Make me a better boyfriend. Please?
April 27, 2009 4:21 AM   Subscribe

Anger Filter: How do I treat my girlfriend better?

So... I've got a temper.

I'd say 90% of the time, I'm cooler than the other side of the pillow (even despite my misanthropic tendencies), but when I get riled up... I get riled up.

I've been with my girlfriend for a little over a year, and we are both very much in love with each other despite being on opposite coasts for the time being. When things are going well, she is the kindest, most thoughtful girl that I've ever spent time with, and I can barely quantify how much she cares about me. I find her adorable and incredibly sexy at the same time.

However (and you knew there was a however somewhere in here), when we argue over one thing for too long, I lose my shit (pardon my Turkish). This has mostly been since we've been apart - going on five months now - and has been over the phone. (Mind you, I've never struck her or done anything quite so drastic.)

It seems like when I blow up, I forget who I'm talking to, and how much I care about her. I'm prone to yelling and using harsh language, though she doesn't deserve it -- which, over the phone, is pretty much the worst thing ever.

The pattern I seem to follow when we argue is an overwhelming reluctance to talk at first, for what I think is a fear of saying something that will adversely affect the debate -- much to my girlfriend's frustrations. I remain levelheaded during this part. As her anger escalates -- or, as the argument begins to snowball into a genuine fight -- I start losing my temper and saying unkind things.

What's wrong with me? What can I do to keep my cool and manage my frustrations yet advance the situation? Please help me love her like she should be loved.
posted by the NATURAL to Human Relations (33 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
First of all, good for you for recognizing something that is or could become a problem and seeking ways to solve it. I believe that maturity is indicated not by the absence of problem behaviors, but by a willingness to recognize them and overcome them.

For what it is worth, my husband and I struggle with a similar issue. Is she the only one who elicits this kind of response from you? Husband and I have found that we are ONLY passionately angry at each other -- no other boyfriend/girlfriend has elicited such intense feelings. I suggest discussing it with her and telling her what you told us. Her knowing you care enough to recognize and resolve it is very important. For us, we have concluded that with intense love and passion come intense feelings, and we have tried to work on channeling it for Good rather than Evil.

Here is where I am going to disappoint you, however, because we haven't actually figured out how to turn intense anger into hot sex...yet. But by discussing it together and agreeing that we should take advantage of our intense feelings and channel them positively, rather than negatively, we felt very bonded and close. I think the discussion itself changed our view of each other and brought us closer. I hope that this will work for you. Sometimes clearing the air and talking about it works wonders.

I wish you the best, and will watch this thread. It is a great question, and I bet you (and I) are not alone. Good luck!
posted by Punctual at 4:39 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't have an answer for you, but what I can say is that it's fantastic that you're aware of this. One of the hardest things can be becoming AWARE that something is wrong; more often, people believe they didn't do anything extreme, or that maybe they did but they were provoked and it's really not their fault because of that. Anyways, it's great that you are aware of this and concerned about it, and I think that may get you very far already in terms of addressing this.

The first thing I would suggest is talking to your girlfriend. Tell her what you wrote here -- so that she, too, knows that you are aware that this is an issue, and so that she knows you want to fix it. Also, talk with her about the challenges of being apart. It's a difficult position to be in, hard on both of you, and so it may be good for you to discuss together how it feels, how each of you is doing, etc. Even though it obviously relates to the anger issue discussion, I think the being-apart discussion is importance as its own issue.

From there, I would consider seeking some therapy. Depending on what your status is, perhaps your employer or school has resources? Certainly schools often have a lot of counseling resources specifically attuned to issues of relationships. This doesn't have to be a big undertaking like a psychiatrist or anything, just a therapist who might be able to assist you with coming up with coping strategies when you are escalating, ways to de-escalate yourself, etc.

