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The Perverse Pleasure of Watching Couples Argue in Public

“So you’re going to get the chilaquiles, right?” the man at the table next to me asked the woman across from him, who it would soon be confirmed he was romantically entangled with. I was dining with my friend in a nice restaurant in the early afternoon on a recent weekend in Brooklyn; our tables were less than a foot apart, as is the way when an establishment has turned one table into two during a crowded brunch. My friend and I were trying to do what you try to do when you’re that close to strangers: pretend you’re not listening to what they’re talking about. But that goal soon proved to be impossible

“I just can’t plan a trip right now,” the man told the woman, who was seated to my right.

“What looks good????” I cheerily asked my companion at high volume as I tried to keep up non-listening appearances.

Suddenly, without warning, the woman started to sob. “That’s not even what I’m upset about,” she confessed. “Are you really not my soulmate???!”

In just as many seconds as they had been seated next to us, they were gone. Tears and an argument in public at a brightly lit restaurant were apparently the tipping point for this couple; before they could order, he was making apologies to the waiter and they whisked themselves away.

But their presence lingered. I constructed a whole life for them: They were in a long-distance relationship that wasn’t going well, he had told her — probably within the past 24 hours — that he didn’t think they were soulmates. They’d been fighting all night about his indifference versus her commitment — was he the one who didn’t live in New York, or was she? — but had already decided to have a fancy brunch before things blew up. I was immediately on the woman’s side, full of indigent rage at her partner for upsetting her, sad that the two of them were in such a bad state.

I couldn’t stop thinking about them, or talking about them over my order (a torta, if you must know). Throughout the next week, my overactive imagination spun wildly in a thousand directions; how long had they been together? What did they each do? How had they met?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, just as I don’t know what happened to that couple. But the open-ended nature of it all hasn’t prevented me from thinking about it, even weeks later (if anything, it’s probably made it easier to casually muse about them). Witnessing their particular fight crystallized something for me I’d known deep down for some time: I love watching couples argue in public.

I’m not alone in my fixation either. From what I can tell, actual scientific research into the phenomenon of fight-watching is limited, but anecdotal evidence abounds. I sent out a query at random to get a sense of whether others were as fascinated by an in-public altercation as I was, and found that the majority was on my side: deeply passionate about watching others feud publicly, so much so that multiple people, without prompting, launched into stories — recent and from long ago — they’d collected themselves.

Several were quick — and rightly so — to make clear that the fights they love to witness sharply differentiate themselves from emotionally and physically violent domestic disputes. There’s no pleasure in those, only horror, discomfort and mental debate over what, if anything, one can do. The engrossing ones are the public tiffs that set themselves apart with their humorous (if you’re not on the receiving end of them) accusations and dramatic gestures. They’re doing this, here, now? the brain says. As an audience member, instead of trying to make it stop, you, the endlessly curious and nosy human, hope you can be a witness to it for as long as possible.

Forgive me for sounding so much like the monster that I am, but I can remember the fights I’ve witnessed between strangers as well as the ones I’ve been a part of myself:

  • There was the pair I watched awkwardly sitting on a rock in Central Park for a good half an hour in the middle of a sunny Saturday, her dressed in a specifically picked-out weekend casual outfit of jeans, flats and a cute top, him looking like he’d just rolled out of bed in basketball shorts and athletic slides. (It was decided that they had broken up and after some late-night text rants, she’d asked him to meet, in what had been “their place,” for some closure that he didn’t need but she desperately did.)
  • There was the pair I watched have a whispered, heated conversation on the man’s couch as myself and my future roommates toured the apartment he was moving out of, the realtor loudly discussing the layout and many perks to the space. (He was ending things with a younger, naive fling who hadn’t seen it coming. We didn’t get the apartment.)
  • Years ago, there was a couple standing in line to enter one of my favorite restaurants, stress fighting. The details of their particular dispute have escaped me as time has passed, but my contentment at witnessing their messy, brief intimacy remains.

A fight is a puzzle to be solved, both by its participants and its witnesses. My fascination with how they work and their so-real-it-must-be-fake quality should have been clear to me earlier in life, when the joy I found in watching one specific scene in the Sex and the City episode “The Good Fight” made it rise to the top as one of my favorites from the show. In this particular piece of television relationship ephemera, Aidan has moved into Carrie’s apartment, and their stuff is really piling up. We see them fight over how much of each of their valuables they have; Carrie has (classic Carrie!) too many clothes, while Aidan is apparently holding on to too many old deodorants (absolutely Aidan).

