How we get to the root of our relationship problems.
By Tom Burns — Last updated on Sep 06, 2023
Photo: B-D-S Piotr Marcinski | MyImages – Micha | maradon 333 | Shutterstock
I hate fighting with my wife.
But the worst part about our fights — any fight, really, with a family member or loved one — is those moments when we’re not totally sure if we trust what the other person is saying. Is she really being honest or is there some emotional subtext that I’m just not picking up on?
The one thing more frustrating than fighting is finding out 40 minutes into the argument that your partner wasn’t even being truthful about the thing you thought you were fighting about.
In fact, that kind of “is he/is she being honest” second-guessing got so frustrating that my wife and I actually came up with an argument-safe word. And it’s made our (infrequent) fights SO much more productive.
The word is “watermelon.”
No, really. Actually, the safe word itself doesn’t matter. It could be “xylophone,” “cheddar biscuit,” or “Chewbacca.” It can be whatever you want. (I honestly don’t remember why we settled on “watermelon.”) What matters is what the word MEANS.
Our “watermelon” rule is that if, during a fight, one of us makes a statement, and the other person responds to that statement with “Watermelon?”, the first person HAS to confirm whether or not their original statement was true.
PERSON #1: “I didn’t even want you to come tonight!”
PERSON #2: “Watermelon?”
PERSON #1: “… Fine. OK, yes, I wanted you to come.”
The safe word cuts through all the doubt and lies and you can proceed forward, arguing about facts rather than suspicions or subtext.
I know what you’re thinking. “But why didn’t Person #1 just LIE?”
That is the beauty of the “watermelon” rule. It’s a self-policing system.
If Person #1 lies, they’re forever giving up the right to ever again argue, or complain about the thing they just lied about. If ten minutes later, Person #1 says, “I can’t believe you weren’t there. I wanted you to come tonight,” Person #2 will IMMEDIATELY realize that they were lied to. Person #2 knows that the safe word rule was not respected.
And then the whole fight changes. Because the fight suddenly stops being about the original argument and starts being about PERJURY.
Person #1 lied on the stand. They took the watermelon oath and they broke it. In the eyes of the law — well, the law of our marriage — that person just forfeited everything. They’ve lost the fight, they’ve lost moral superiority. It’s over and done. They didn’t respect the watermelon rule.
Even if Person #1 was RIGHT, even if Person #2 was being a jerk and deserved to get yelled at, if Person #1 slips up and shows that they’ve broken the watermelon rule, they’ve lost that fight forever.
So, breaking the safe word rule might mean that the wrong person could win an argument. And no one wants to risk that, especially if they KNOW they’re in the right.
Thus, because neither of us wants to lose the argument on a technicality, we respect the watermelon rule.
And it’s great.
It works like a charm. It allows us to get into angry debates with far less self-doubt and mistrust clouding our opinions. And we both benefit from the rule existing. It’s a win-win.
If your fights with your partner seem to go off on tangents, where you’re each trying to figure out what the other person is “REALLY” saying, I’m telling you — you need to introduce an argument-safe word.
Watermelon. Sidewalk chalk. Mung beans. WHATEVER.
Because, once you settle on a word and if you respect that word, you and your partner can start arguing about the REAL issues and not what you “THINK” the issues actually are. And, trust me, it makes all the difference in the world.
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Tom Burns has served as a contributing editor for 8BitDad and The Good Men Project, and his writing has been featured on Babble, Brightly, Mom.me, Time Magazine, and various other sites.