I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between peacekeeping and peacemaking. On the surface, these sound similar—almost synonymous. I’ve used them interchangeably myself, fairly often, because I’m a pretty peaceable person.
I’m not trying to be proud here. It’s just true. I’m not given to angry outbursts or displays of frustration. I never really learned how. Growing up, I don’t recall ever seeing my parents argue even once. I used to squabble with my siblings, but I can’t honestly remember the last time I had an out-and-out argument with any of them or my parents. It must have been before college.
As you might guess, this peaceable spirit has often manifested itself less as a steadying force of calm than a white flag at the first ripple of conflict. In my dating years, I initiated more than one breakup so nicely that the girl didn’t even realize I was breaking up with her, a la Chris Traeger in Parks and Rec. It was about that time when I started to realize my skill of dodging conflict was not infallibly positive. Conflict avoidance is a neutral force, and like any neutral force, it can be used destructively.
I’m married now, and to say my wife doesn’t avoid conflict is like saying the Titanic didn’t avoid the iceberg. She has a fighter’s spirit, and while I’m trying to figure out how to avoid our arguments before they start, she’s already proven herself right fifty times over. This used to feed my ego. I thought she’d be grateful that I never stooped to arguing about who finished off the beer, or whose family we’d visit for Christmas. Or, at the very least, I thought she should be grateful. I figured I was keeping the peace. I was right, in a way. Depending on how you define peace.
Catastrophe just launched its second, stellar season on Amazon Prime, which quite nearly improves upon on an already incredible debut. The first season followed Rob (Twitter comedian superstar Rob Delaney) and Sharon (British writer/actor Sharon Horgan) sorting out a fragile new relationship after a passionate weekend meet-cute in England leaves Sharon pregnant. The nine months of Sharon’s pregnancy provide the two with just enough time to sort out their courtship.
The second season picks up years later. Rob and Sharon’s first baby is three years old, and Sharon is pregnant with number two. The first season was a razor-sharp look at the early throes of a relationship and the comedown from the jittery blitz of feelings and sex that ignited that first spark. Season two picks up long after the routine has settled in and the first few waves of grappling with a fading fairy tale have been dealt with. Rob and Sharon are happy with each other and have grown adept at helping each other sort through life. Sharon is anxious about turning into the sort of wine cooler-snifting, playdate-setting mother she used to scorn. Rob is anxious about maintaining his sobriety and avoiding the hot, sexually aggressive new employee at work.
“We all have secrets” could be a tagline for most prestige drama today, given how much they mine from the idea that in every family, every relationship and every nook of the human heart, people are burying their true feelings and holding back from each other. Mad Men and Breaking Bad are obvious examples, but The Sopranos kicked off the trend. Today, secrets are a—if not the—primary source of dramatic tension in Game of Thrones, Bloodlines, Broadchurch, The Good Wife, Scandal and basically AMC’s entire roster.
In fact, we’ve gotten so used to buried truths and suppressed feelings as a source of drama that the very idea of the truth being interesting takes some getting used to. However, Catastrophe accomplishes it wonderfully. Rob and Sharon don’t fight a lot because they’re holding back from each other. They fight a lot because they share everything with each other. They fight about each other’s parents. They fight about drinking. They fight about sex. If one of them is upset, they’ll tell the other exactly why, in unflinching terms. Feelings are hurt, and there will be apologies later.
When Rob comes home from a particularly stressful day at work and Sharon begins to open up to him about her growing distance from a casual friend, but she senses that he’s zoning out.
SHARON: “Do you not care?
ROB: “Right now, I don’t know that I do care about that. We’ve got two kids under the age of three, my job is a nightmare. And those things use up all my daily care units. So sometimes when you need attention at the end of the day, I got nothing left for you. I know that’s not fair, but what do I do?”
SHARON: “You dig deep and you scrounge something up for me. Don’t be lazy.”
ROB: “What do you want me to say?”
SHARON: “Say she sounds like a bitch.”
ROB: “She does sound like a bitch! I’ll kill her for you. You know how happy that would make me? I’ve got plenty of hate units left.”
This is sharp writing by any measure, but it hit me in particular. If you’re as conflict adverse as me (and I hope you aren’t) then the idea of telling your wife you actually don’t care about what she’s saying sounds about as improbable as telling her you’ve turned into a snake.
But the thing is, I’m familiar with the concept of care units. We all are. And if it comes to either robotically nodding along to whatever it is your husband or wife is jawing on about or simply admitting that you’re out of energy for the day, what you’re really facing is the decision between peacekeeping and peacemaking.
Peacekeeping tries to protect whatever fragile calm is still there. It avoids trouble to maintain a house of cards that isn’t stable or even particularly special, but it looks nice. Let’s call this the prestige drama style of relationship management. It’s how Don Draper kept his personal life together, and we know how that turned out.
Peacemaking involves dropping a rock on the house of cards and destroying the pretense of calm for a stormy argument that probably won’t go particularly well. It means forging through a fight to create something better on the other side. True feelings are exchanged. Real wounds might be caused, but real catharsis is achieved too. And on the other side, you’ve built something. It’s not the same peace you were trying to keep up. It’s not an act. It’s something newer, better and stronger. You’ve made peace.
So I was wrong about my attitude in my marriage. Admitting you’re wrong and correcting it are two different things, but I’m getting there. I’ve come around to my wife’s idea of conflict management, which is to put a premium on saying what you’re really feeling instead of maintaining a pretense. It’s not particularly pleasant, but it’s more like ripping off a bandaid than anything else. If you can do it, you can start healing. If not, the wound festers.
I’m trying to live a little more like Rob and Sharon and a little less like HBO’s prestige dramas. There’s dramatic value in secrets, but in real life, you can’t beat the drama of the honest truth. Whatever value there might be in keeping up the pretense of peace, there’s more value in making something better.