a new one. As the conflict mermaid, instead of engaging in battle, I plunged into the underworld of the sea where I dove deeper into the silent darkness, a magical place where everything looks different.