“Who needs FIVE almost-empty Speed Stick deodorants?” Carrie yells at Aidan, the products of concern carefully webbed between her fingers like she’s about to do a magic trick with them, and presto change-o, they’re gone! “What are you, a crazy bag man?”

“Look at this stuff, you’ve got old razors, Rogaine…” She stops short. “Wait a minute.” Her tone completely changes to soft, sensitive. “You use Rogaine, I didn’t know you needed — ”

“It’s pre-ven-ta-tive,” Aidan responds in clipped, short tones.

“Is your hair falling out?” she semi-whispers.

“I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT!” he screams, grabbing the box back from her.

I’ve watched this scene dozens of times, and each viewing is as captivating as the last. Such a stupid fight over such a real issue, proffered up for us, the viewer, for entertainment purposes, as well as introspection. You can view yourself from a whole new angle when you’re looking at your dynamics through the lens of another relationship. That’s probably why the questions I have about the couples I’ve seen fight always end up being about me. Whose side am I on? Should she leave him? Would I? Do I do this? Do I do something worse?

Some of the interest in the public fights of others is the TV/movie-esque quality they have; it’s as if you are watching a narrative that’s been crafted by an outside force, but it’s as real as can be. And as a writer, I’m particularly inclined to find that part of the appeal. But if I’m a monster because of my fascination with the suffering of others, I can take comfort in being part of that aforementioned club. I recently told the story of the brunch breakdown to a group, only to have those around me respond in kind with their own fly-on-the-wall fight stories.

My friend Brad said he’d encountered a couple fighting on the G train, with one woman getting so upset she stormed off into the next subway car. Her partner followed her. And then, as if he was part of the whole thing, Brad followed as well. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna see this one through,’” he says of his move, though he cannot remember what the pair were fighting about.

I asked him what it was that pushed him to make such a bold decision as to literally follow a fighting couple: Was it just curiosity? “Sure,” said Brad. But there was also something particularly noteworthy about this fight: The tier it was on. “What made me interested in the first place — even before following them — was how vocally, emotionally and performatively they were fighting in public, which was different to the more common couple-fighting-in-public mode we all know, which is this understated subtle don’t-let-anybody-notice-us mode (that’s of course, totally noticeable) that I feel like you see a lot and is relatable,” he explains. “This was a full on fight! Yelling across a train! Storming away!”

Brad wasn’t the only person I talked to who admitted to trying to arrange themselves to continue to listen to someone’s story. Many said they’d been known to stop talking to whoever they were with to make sure they could hear all of an argument. “I’ve even been in multiple situations where a couple is arguing next to me at a bar, and I need to tell my boyfriend to shut up — maybe sparking our own fight — so that I can hear better,” my friend Madeleine tells me, one of two people who compared witnessing a fight to reality television — or what’s “more simply known as ‘reality.’”

Others brought up how such an experience is a common and beautiful part of city living. “In New York, the street is an extension of my private space. I don’t have a car to break up in, I don’t have a car to fight in or cry in, I only have the sidewalk,” says Lauren (who, I should note, grew up in the suburbs, hence her multiple mentions of cars). Dayna puts it more romantically: “I realize that part of the beauty and pain of New York is that most all of us have to work out our shit publicly, whether we want to or not. Kind of like the streets are our bedrooms…”

The people I polled had a variety of reasons for why they enjoyed witnessing a public fight. Some said they were “completely ridiculous and insanely funny” out-of-context. Others mentioned how jarring it is: “What could be so urgent that they have to deal with it RIGHT NOW?” And for a situation that can feel embarrassing when you’re the one being watched, no judgment was mentioned by these witnesses, only curiosity. Empathy for the parties involved was the other most common feeling expressed, as was relief at knowing that you’re not the one doing the fighting.

If modern pop psychology is devoid of actual facts and not just theories as to why we enjoy watching people fight in public, there’s plenty of speculation about why people do the fighting. “Maybe he thinks you don’t take him seriously in private, or maybe he’s capitalizing on the fact that a public tiff makes you squirm and he knows he can win,” one psychiatrist told a Self magazine reader who was concerned about her boyfriend’s impulse to pick fights in public. Other theories involve feeling competitive with a partner, or again, being able to force their hand on an issue in a safer environment. Some even say (perhaps jokingly) that a public fight is a relationship milestone.

