I found the fight between Willow and Tara in "Tough Love" to be one of the most thought-provoking events of the entire show. In part, this is because I have a degree in social psychology and because one of my research focuses was in interpersonal relationships. Rather than take up a lot of space in my review of that episode, I will include my thoughts on this page.
"I mean, you can't really know what it's like to..." Tara
"[shows a grumpy look] Yeah, I know that." Willow
The quarrel begins.
"I didn't mean to..." Tara
"No, I just... I know I can't know what you went through, but I just... It's no big." Willow
Tara realized that something was wrong and started to apologize. This shows validation, a good sign. Willow is harder to interpret. A charitable view would be that she was trying to head off the conflict before it started. A less charitable view would be that she was trying to avoid talking about the issue at hand.
"I made you mad." Tara
"No, no." Willow
"All I meant was..." Tara
"It's OK. This whole Buffy thing, let's just forget it." Willow
Again, Tara is trying to validate Willow's feelings while Willow is either heading off the conflict or avoiding the issue at hand. Interestingly, this is the second time that Willow interrupted Tara.
"No, please. I mean, tell me if I said something wrong. Otherwise, I know I'll say it again, probably often and in public." Tara
Tara is showing a genuine desire to understand Willow's feelings. It also helps that she used a little humor as well.
"No, I was snippy gal. It's just... I know I can't on some level... It's like my opinion isn't worth anything because I haven't been through... I didn't lose my mom, so I don't know." Willow
Back in "Who Are You?," Willow stated that she liked having Tara just for herself. I am probably stretching things here, but I get a sense that Willow is not happy with the fact that Tara now has a use in the group beyond just being Willow's girlfriend.
"Will, I'm not the expert. I mean, I've only lost the one. Do I act like the big knowledge woman?"
"Is that 'no' spelled y-e-s?" Tara
"S-o-r-t of." Willow
Tara again attempts a bit of humor, and got a very brief smile in response from Willow. She is also continuing her effort to understand Willow's feelings. Willow initially denied her feelings, but admitted to them when Tara persisted.
"I mean, I just feel like the junior partner. You've been doing everything longer than me. You've been out longer. You've been practicing witchcraft way longer." Willow
I find this an interesting interpretation on Willow's part. It has been clear that Willow was the more dominant of the two. In "Intervention," she was the one who controlled the remote for the television. (Granted, this is probably a male interpretation of power.) Furthermore, from the perspective of the audience, these seem like minor issues. Willow has been on the show longer, she has been slaying longer, and she has been part of the social group longer than Tara has. Another issue is that Willow is also expanding the scope of the discussion to include issues other than Tara understanding what it is like to lose a mother.
"But you're way beyond me there. In just a few... I mean, it frightens me how powerful you're getting." Tara
The discussion has now reached the point were each of them is worried about the other intruding on her own domain. Willow was worried that Tara was becoming useful to Buffy directly rather than just being Willow's girlfriend. Now Tara is upset that Willow is getting to be much better at magic than she is. Under Self-Evaluation Maintenace below, I discuss why this would be a very sensitive issue for Tara and strategies that she might use to cope.
"That's a weird word." Willow
The quarrel was manageable, but it is now escalating. Tara might be attempting to stop the escalation with a bit of humor, or she might be trying to avoid the issue. Or both.
"It frightens you? I frighten you?" Willow
Willow is getting angry and shows no sign of wanting to de-escalate this quarrel.
"That's so not what I meant. I meant it impresses, impressive." Tara
"Well, I took Psych 101. I mean, I took it from an evil government scientist who was skewered by her Frankenstein-like creation before the final, but I know what a Freudian slip is." Willow
In the Freudian Slip section below, I note that I do not believe that Willow knows as much about Freudian slips as she thinks she does. I admit that Tara's use of the word "frightens" meant something, and I do not think that it meant "impresses." However, Willow should not be interpreting it for Tara. She should let Tara interpret it herself.
"Don't you trust me?" Willow
"With my life." Tara
"That's not what I mean." Willow
Willow is getting confrontational and expanding the quarrel. What started as Willow being upset that Tara talked about losing her mother too often has not gotten to Tara not trusting Willow in some ambiguous way.