Whatever happens, good luck!
posted by davidnc at 4:46 AM on April 27, 2009


This book may help. It's Buddhist philosophy regarding anger and how to control it. Very helpful.
posted by scarello at 4:57 AM on April 27, 2009


Dig into your own feelings. WHY are you angry? It doesn't come from nowhere. There has to be a point in the conversation where it starts to turn from "hey, how's the weather" to "what the fuck?". What's that turning point? There must be something that triggers it- some kind of disconnect between what *you think* she should be saying or believing or doing, and what she actually did. At least as I understand anger- some reality is an affront to what you think should be happening, and you take it personally.
posted by gjc at 5:04 AM on April 27, 2009


You're aware of this tendency to blow up during fights. Even though this seems completely out of your control, recognizing that there's a problem is the beginning of getting it under control. The second step is to recognize the triggers that put you in this place BEFORE this happens.

Does this happen with everyone, or just your girlfriend? If it's just your girlfriend it may be masking deeper structural problems with the relationship.

IANAShrink. Reading books and stuff is all fine and good, but it might be necessary to seek therapy to deal with this.

A lot of times, when you develop a behavior like this, you simply need to be aware at all times that you have the potential to do this, and you can then take precautions to make sure you don't end up getting to this point. But it's not the kind of thing that's easy to work out on your own, or even with the help of the capable and intelligent denizens of askme (puckish and Theloupgarou excepted, of course.)

Go see someone about this problem. Good luck.
posted by orville sash at 5:31 AM on April 27, 2009


I know where you are coming from! My SO winds me up like no-one else can and this has led to some pretty extreme arguments. The usual pattern; discussion of disagreement, taking positions, refusal to change position, frustration & rage. I dont think this is that unusual, destructive and bad though it is.

Nthing; congrats for recognising your behavious pattern and trying to change it. It seems to me that as soon as you get to this point it's then 'just' a matter of getting a grip and not going over the edge.

Raging is immediately gratifying; it makes the depth of your feelings known and it can end the argument. However... as soon as the moment is passed, you fail. You lose respect, the original problem is not resolved, your relationship is damaged. It's forcing yourself to take control at the very moment you want to lose control. Try putting an anger necklace on; do not let yourself get angry whenever you are holding the necklace. Then, when you start to feel angry; hold onto it, hold onto yourself and just dont get angry. Even if it means a jolting change of subject, or bursting into tears, or apologising and backing down. Just dont get angry. Only let go of the necklace when the moment has passed. It's just a daft technique, but it could be quite effective. After a little while you will have evolved ways of dealing with things which dont involve getting angry.

Being separated and trying to maintain a relationship on the phone is frustrating anyway.

Good luck, respect for self-awareness and I hope things work out.
posted by BadMiker at 5:40 AM on April 27, 2009


Try and think about it from her point of view. If my boyfriend acted like that, I would be scared out of my mind. There would certainly be no chance of resolving whatever the problem was because I would be too busy panicking. When you apologize, be sure and emphasize that the problem was with you and that she didn't deserve it. Even if she did do something out of line which made you angry, she didn't deserve that.

Are you sure you aren't using her inevitable fear because it benefits you? You don't have to answer that, but it's something to think about because it's pretty common that people use that to control their partners. One person asks their partner if they could do the dishes since it's their turn, and the other person freaks and starts yelling. The result is that they don't get reminded to do the dishes again and they get out of something they don't like doing. I have no idea if that's you, but it's just one of the possibilities.

Another possibility is that you have a steady anger about something that you aren't addressing. Is there something you aren't comfortable about in the relationship that you haven't expressed or maybe haven't even contemplated? Like people who burst into tears when they spill some juice - it's not really the juice they are crying over, but they are dealing with so much that just a tiny thing pushed them over the edge.

Do you rationalize that behaviour in your mind while you're doing it? Do you temporarily think that she deserves it? If you do, then perhaps it would help to go over those rationalizations while you're calm and really look at what is wrong with them.

It might also help to just think about problem-solving. It could be that you yell because you panic when there is a problem and it's your way of getting out of the situation so you don't have to deal with it.

