"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Mom And Dad Are Fighting–Arguing In Front Of The Children Is A Good Thing

Bobby Grillo’s parents rarely argued in front of his sister and him. His father grit his teeth but said nothing when his mother bitched at him, took her pound of flesh for his supposed indiscretions, and made snide remarks about his sister Anna.  Bobby and his sister could tell that he was ready to ‘fly off the handle’ as he called it, blow his top, or have a fit because he worked his jaws back and forth like a Neanderthal grinding grain.  His nostrils flared, the veins on his necked popped out and throbbed, and his ears turned red; but he said nothing.

His mother also put up with his father’s nonsense far more than she should have.  Should have shut him up right and proper when he went into one of his political tirades or slammed one of her girlfriends for their frumpiness or piano legs; but she too kept her mouth shut and avoided confrontation.  Whereas Bobby’s father quickly got over her niggling insults and putdowns, his mother held a grudge longer than I have ever seen. For a week she sat in den with the shades pulled and the drapes drawn without saying a word.  When she emerged into the kitchen to prepare dinner, she threw pots and pans around, hacked big, inedible pieces of meat off the bone and tossed them in a pot of boiling water, and then slammed the serving dish and its grey, gristly, and sinewy load on the table.  His father would try to entice her out of her stony silence, but every time he said something nice or moved to put his arm around her, she gave him a look that seethed with resentment, frustrated anger, and hostility.

Eventually she came out of her funk and responded to his father’s entreaties; but it wasn’t long before he was grinding away again, swallowing his bile, turning red and purple, and banging out into the back yard.  It didn’t take his mother long either to get back to the tar pits of depression and resentment; so family life was a constant manic-depressive nightmare.

This was very strange, for the stereotypical image of a first generation Italian-American family is just the opposite.  Marilyn Pantucci was Bobby’s girlfriend from across the tracks, and lived way past Stanley Quarter Park, the apartheid-like boundary line between poor worker townships and the leafy neighborhoods of the West End. Her house smelled of garlic and cigar smoke.  Her father was hairy and wore wife-beaters.  Her mother wore black dresses and kept her hair in a bun; and they fought all the time.  Not the temperate innuendoes he was used to, but down-and-dirty mudslinging.  Everybody in the Pantucci household yelled.  Marilyn and her sister traded blows from the minute she walked in the door.  Her younger brother shoved and pushed her until she whacked him on the head.  The baby howled and threw his rattles on the floor.

I am not sure how Bobby put up with Marilyn for so long – nostalgie de la boue and the ethnic thing was his  adolescent fuck you to his parents who, despite the Cadillac in the driveway, the parlor, and the Venetian sconces in the living room, were trying as hard as they could to be good Anglo-Saxons.

Bobby avoided all Italians after Marilyn, dated only girls from Smith and Vassar who had pedigree and good manners, and hoped that their civility would replace the Pantuccis’ guinea grand guignol and his parents’ stifled incivility.  They would be open, but not crude.

It turns out that the latest research shows that children who grow up in families like the Pantuccis where parents argue in front of them turn out to be better at conflict resolution later in life.  Dr. Lindsey Aloia of Rollins College in Florida said:

'Conflict experiences can be beneficial, by alleviating tension and avoiding conflict escalation, reducing communication apprehension, and contributing to closeness within the relationship’.

I have no idea how she came up with this conclusion, nor how she did her research; but informal observation and common sense suggest that it is nonsense.  In an ideal world Mom and Dad would be open, communicative, and sharing.  They would air their differences respectfully, resolve all issues graciously and intelligently, and lessons would be learned all around.  Father would be more concerned about his wife’s feelings and be more attentive to her moods and wishes.  Mother would be more tolerant of his need for air and independence.

In the real world, husbands and wives fight with tooth and claw.  Albee’s George and Martha are nothing compared to what most couples do to each other.  George, at the end of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, tells Martha that they must flay each other to the marrow.  To the bone is not enough, and during the long drunken night with their young guests, they play vicious games, slash and cut each other mercilessly.  The play ends up on a note of hope – perhaps this ‘openness’ is the first step to a better and more intimate relationship; but one always has the feeling that they have done this to each other for years, and will go right back into the ring.

The War Of The Roses with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner is a burlesque comic opera where husband and wife are out to kill each other.  In their long, drag out battle, they destroy everything and finally themselves.  Not all marriages are this way, but a lot are.  Getting it out into the open is not necessarily a good thing.

For all their efforts to be more communicative and reasonable with our spouses, Bobby’s sister and he were the spitting images of their parents.  She grinds her teeth and puts up with her husband just like her father.  He can go into gloomy, hurtful, silent funks just like his mother.  I am not sure for how long this currently long-running play will remain on Broadway, but I suspect not for long.  Bobby’s daughter can hold things in for a few minutes at best, then levels her best shots at her brother.  Bobby is not immune, and  actually grew fond of her theatricality.  Her fights with her boyfriends over the phone were epic and frequent – violent, explosive, intemperate, and volcanic. 

It is not that I am down on marriage.  On the contrary, I think it is an important institution, and one way or another it will survive the current assaults on traditional values.  Albee himself said that marriage was a crucible for growing up.  Even if you storm out the door you have to come back.  There is no way to liquidate all assets quickly and move on to another relationship.  It is confining, at times frustratingly so, but for most people it works.

I think that the Pantucci-style fights in front of the kids are not a good thing.  One time Anna Pantucci (again stereotypically but true) threw a pot full of spaghetti and meatballs at her husband.  He throttled her, and only the banging on the ceiling by the upstairs neighbors defused the affair.

Nor do I like WASP propriety.  Not getting an emotional hair out of place does little good.  Nor the very Babbitt ‘happy front’ of bourgeois decorum that Bobby’s parents used to cover their own guinea past.  Somewhere in the middle, I guess.

However, if Dr. Aloia is right and witnessing Pantucci-like fights can lead to improved conflict resolution, then the world will be a far better place than it is now.  Taken to its logical conclusion, children who suffer through long parental fights and recriminations should be more conciliatory and less bellicose than those who have been brought up quietly.

I know only one thing – ‘Mom and Dad are fighting’ is the sign hung over every dining room table, kitchen, or living room in every family in America at least once a week.  If we can profit from such acrimony and spite, so much the better.

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