You probably know Mr. Snuffleupagus as the heavy-lashed wooly mammoth from “Sesame Street.” He’s the lovable, large, brown creature who swings his trunk to and fro with every step, spends his days hanging out with Big Bird and enjoys nothing more than a bowl of spaghetti. I, however, happen to regard Snuffleupagus as my personal relationship savior.
How could a Muppet be so important to the health of my relationship? Before you go thinking we’re furries or into some kinky Muppet action, let me explain: Snuffleupagus is our safe word. My boyfriend and I use it when we’ve gone too far—not in the bedroom, but in our fights.
The need for a safe word arose while we were temporarily living with his parents and dealing with the stress of the situation. I won’t go into too much detail, but the dysfunction among his family members took its toll on our relationship, and soon we reached a point where we were arguing several times a day. Every comment was an attack and every action was an argument trigger. It brought a whole new meaning to the phrase walking on eggshells.
It didn’t take much to get an argument started. A snide remark from his mother or the umpteenth instance of blatant favoritism for my boyfriend’s sister over him and we’d start taking our frustrations out on each other.
Within minutes, we’d lose sight of what we were even arguing about, the catalyst long forgotten. All I knew was that I was hurt, I was justified and I wasn’t backing down. All my boyfriend knew was that needed to defend himself and he wasn’t backing down, either.
Every couple experiences these epic blowouts from time to time but usually, they’re few and far between. We were having them daily—sometimes even more than once a day.
It was killing us.
After what seemed like a week filled with bickering more than anything else, our endless argument reached its peak in a Carl’s Jr. parking lot. We sat in the parked car going round and round, rehashing issue after issue after issue.
Finally, the hellish carousel of bickering wound down out of pure exhaustion. I was drained, he was frustrated and we’d accomplished nothing once again.
In the quiet reflection time that followed our yelling, we realized this needed to stop. For real. We needed a way to stop getting sucked into the same old fight, a way to buy ourselves enough momentary awareness to quell our emotions, realize the futility of taking out our frustrations on each other and drop it while we still had a chance.
There, in the Carl’s Jr. parking lot, we decided to implement a safe word.
We knew our safe word couldn’t be just any word. It needed to be something that: A) Wasn’t in our everyday vocabulary and B) Was humorous enough to cut through our feelings of hurt, frustration and anger to reach our more rational side.
Instantly, I knew there would be no better safe word than Snuffleupagus, the name of the soft-spoken, spaghetti-craving mammoth from “Sesame Street.”
It certainly fit the bill—I couldn’t remember the last time Snuffleupagus came up in everyday conversation and I challenge anyone to utter the word during a fight and remain furious.
Snuffleupagus was also something of an inside joke between my boyfriend and I while we lived in South Korea. As the only foreigners in our area, not a day passed by where children and teenagers didn’t scream “Hello!” at us, only to burst into giggling fits as they ran away. The cute greetings soon lost their novelty as we couldn’t so much as walk to the grocery store or ride the subway without schoolchildren screaming “Hello!” at us. An expat friend told us his preferred response to these incidents was to simply give a wide smile, wave and say, “Snuffleupagus!”
From that point on, “Snuffleupagus” was my boyfriend’s greeting of choice for particularly rambunctious students.
And now, it would be our go-to time out signal.
The rules of Snuffleupagus were simple: If we found ourselves starting up an old argument, one of us could invoke the Muppet’s name to remind the other of that we didn’t need to rehash an old quarrel.
By the laws of Snuffleupagus, the other person needed to respect the safe word and shelve the argument. It didn’t mean we would get to cop out of arguments without addressing the issue—rather, Snuffleupagus lent us the time and space necessary to separate facts from feelings to see what was really happening. Later, we could talk about whatever we were at each other’s throats over—dirty dishes, a misinterpreted comment, crazy family members—with clearer heads.
And we found that by walking away and letting our hot heads cool, we saw arguments in a whole new light. Fights where I was dead sure that I was right seemed trivial once my emotional impulse had passed. And rather than getting defensive, my boyfriend could head to his man cave for a much-needed cool down.
We were learning to fight smarter.
With the help of Snuffleupagus, I learned I didn’t need to try to win every argument. We both learned how to stop letting arguments evolve into blowouts that covered every issue in our five-year relationship. These lessons have changed our fighting patterns entirely, to the point where arguments rarely reach heights that would require Snuffy’s help.
I’m hardly saying we don’t fight anymore—of course we do. We have a safe word, not a magic spell. But what Snuffleupagus did was break our bad habit of rehashing issues ad nauseum.
I’m not sure why Snuffleupagus is more effective than actually saying, “We already had this fight and it sucked, remember? I love you so let’s stop arguing.” Maybe it’s simply a matter of pride—there’s less to swallow with a safe word. But regardless of why it works, I’m just grateful it does.