Those are just some possibilities. I would just like to heartily disagree with the idea that a lot of anger and yelling is a natural consequence of love and passion, despite what was said above. Arguments, and even fights, are inevitable when two people spend so much time together and depend on each other and trust each other, but completely losing one's temper should be a rare occurrence in a healthy relationship.
posted by giggleknickers at 5:47 AM on April 27, 2009 [7 favorites]


Learn to recognise the phase just before the angry phase. When you recognise it, say "Whew, this is getting me worked up. Can we take a break? I'll call you in a couple of hours".

Then think through the issue on your own during those two hours and try and identify what bugs you so much about what has happened so far.

Also, go and learn some conflict resolution techniques, so you can "argue better" and maybe not get to the angry part so often in the first place.
posted by emilyw at 5:55 AM on April 27, 2009


The anger itself is not the problem -- it's what you're doing with it. You somehow have learned a pattern of "win at all costs", which results in you saying unkind things, attacking the person rather than expressing anger and working constructively to solve the problem. The feeling of anger does not give you permission to attack someone else, any more than the feeling of fear gives someone the right to pilfer money to alleviate that fear.

So the self-control part is not about not getting angry, it's about getting angry in the right way. One thing relationship experts suggest is "I statements", where you OWN your anger. For example, "I get really angry when we keep arguing over the same thing for hours." She is not making you angry, you are getting angry for reasons that may have nothing to do with her, and I statements acknowledge this.

It's interesting, though, that you actually HAVE to argue over the same thing for hours. We don't have her side of the story, nor do we understand how she argues. I would guess, however, that she doesn't feel like you're listening to her side of things. Which points again to the possibility that you, she, or both of you have learned a pattern of arguing that means "win at all costs".

I would also point out that Irving Gottmann, a relationship expert who studies how couples argue and how this affects longevity of relationships, would not give a marriage between you much of a chance given how you argue. When you attack the other person and say unkind things, you are expressing contempt toward the other person, which is fatal to a relationship.
posted by lleachie at 5:58 AM on April 27, 2009


Try communicating about frustrating subjects through e-mail and limiting your phone calls to briefer, sweeter subjects. E-mail is great for discussion and debate because you can think BEFORE you write and look back on previous conversations witha cooler head.
posted by haikuku at 6:04 AM on April 27, 2009


Do what I do, stop talking about it. Then go for a walk to cool down. Once you have cooled down and thought up a constructive way to conclude the argument or swallowed your pride and just say hey sweetie I'm sorry it was a stupid argument you were right. Let the girl win dude... some fights are not worth a relationship.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 6:16 AM on April 27, 2009


The pattern I seem to follow when we argue is an overwhelming reluctance to talk at first, for what I think is a fear of saying something that will adversely affect the debate -- much to my girlfriend's frustrations. I remain levelheaded during this part. As her anger escalates -- or, as the argument begins to snowball into a genuine fight -- I start losing my temper and saying unkind things.

Remove yourself from the situation before you get angry. End the conversation when you see this is going to happen. If you need to, just say "I've got to go" and hang up -- it's better for her to be mad at you for hanging up than it is for you to blow up. Afterwards, once you've cooled down, call her back and explain why you hung up. She'll see how you're reacting to your temper problem (with her best interest in mind), and will appreciate it in the long run.
posted by Simon Barclay at 6:19 AM on April 27, 2009


I wonder if your anger is preventing issues from being resolved so when you start arguing it is not just the item you are immediately discussing but all the other little things in the past that still bug you that are getting you worked up. The telephone may be another trigger for you, what about switching to another communication method such as snail mail, email or webcam. Clearly you are having major communication problems because a healthy one year old relationship should not be having that many arguments and your frustrating non-communication + yelling and cursing is not working very well for her.
posted by saucysault at 6:23 AM on April 27, 2009


an overwhelming reluctance to talk at first, for what I think is a fear of saying something that will adversely affect the debate -- much to my girlfriend's frustrations. I remain levelheaded during this part.

If you don't want to talk and fuel the debate, how is it getting to the part where you blow up? Do you regularly refuse to talk when you're disagreeing?

