I’ve always described myself as someone who doesn’t get angry very often. It came as somewhat of a surprise to me, then, when I recently found myself raising my voice on the phone with my ex-boyfriend. After a long period of ambiguously “trying to be friends,” I’d finally drawn a line and decided that we shouldn’t talk anymore, only to wake up the next morning to see he’d messaged me overnight. When I hung up the phone, after finally and emphatically telling him in no uncertain terms that I didn’t want to hear from him, I was startled at how good I felt. I realized then that it’s not that I hardly ever get angry—I just hardly ever get angry at the people who are pissing me off.
While usually ready for a political or academic argument, I find myself deferential in personal conflicts, not wanting to start a messy confrontation. Even in interactions with strangers who are clearly in the wrong, or in customer service situations that require being firm—haggling is my personal nightmare—my first instinct is to be understanding while someone royally screws me over, or even to be apologetic.
Later, fuming in private and complaining to anybody except the person I’m angry at, I kick myself for not being firmer about what I needed in the situation. I’m not sure how much of this is a gendered phenomena. Women who are assertive are perceived as domineering; if you’re not polite and accommodating, especially to men—especially to men in positions of authority—you’re a bitch or too pushy or need to “just calm down.” This certainly confirms the dynamics of confrontation and apology, but at the same time I wonder if we don't all hold back, particularly in close relationships where conflict is perceived as a fault of the relationship instead of a natural part of it.
Failure to maintain perfect harmony is a failure of the relationship; never mind the fact that no two people have identical thoughts and desires. With friends, family members, and especially romantic or sexual partners, we fear that to fight is to damage or ruin the relationship—and so our boundaries remain unspoken, amorphous, and all too easily violated. Minor concessions become sources of resentment that do far more damage than speaking up in the first place would have.
It’s true that no one likes confrontation. At the same time, though, no one ever told me how great actually speaking up about your boundaries, needs, and desires can feel, especially when it actually works. When I do articulate my desires and express my anger or frustration, it is almost always effective at resolving whatever the conflict or misunderstanding was in the first place. Not only that, but it’s also empowering. Pushing back against the passivity that is expected of me, as a woman or a significant other or a stranger, simply feels good—like a way of taking control and getting things done as my life becomes increasingly more complex and filled with tasks and responsibilities.
Healthy relationships require strong boundaries—not just in relationships with your friends, family, or partners, but also in your relationship with yourself. In order to maintain these boundaries, though, we need to reframe how we think of confrontation. Instead of imagining the perfect couple as one who never fights, instead of talking about conflict as something that must always be destructive or symptomatic of deep incompatibility, we must embrace disagreement, confrontation, and the occasional resulting argument as a natural result of existing in a diverse and varied world.
A friend of mine claims to see two types of people in the world: those who apologize for everything and those who apologize for nothing. Although I do see his point, I have hope for a middle ground, one that belongs to people who refuse to feel sorry about their boundaries and healthy relationships. If this makes me rude, overly confrontational, or, god forbid, a bitch—so be it.
Clair Fuller is a second-year in the College majoring in gender and sexuality studies.