If you’ve ever been in a relationship with terrible fights — the maddening, circular logic, the petty insults, the denials and deflections galore — then you’ve probably been tempted to secretly record it. Nevermind that it’s illegal in 11 states: You instantly imagine the healing, gotcha power of playing it back to your stunned partner, knowing that if they could just hear how they really sound, they’ll be so embarrassed and concerned, so terribly sorry they were ever so mean, that they will be magically, instantly compelled to do better next time.
To the contrary, if you’ve ever had someone whip out a recording made without your knowledge of how you sound in a fight, well, I bet you’re not so grateful. Unsurprisingly, it pisses people off, embarrasses them, violates their trust and privacy, and if you’re both doing it to each other, well, congratulations. You’re both two terrible people who deserve each other. It rarely turns out well.
Mainly because — go figure! — people don’t like to be recorded without their consent, even if you’re trying to “help” them. Recently, someone wrote into Dear Prudence, Slate’s advice column, asking what to do about a boyfriend who’d secretly recorded their fights. He’d asked for permission first because he said he wished they “could record our arguments so that we could listen to them when we’re calm to see how it all goes wrong.” The person refused permission, but the boyfriend recorded them anyway.
The boyfriend swears his intentions were honorable, but there’s no such thing as honorable intentions when the deed is deceitful and shame-based. Secretly recorded calls exist for one reason and one reason only: a form of gotcha stealth meant to embarrass and shame someone into the right behavior. Even if it ultimately works, the cost paid out in loss of trust is far too high. If you have to police your loved ones into better behavior, you’re not in a relationship, you’re in a hostage situation.
Of course, sometimes it’s funny to hit record on a big row, like this person who recorded their grandparents arguing, then re-enacted it, lip-syncing to the video:
Or that guy who recorded his parents arguing with him about his bedroom, records and posters when he was a teenager three decades ago, and then got his friend to animate it:
But it often goes horribly wrong. Remember that guy who recorded his wife throwing a fit because she wanted to go to the lake? He filed it on YouTube, and she filed for divorce. (That was a few years back, and the video has since been taken down for harassment.) And there are numerous accounts online of people finding out that their partner recorded them to show them how they sound when they fight, and the horror and upset that ensues.
Aside from the privacy violation and potential illegality, the other issue with the secretly recorded fight is that the person recording knows they’re recording, and suddenly, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle comes into play: By studying the thing, you change the thing. And the recording person knows they’re being recorded, so they can act the part of the rational, concerned partner while you blow your top. That, my friend, is what you call a set up.
And yet, there is a way to record your fights in some way or another to actually learn from them, just as athletes record games and watch them to see where they need improvement, just as generals study war strategies to look for missteps.
Step one of course is to both consent. One woman and her boyfriend agreed to record every fight they had for a week to see exactly where things were going off the rails. Her accounting of what they learned is eye-opening, mainly because even though they recorded mutually and consensually, she’s still pathologically herself.
That means she has to admit all the negative comments she makes when they argue, like “you’re being stupid,” “you’re annoying,” and “I’m not sure I like you anymore.” Such comments only make things worse, demean her partner, attack his character and not his behavior, and prevent them from actually resolving things as a team.
Relationship expert Tracey Cox suggests recording couple fights, too, because bare minimum, you’re more likely to behave with more civility and focus on the issue at hand rather than kitchen-sinking and tossing in every problem you’ve ever been upset about.
A few years ago, couple Claire and Alan Linic launched a Twitter account called We Fought About, documenting every trigger for their fights, which ranged from silly…
They maintained the account through 2017, when, Claire tells me by email, she lost the password.
At the time, they felt the account was a way to remain accountable for the fights while dating, document all the various catalysts, but also laugh about how silly and bizarre some of the triggers are.
Now married to Alan, Claire says they’re glad they did it.
“When I look back on it, I’m so glad we kept an account on the thing that triggered our fights,” she tells MEL by email. “I think it helped us find patterns in what would set the other one off.”
People didn’t like it of course, treating it as a slippery slope of fighting that would be their demise. “The main criticism we received was that keeping an account of our fights would ultimately be very negative for our relationship,” she says. “Also, people hated my hair. Well, in your face, everyone: Alan and I are still together and my hair is still dope.”
The process of documenting fight triggers helped them understand the ultimate cause of each fight so they could wrap it up. “Recording our fights helped us put a period on every fight,” she says. “It was the final act that said: ‘This fight is over and we are moving on.’”
Had they not lost the password and moved onto other projects — currently, they’re promoting a humorous workbook they’ve co-written called Our Perfect Marriage, a kind of baby book journal, only for married life, including documenting fights — Claire says she and Alan would probably still be doing it.
I asked her if they still document fights in some way or another outside of Twitter. “To be honest we haven’t found as good of a method for closing out a fight,” she says. “Maybe we were geniuses all along and fools to stop?”
Only time will tell.