You need to talk this out -- ideally in person -- when neither of you are already upset. And you need to tell her that you've recognised that when an argument starts, you hold stuff in until you blow up, and it's not healthy, so you are going to try ending the conversation when you see that happening because you do not want to get so enraged. Take a break and have the conversation when you've both calmed down -- but you really do have to have the conversation, no fair always postponing it because you will get too angry. This is also something you should warn her of in advance.

And it's great that you've identified the pattern -- much easier to break it now.
posted by jeather at 6:56 AM on April 27, 2009


It's something you really need to get to the bottom of--a therapist would help, but so might an insightful friend who knows you well. So might soul-searching.

In the absence of any other behavioral problem that might contribute to flashes of anger (drug or alcohol use), the first place I'd look, if I were you, is at dear old Mom and Dad, and see if there's something in their relationship that could be causing you, as an adult, to explode in anger toward a woman that you're close to.

Secondly, I just wanted to mention -- if she's getting angrier and angrier and you're remaining cool and level-headed, that can feel withholding to the person you're arguing with. It's insulting, when you're passionate about something and trying to make yourself understood, to be discussing it with someone who gets calmer and more remote. I think it's a common dynamic in male/female conflicts, but for a lot of women it's profoundly unsatisfying and invalidating. You want the other person to care, and you want to to be heard. So while you're exploring what it is that's causing you to explode, you might also experiment with really genuinely listening to her in these moments, really making an effort to understand where she's coming from. I guess the thing is, her opinions are logical, just as logical as yours are, even if they're at opposite ends. If both parties are acting like the other person is batshit insane and dismissing him or her, that's kind of a recipe for explosion on its own.

These are just some thoughts; obviously I don't have anyway of knowing, but in my experience these have been contributing factors.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:19 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


You both need to give yourselves (and each other) permission to say one of two things (depending on which side of the conversation you're on):

"I feel myself about to get irrationally angry right now, so I'd like to end this conversation until I'm feeling more calm and able to talk about it rationally."

"I sense that you are getting very angry right now, so I'd like to postpone this conversation until you're feeling able to talk about it calmly."

You both get angry, and your anger feeds off each other. Whichever one of you realizes that this is happening should identify it and end the conversation until it dissipates. That means walking away, hanging up the phone, etc., until you're both calm.

If you find that you're never able to get back to the conversation without one or both of you going nuts, you have a bigger problem.
posted by decathecting at 7:20 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I just noticed this:

The pattern I seem to follow when we argue is an overwhelming reluctance to talk at first, for what I think is a fear of saying something that will adversely affect the debate -- much to my girlfriend's frustrations.

You need to recognize that in your desire to avoid saying the wrong thing, you're consistently getting yourself to the point where you're saying terrible things to her. Try to give yourself a break and let yourself make mistakes early on in the conversation. Recognize that you won't always say the right thing, but that communicating honestly with her, even if it feels bad in the short term, will improve your communication and avoid the situations that make you both angry.
posted by decathecting at 7:22 AM on April 27, 2009


Try and think about it from her point of view. If my boyfriend acted like that, I would be scared out of my mind. There would certainly be no chance of resolving whatever the problem was because I would be too busy panicking. When you apologize, be sure and emphasize that the problem was with you and that she didn't deserve it. Even if she did do something out of line which made you angry, she didn't deserve that.

This is an important point, too--it's very damaging to your relationship to scare the crap out of her. It sets up a power dynamic where you have a certain power over her because you can be scary, so subconsciously, she might start avoiding things with you, without even being aware of it. And avoidance is an excellent way to erode intimacy, which erodes closeness, then causes distance, and before you know it you've got some serious crap going on. So it's really good you're dealing with this before it does long term damage. Or she might just freak out and let you 'win', because at that point, approaching conflict that way, it's definitely winner/loser conflict, as opposed to 'let's find an answer'. Which is bad for her self-esteem, to in the end feel like she has to abandon a position she believed in.

