Bicker. It sounds so harmless – virtually a snicker, or a knicker, or a flicker, a flame so tiny as to hardly count. It is not like a row, which rhymes with "Ow!" and ends so abruptly. So the news last week that couples bicker on average seven times a day will bring more consolation than dismay to those for whom the complex business of living together is a constant mystery.
As a junior reporter, I interviewed many couples who had reached their golden or diamond wedding anniversary. Awkwardly balancing the tea, biscuit and wedding photograph on one knee and my notebook on the other, I followed the prescribed formula: how had they met, what had kept them together? Invariably the secret of a happy, lifelong relationship was revealed: "Give and take, and never a cross word."
My husband of 32 years did his time on the golden-wedding circuit too, and we repeat this mantra whenever a domestic stand-off has been followed by words decidedly cross, both given and taken. For the no-holds-barred fallings-out of our younger days have given way to affectionate ribbings – I never tidy up after gardening, he never picks things off the floor. Our weaknesses, adorable when we were first starry-eyed, have become funny again.
Older friends, married for around 40 years, engage nightly in a frenzy of misunderstanding, contradiction and belittlement. "We got back from holiday on Tuesday" ("It was Wednesday") "And our son met us" ("Chloe fetched us") "We were back by midnight" ("It was after one") "And it rained every day" ("It hardly rained at all"). Since none of this can be of the slightest interest to others, we wonder whether it is a form of foreplay, honed over the decades, its purpose sealed out of view of those condemned to observe this dull mating ritual.
These two have gone far beyond the low-level bicker, potentially so rewarding that it is well worth the temporary inconvenience of a bill unpaid or Weetabix unbought. The formula is this: "When I said will you go to the bank/buy the cereal/drop off the charity stuff and you said yes, and I believed you, and then you didn't do it, was that because you meant yes in the sense of no, or because you thought that saying you would do it was the same as doing it, or because you are a single-cell amoeba for whom doing two things in one day is a branch of quantum physics?"
Under the pressure of extending hospitality, the words are fewer and harsher. Delivered from the shower, five minutes before guests arrive, and repeated the second they leave, hosts everywhere turn upon each other: "You only had one thing to do...!" What passes between the same couples going on holiday, we cannot print.
Triggers for a ding-dong, according to the insurance company that analysed the 2,455 annual bust-ups (what was its interest – do couples claim for ornaments thrown and smashed in anger?) are topped by the catch-all "not listening". Overspending is hard on its heels, but the fun starts with the 92 arguments, for passions clearly run high over dill, about what to have for dinner, and 91 accusations of driving too fast.
Other trouble spots include when to have sex (87 – it is not specified whether this concerns the hour, the day or the month), not closing cupboard doors (79), and walking past things that need to go upstairs (a spectacularly gratifying 90). Many of the flashpoints, if not the sex calendar, could be fixed by having staff. The good news is that neglecting to say "I love you" is much rarer than disagreeing over the choice of television channel or not emptying the washing machine.
When today's couples reach their platinum anniversaries, if local newspapers live to tell the tale, the secret of their long partnerships will be out: give and take – and many a cross word.