On our thirty-third day of family togetherness, sister Steph and I had our first fight. Given that we are two strong, perimenopausal women with young children living in the same house, I’m actually surprised it took us this long. What we fought about isn’t important–it could have been whether to put one king bed or two twins in the guest room or deciding if 9 or 10p.m. is kids’ bedtime–it is how we fought that left a big impression.
The argument started on our way to play paddle–a sport the Spanish love that is a mixture of tennis and racquetball. Since I’m a yeller, a fighting style I learned from my mom (yell, retreat, gnash teeth, write letter, then forgive and forget) I struggled to control the volume. Steph, having learned from 20 years of teaching high schoolers that yelling is counter-productive, stood in front of the paddle court formulating strong, controlled sentences that had the effect of waving a red cape in front of an angry bull’s nose. Ethan, pretending not to know either of us, sat on a bench contemplating the holes in his paddle racquet and when we finally took the court, I was ready to charge. Steph, my doubles partner, lunged low for a ball and I imagined giving her a well-placed whack out of sheer spite.
What I really wanted to do, however, was run off the court in tears. Running is what I’m good at, but somehow on this day I stuck with it. Slamming the ball hard with my two-handed tennis backhand–a no-no in paddle, by the way– it occurred to me that perhaps the reason I was not totally falling apart was due to the lessons we are teaching our kids on how to fight fair. Running away, while effectively stopping a fight, does not facilitate communication in the moment. And yelling isn’t one of my behaviors I want them to model. In our blended household, we teach three rules. First, the kids must try to work it out before involving adults. Second, each kid gets to be heard in a calm manner and is encouraged to walk in the other person’s shoes. Third, a sincere apology must be made and accepted.
We pounded the ball for a 90 minutes, mulling over the other’s points, both physical and verbal, with Ethan on the other side trying to keep both feet firmly planted in no-man’s land. When we finally walked off the court, sweat equity having had its dissipating effect, Steph served up an apology.
“I’m sorry that I spoke unkindly to you and that I hurt your feelings,” she said, handing me a water bottle as a peace offering. I was so surprised that this fight was ending without a proper battle that I forgot the response we teach our kids–That’s ok, I accept your apology–and just said, “Thanks.” And with that one little word, any leftover anger was gone.
I jogged home through the hot, dusty streets of Puerto feeling good that a potential family feud had been short-circuited by communication and kindness. As sisters, we aren’t just teaching our kids how to successfully navigate challenges, we are learning too, despite being a little long in the tooth for too many new tricks. And this lesson is one everyone can use, because who wants to waste time being mad? In those first, adrenaline-producing moments, the heat of anger may feel good, but in the end, it always burns you out.