So yeah, all kinds of things going on and good reasons to do the work of figuring it out. A session or two in couples counseling might be helpful. It sounds like you're serious about each other, you don't have to approach it as Therapy, you can just look at it like doing a little preventative maintenance in effective communication.

Deborah Tannen's book on communication between men and women is really good too, and so is her book on communication between mothers and daughters, she writes a lot about the ways people can misinterpret each other without ever having any idea. It's pretty interesting, just on a human level.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:28 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Finally a relationship-filter question that is right up my alley. I could have wrote this fifteen years ago! I wish I had, because much of the advice here seems to be exactly what I eventually learned to do.

The first issue is that the long-distance thing makes everything more difficult. It creates tension in your life and puts you both on edge. There is really nothing for this, but you need to recognize that when you are feeling worse about the separation, you are going to have a harder time controlling your emotions. There is nothing wrong with this, it is just human nature. However, you should try to be mindful of how you are feeling because it will come out to her and it will almost always turn into a bad thing.
The pattern I seem to follow when we argue is an overwhelming reluctance to talk at first, for what I think is a fear of saying something that will adversely affect the debate -- much to my girlfriend's frustrations. I remain levelheaded during this part.
This part is a massive cause of all the badness that follows. It was part of my guy code long ago and it is a huge mistake. In attempting to avoid drama and bad feelings in this way, you are actually fomenting much worse drama. Conflict and disagreement are not bad! Handling conflict hatefully is bad. When you try to disengage from a volatile topic, this will just drive her crazy and intensify the rift. I must have done this a million times before I figured that out. No matter how foreign it seems to you or how dangerous you think it might be, you have to engage with her on the subjects that cause dissent. Show her your true thoughts and you will likely be surprised that it doesn't create bigger blow-ups at all.

Another thing I have learned is that sometimes I can diffuse a lot of bad feelings by simply making perfectly sure I understand what is causing her to be upset. Ask questions, repeat what you think she is saying and express sympathy for the things that cause her pain. You don't have to give up your point of view, but if you make sure that she knows that you understand hers and feel sympathy for her unhappiness, your life will get a lot easier. We try very hard to "argue" in a format now. The person with the original gripe spends time venting/explaining their issue and the other person mostly listens until the original complaint is fully heard and understood. Then the other person does the same thing. If you take time to really understand what the issue with the other person is, it is easier to keep your temper. When you just have a hot-headed argument, you often find that you are angriest about things that the other person didn't even intend. If you do it more methodically, there is less opportunity for misunderstanding.

Finally, as others have said, when all your best intentions have failed and you are heading into the blow-up zone, stop yourself. Just as others have said, explain that you are losing control of your anger and you are afraid that you will say something hurtful and unhelpful and that you need to stop. In addition, if you add that you love her and you don't want to make things worse and that you are committed to working this problem through with her when you calm down, it will go much better. Then make sure you follow up and come back to the topic later. This is important. If you can't add the part about loving her and promising to get back to her, just say that you are losing control and you have to take a break and end the call.

It would be a good idea to talk to her in a calm moment before you try to make changes so that she understands what is up. Tell her that you hate when you get angry and hurt her feelings and that you really want to learn to stop that. Explain that you plan to disengage and that this doesn't mean that you won't help the solve the problems, just that you lose the ability to do that sometimes. Don't use the timeout as a crutch to avoid discussion, just use it when you can't discuss things rationally. Try to make the timeouts a manageable amount of time like an hour, if you can. If you need longer, try to call in an hour and say that you still feel too off your game to talk and make a time to tackle it the next day or whenever. But let her know where it stands and make sure that you deliver what you promise in terms of follow-up. If you don't, it will blow up even worse one day. Voice of experience here.
posted by Lame_username at 8:09 AM on April 27, 2009 [17 favorites]


I've copied a lot of this from a comment I left earlier in this thread.

My recommendation is a book called Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Sue Johnson. It looks at those moments where you're fighting about something small and irrational, but the emotions in the fight are SO BIG. What's triggering them?