"Can't we just go to the fair?" Tara
This statement could be interpreted either as Tara trying to avoid talking about the issues being raised or as Tara realizing that this quarrel was getting out of control and needed to be paused until they cooled down.
"I don't feel real multicultural right now. What is it about me that you don't trust?" Willow
The tone of Willow's voice during the first sentence was not good. The tone got a little better during the question. However, it was based on the assumption that Tara does not trust Willow in some way even though Tara never said that she did not trust Willow.
"It's not that. I'm worried, sometimes. You're changing so much, so fast. I don't know where you're heading." Tara
Tara has given up keeping the quarrel just to one topic. She also made another ambiguous statement that gives Willow the opportunity to interpret in her way.
"Where I'm heading?" Willow
"I'm saying everything wrong." Tara
"No, I think you're being pretty clear. This isn't about the witch thing. It's about the other changes in my life." Willow
Again, Willow thinks that she know what Tara is thinking better than Tara does. In the process, she is expanding the scope of the quarrel.
"I trust you. I just... I don't know where I'm gonna fit in in your life when..." Tara
"When I change back? Yeah, this is a college thing, just a little experimentation before I get over the thrill and head back to boys town. You think that?" Willow
"Should I?" Tara
For the third time, Willow interrupted Tara. Tara was about to express a genuine concern that she had, which may or may not be what Willow thought it was. Rather than listen to what Tara had to say, Willow got sarcastic and gave her own interpretation. Tara's response was probably ill-advised as it simply lends credence to Willow's interpretation.
"I'm really sorry that I didn't establish my lesbo street cred before I got into this relationship. You're the only woman I've ever fallen in love with, so how on earth could you ever take me seriously?" Willow
Willow made up ground by admitting that she loves Tara, but undercut this statement by sandwiching it between mean-spirited sarcastic statements.
"Willow please..." Tara
"Have fun at the fair. [storms out]" Willow
Willow interrupted Tara a fourth time and left before they could resolve any of the issues that they brought up.
I know that it sounds silly, but, if Willow and Tara are serious about each other and about possibly spending the rest of their lives together, the fight was actually a good sign. In the initial stages of a relationship, each partner tries to show only her or his best side to the other. For example, Tara neglected to tell Willow anything about her family until "Family." Furthermore, couples tend to avoid topics of disagreement. One member will often feign agreement if the other member says something that the first member disagrees with.
This situation can last for a little while. When each member of the couple is learning about each other, they might as well start by learning each other's good points and areas of agreement. However, this can last for so long. Even a couple as well suited for each other as Willow and Tara are will have some issues of disagreement, and everyone has bad points. If a relationship is to go very far, these issues have to come out.
The fact that these issues came out is a sign that Willow and Tara are heading in the right direction. More specifically, it is a sign that they are ready for a test that will determine if they can form a lasting relationship with each other. They first need to identify the issues they need to deal with and work out how to deal with them. For example, Willow feels insecure that Tara has been a witch and an open lesbian longer than Willow has been. Willow needs to work out how to deal with this. Tara fears that Willow had become so powerful that Tara is no longer necessary, and Tara may (or may not) feel that Willow might go back to men. She needs to deal with this.
This test is more than just identifying issues and dealing with them. In the course of doing so, Willow and Tara would set precedents on how they will deal with future disputes. Simple maturing and later life events will ensure that Willow and Tara will each be different people ten years from now than they are now. If they stay together, each will influence how the other changes. However, this influence will not be total. Issues that do not exist now will crop up in the future. Their actions now will determine how they will deal with these issues ten years from now, assuming that they will survive ten years in a city filled with vampires, demons, and other creatures of the night.
Willow and Tara are both very agreeable and hate conflict. This is why it has taken them so long to reach this stage. However, if they do intend to stay together for the long term, they needed to get here. If, assuming that Tara's brain becomes un-sucked, they continue to face their disagreements and anxieties, they have a chance to emerge with a healthier and stronger relationship.