This tendency to rubber-neck an argument as if it’s a crash by the side of the road extends past real life and entertainment scenarios, to the digital space; a few years ago, the New York Times even wrote about the phenomenon of friends following couples as they duke it out on Facebook, for anyone with an internet connection and an accepted friend request to follow. Couples therapist Esther Perel’s podcast Where Should We Begin?, which has aired two seasons so far, explores the issues that plague couples through their own conversations with Perel. And columns such as the The Cut’s “Both Sides of a Break-Up,” which has run since 2012, or Slate’s “Our One Fight,” which launched just a few months ago, are wildly picked apart online. The former has two members of a relationship that has since ended go through the highs and lows of their now-defunct pairing; the latter involves a couple still together outlining the fight that they have repeatedly in different variations. Both provoke rabid responses, as readers try to parse — and inevitably pass judgment — on the situations and parties involved. Some of it’s rude and unfair, but then again, so is a lot of what we say when we’re fighting.

A recent “Both Sides of a Breakup” involved a man who was so flighty he started to have feelings for his wedding planner, which provoked a loud outcry online, to the point where the similarities among the structures of the series even brought them clashing together on Twitter. One user went as far as to suggest that bad engaged man should date a woman from a “Our One Fight” who likes to move a lot, much to the frustration of her husband.

“My hope with each of these is that a reader could reasonably empathize with either side, if the motivations and rationales are unpacked fully enough,” Laura Bennett, who edits “Our One Fight” for Slate, explains when I asked her for her take on the column’s genesis and reception. “It’s meant to be a little window into the ways people who love each other negotiate the fundamental differences in their personalities and values.”

“It’s been fascinating to me, though, to see when people on Twitter make a kind of game out of declaring allegiances to one half the couple, or make big judgments about the health of the relationship — this is just a tiny slice of strangers’ lives, performed for an audience!” she adds. “But there’s something about watching couples fight that makes people feel irresistibly pulled to referee it.”

These two particular series try to come to conclusions, and have narratives that appear finite. But when you witness a snapshot of a fight in person, you have even less information. “You don’t have the full story and speculating/filling in the blanks is fun,” my friend Alex tells me. You also get to go through the emotions and adrenaline of a fight with none of the intensity or allegiances. If you’re a person who is “bad” at fighting, a concept that dozens of self-help books have been written about — gets too worked up, lobs criticisms, has to “win” the fight — there’s a joy in seeing the curtain pulled back on how others do it, as if one could pick up tips, become better at it and have a better relationship because of it. “It’s fascinating when I’m able to catch a moment of tension. It reminds you that stubbornness and short-sightedness and all the banal ways that we suck are universal qualities. And it can spark a cool moment of self-reflection re: your own relationships,” another friend says.

A public fight among strangers is cathartic and horrible and incredible all at the same time, two humans and all of their baggage clashing together, for better or worse. So is a private one, for that matter. They can fall into tropes we see all the time, confirm the stereotypical ideas we have about men and women or challenge our conceptions of the same. You can avoid thinking about yourself while still thinking about yourself. As they say, you never know what’s going on behind closed doors; a public fight gives you a chance to.

Above all, a fight reminds you of the parallel nature your life takes to the ones around you: You and your struggles aren’t special. Because, to be honest, I was at the brunch when I witnessed the fight that spurred my realization not with a friend, but with my partner. I was talking breathlessly about this couple with the person I’ve chosen to be with, trying to get the bottom of their fight, and probably also ours, together. Because I’ve been there too: rushing out of a party to pace on the street at 1 a.m. while passersby avoid two people exchanging tense words, standing in a building vestibule as strangers pretend they don’t see me sobbing, saying god knows what in the back of a cab as if the driver a foot away can’t hear everything being discussed. My witnesses had every reason to text their friends, “Ohmygod, I just heard this girl say…,” walking away from that sad person who was getting worked up in a way that spilled out into the world, escaping her control.

The brunch couple could have been my couple. And my boyfriend did order the chilaquiles. They were pretty good.