She talks a lot about the pattern where one partner shuts down to try to minimize the damage, and the other becomes increasingly frantic and aggressive to try to get all the issues on the table. This makes the first partner nervous, so they shut down more, which makes the second partner nervous, so they get more frantic, and on and on it goes. She's got a bunch of exercises focused on how to recognize this pattern, stop it while it's happening, and prevent it from happening in the future.

It sounds like you start by shutting down because you're scared by the fight, while she escalates to frantically try to fix the issue and restore connection, and eventually you react like a scared dog, growling and snapping and baring teeth.

This book helps each partner learn to recognize these fights when they are on the horizon, and react in ways that reassure the other partner rather than threatening them. She has exercises designed to establish a firm base of security and love in the relationship so that each small slip is not so scary and fights don't escalate, if they start at all.
posted by heatherann at 8:57 AM on April 27, 2009


Terrible_Llama, could you specify which books you mean too?
posted by BadMiker at 10:22 AM on April 27, 2009


Here's the men/women communication one and this is the one about families, which I clearly remembered as mother/daughter due to my own neurosis. Thanks, Mom.

They're really good. They're packaged a little more self-help-y than they really come across
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:55 AM on April 27, 2009


Let me guess...you are a Taurus?

Astrology aside, this was one of the major problems the worst problem in my last relationship. I am not a phone person. I don't like talking too much on the phone. Later on I realized that it was more of a personal space issue. I felt like I had to answer every time she called or I was gonna get into trouble. That surely didn't help the conversation ensued too often.

Do you feel that way? Do you devote (or at least try to) your full attention to talking to her? Sometimes it's not the lack of communication but what each side expects to get out of the communication that's the problem. Perhaps have a good talk with her, explain what you expect out of phone conversations and ask hers. For me, I am your usual friendly mr.nice guy until I feel cornered and nowhere to go, then I snap. Find out what exactly it is that makes you feel that way. Talk to her about that. Maybe have a keyword she can use when she feels the storm is coming. It's only reasonable to give each other some room to breath when the conversation becomes overheated. (But don't use that as an excuse.)

Good luck and I hope you guys work it out. In a relationship there is often no right or wrong...just your way and her/his way.
posted by jstarlee at 11:08 AM on April 27, 2009


My husband's anger problem got a lot better when I started hanging up on him. He was forced to express himself in another way or I wouldn't listen to him at all. Maybe give your girlfriend permission to do this when you get out of line, since in the throes of anger you're unlikely to listen to her say "please calm down." If she hangs up, you get the message.

Obviously, this isn't a good long-term strategy, but it certainly got his attention.
posted by desjardins at 12:08 PM on April 27, 2009


2nding scarello's recommendation of the Thich Nhat Hanh book. My husband, who regularly yelled and erupted volcanically for the first few years of marriage (god, I'm so thankful I can finally use past tense to describe that!), also recommends Nonviolent Communication.

Another tip that he finds useful is to sort of step mentally outside your own head when you notice the angry feelings and the escalation, and just observe yourself doing it. I think this is supposed to have the effect of detaching the rational you from the angry you, because it's easier to control emotions and the words flying out of your mouth when you're not in the middle of the storm. I can't remember which book that was in. It might have been from the therapist, who was a godsend.

Good luck. It's a hard road, figuring out how to change the pattern, but of course oh so rewarding when it starts to come together and feel natural.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:47 PM on April 27, 2009


Another good book on anger and conflict management is The Anger Management Sourcebook by Schiraldi and Kerr.

It might help for both of you to agree on a "safeword" practice for a while, where either of you can call a halt to a conversation that doesn't feel healthy by citing the safeword. This only works if both parties agree whole-heartedly and refrain from recriminations about using the safeword.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:28 PM on April 27, 2009


Long distance is hard on a relationship. Are there patterns in the part of the conversation before the anger? I was once in a relationship where, after a couple of years of occasional but deeply upsetting fights, I suddenly realized where things escalated from.