One of the most serious issues in the fight is the fact that Tara believes that Willow had become a far more powerful witch than Tara had been. One theory that explains why this is a difficult situation for Tara is the Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model1. It suggests that, when two people are very close, the success of one person may either raise or lower the other person's self-esteem. In general, a person's self-esteem grows when the partner succeeds in an area that is not central to the person's identity. The person's self-esteem is damaged when the partner succeeds in an area central to the person's identity.
If, for example, Willow scored a big success in computer programming, Tara would probably bask in Willow's reflected glory. Tara does not think of herself as a computer programmer, so it is easy for her to be proud of Willow's success and the fact that someone so successful is so close to her. However, Willow was becoming far more successful than Tara in magic. This is something that is very close to the core of Tara's identity. Rather than bask in Willow's glory, Tara instead sees herself as being inferior to Willow in magic. Rather than boosting Tara's self-esteem, Willow's success is hurting it.
According to the Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model, Tara has a handful of strategies that she could use to boost her self-esteem. Tara could try to improve her magical ability in order to keep up with Willow. This is the strategy she was trying in the beginning of "Family" when she almost preferred doing magic research to snuggling with Willow. If she keeps up with Willow, then Willow's advances in magic would not be as threatening to Tara.
A second strategy would be for Tara to change her identity so that magical ability was much less important to her self concept. This would allow her to be proud of Willow's success. However, it would require her to find something else that she can be good at in order to replace magical ability. As we could see simply by how she decorated her dorm room, magical ability is central to her identity and would leave a big gap to be replaced if Tara decided to find something else.
Tara might try to sabotage Willow's progress. Rather than bringing Tara up to Willow's level, this would bring Willow down to Tara's level. I do not know if this would be easier than the other options, but it is another that might be on the table.
Finally, Tara could distance herself from Willow. If she were not close to Willow, then it would not hurt so much to see Willow being so much more powerful than she is. The problem with this is that the relationship would go the wrong direction.
People use all of the above solutions, usually depending on which is the easiest. Sometimes, they try more than one strategy until they succeed. For example, John Lennon and Paul McCartney both spent most of their tenure with the Beatles trying to outdo each other in songwriting ability. Eventually, they were no longer able to do so and broke up the Beatles (and, according to Spike, blamed everything on Yoko).
There is a phenomenon called "Medical Student's Disease." It manifests when medical students read about various maladies and diagnose themselves with them without understanding the difference between normal variation in bodily functions and the extreme level needed for diagnosis.
I have observed that there is also such a thing as "Psychology Student's Disease" (PSD) involving psychological and psychiatric disorders. The only difference that I have seen is that people with PSD diagnose their friends and family as often or even more often than they diagnose themselves. Usually, PSD occurs among upper division undergraduate students and new graduate students. However, it appears that Willow has caught it after just a single psychology class.
Willow decided that, after one class, she could not only diagnose a Freudian slip, but that she could also determine exactly what it meant. She admitted that the class was taught by "an evil government scientist who was skewered by her Frankenstein-like creation," but she thought she knew all about Freudian slips. More importantly, as I mentioned a couple of times, Prof. Walsh came from a theoretical background that would reject the idea of Freudian slips. I would not trust her to explain Freudian slips properly. However, the writers did not seem to understand it.
More to the point, slips, like dreams and many other things, mean whatever they mean to the individual. I agree with Willow that the statement that the use of the word, "frightens," might mean something. My guess is that Tara is referring to the issues that I discussed in the Self-Evaluation Maintenance section above and the fact that she might not have a good way to deal with the situation. However, it is not up to me (or Willow) to determine what it meant. Instead, it is up to Tara. Willow may or may not believe Tara's explanation, but it is not up to Tara to provide her own.
I have to give a lot of credit to Rebecca Rand Kirshner, Alyson Hannigan, and Amber Benson for creating such a realistic moment. In only a four and a quarter minutes of screen time, the three of them created something very special.
1 see Tesser, A. (1988). Toward a self-evaluation maintenance model of social behavior. Advances in experimental social psychology, 21, 181-227.