In case specifics help: we'd be having a civilized discussion, and then her tone of voice (unbeknownst to her) would made me think she was on the attack, and I would respond defensively. She, not realizing her voice had taken on an edge, would then think I was on the attack and respond defensively. Ensue fight that each of us thought the other had started. Once we realized what was happening, we could both try to be aware of this and halt conversations before they went down that road.

So pay attention to where the fights escalate and try to find any specific patterns to them. Then think about what sets you off and try to cut it off at the source.
posted by bassjump at 3:55 PM on April 27, 2009


Lame_username really knows what he's talking about. Wish I could favorite his comment more than once. It's sage advice.

When you try to stop a conversation/argument that you fear may be difficult from happening, you may indeed be making a genuine effort to avoid hurt. So it's good to understand that your impulse is coming from a good place. However, the message you send is: "This discussion is not worth having. Your feelings are not worth my time and energy to discuss." It only takes one person to assert control and shut a conversation down. Even if you keep talking, withdrawal and disengagement from the topic are essentially the same as the silent treatment, and nothing is more embarrassing and insulting than the silent treatment. It really is a degrading experience, even when you absolutely do not mean it to be, and it QUICKLY creates a much bigger problem than existed in the first place.

When there's a disagreement in a loving, functional relationship, I think that 99% of the time it's due to insecurity or concern for the other person. Really. People take criticism - even the most gentle criticism, even *perceived* criticism - very badly in relationships because they want so badly to be approved of by their partner. And people often offer criticism needlessly when they are insecure about themselves - for example, maybe Person A will criticize Person B for something that doesn't bother Person B, but that Person A is afraid of. And it's very common for partners to worry about each other, and to "try to help" in unhelpful ways.

The upside to all this is that most of the time, if you are TRULY HONEST, whatever argument has come up will cease to exist. Really. Let's say you're acting in some objectionable way. She calls, and is upset about it. You don't want to talk about it. (If you go down this path, she feels ignored, you feel frustrated because you were only trying to prevent trouble, she keeps asking you questions you don't want to answer, you get overwhelmed, she's still getting no response from you, you lose your temper.) You're afraid that her criticism, which may be unfair and/or emotionally charged, will provoke you, and you don't want to lose your temper. You consider refusing to discuss the issue, but you decide to try. She wants to know WHY you are acting the way you are acting. She feels wronged. She feels like you don't care. You think hard. Of course you care, of course you didn't mean to hurt her. You TELL HER THIS. You think out loud about why you acted the way you did. Maybe it's complicated, maybe it's sub-conscious, but I think it's likely to be about fear and rejection in some way. She listens. She realizes that your behavior was in no way meant to hurt you, and was in fact based on your own private worries and concerns. Maybe she still wishes you acted differently, but she forgives you because she understands.

It *is* very presumptuous of me to guess about your relationship and how a phone conversation might go. I'm truly sorry if this is way off the mark or has overstepped any bounds. But I hope it helps. When loving people argue, the reasons are usually so tragically un-malicious, and it's so sad when arguments seem to happen despite our best efforts.
posted by Cygnet at 4:47 PM on April 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


I have a completely different take on this than everyone else based on personal exeprience.

The bit where you say you really don't want to talk about things and end up blowing up after lots of arguing really resonated with me. I used to get furiously angry with my ex and yell and say horrible things, which I have never done before or since. He had me completely convinced that I was a psycho who needed anger management.

What was really happening was that he had NO respect for other people's boundaries, physically, emotionally or sexually. If he wanted something he would nag, belittle, criticize, push, demand, whine, physically grab at me (in a "playful" way that became less playful over time) and generally drive me up the fucking wall. Over time I unconsciously learned that the only way to get him to respect the word "no" was to get angry enough to set him on his ass, metaphorically speaking. After 3 or 4 years of this it meant that my immediate reaction to any kind of pressure from him was a sudden rush of overwhelming anger. At the time neither one of us understood it so I broke it off with him. Haven't even thought of having a temper tantrum since.

I was confused about it for a long time and eventually a friend who knew us both and was a counselor pretty much explained to me that the anger was my response to his attempts to completely co-opt my entire life. He wasn't abusive but very controlling in a childish way. If I was a more accommodating person I'd have ended up isolated form my friends and giving in to his incessant and random demands at the expense of my own wishes.

Anyways, just another perspective. It took me a long time to come to grips with this and years later my ex and I are actually friends . If he starts belittling me, criticizing my friends or choices, ranting or demanding my attention in any way? I say good bye and go home. it's very freeing!
posted by fshgrl at 9:15 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


OK, second shot:

Another perspective -- I was in a similar relationship, not too long ago, but on the other end. We would talk frequently on the phone, often begin to disagree about small things, and it would wind up escalating into full-blown fights. He didn't get angry, so much as irritated -- and would shift into a really condescending mood, where he basically stopped listening to me and start cracking jokes at my expense. And then I'd get irritated in response, and he'd "lose his shit" -- convinced that I was judging him, attacking him, or otherwise jumping the gun, and we'd have awful, interminable fights about who said what to who and why.

I can't count the number of times he would say things like "You make me so mad!" or "I don't understand why you get me so riled up!" I think originally I tried to brush it off and reason with him -- and then eventually I stopped telling him things, because I was sick of getting yelled at. And then we stopped talking to each other and trusting each other, and entered what I think is typically known as "period of seething resentment," where we didn't talk to one another, didn't laugh -- where the fights pretty much took over our romantic life. I literally wasted months of my life fighting with him over little stuff, and wondering what the hell we were doing. And eventually, we broke up.

He never cursed at me, hit me, or verbally abused me. All he did, when he felt like he was losing control of the conversation, was to crack jokes, and get angry. It's amazing how much this gets to you after awhile.

which is just to say -- eventually she WILL break up with you over this.

If you keep that in the back of your mind, it may help to keep your temper in check.
posted by puckish at 6:03 AM on April 28, 2009


I think this is mostly a communication issue. This struck me:

The pattern I seem to follow when we argue is an overwhelming reluctance to talk at first, for what I think is a fear of saying something that will adversely affect the debate -- much to my girlfriend's frustrations. I remain levelheaded during this part. As her anger escalates -- or, as the argument begins to snowball into a genuine fight -- I start losing my temper and saying unkind things.

You both need to read "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus." No, seriously. When there is a problem in a relationship, women tend to want to talk and talk until there is resolution, and it sounds like your gf may also be like this. Men are not as talkative and need some time to withdraw and work through the problem and all the issues on their own before discussing it with their gf.

When you are reluctant to talk, it is probably nerve-wracking for your gf. Her mind is probably racing, she's probably getting anxious trying to guess what you're thinking, and imagining the worst possible scenario. So, as a result, she keeps talking to try to get you to talk and reach a resolution. But you need time to think and process, and the more she talks, the more anxious YOU get until you finally explode.
posted by kookaburra at 12:20 PM on April 28, 2009


Long distance is hard. Have you tried video chatting? It's a little less tense because you can actually see the person's face. It's not the main issue, but a lot easier to engage when you can see each other.

Also, every couple has their own language. How you speak to each other is important, and you seem to be concerned about it. Think of some of the past things you have said. Granted, some of them just simply shouldn't have been coming out of your mouth, but what were you trying to get across? Had you been calm, how would you have phrased it?

My boyfriend and I both have tempers. We figured out a system that works as follows: Anytime there is a criticism expressed, it is expressed lovingly - ie Babe, you forgot to do this again. (obviously the tone is relaxed without a hidden meaning).

Second, once the discussion begins, we practice the "let it out, listen, make sure you understand, re-adress any misconceptions, take a breather, apologize." it is a very active process, until the breather part, in which I would recommend doing something like watching the Daily Show or reading something funny. You can then call her back in a better mood, without having yelled, apologize (she should as well - its less for being at fault and more for letting the other person know you care about their point of view) and then share whatever funny thing you read to get her laughing.

But before you implement anything, talk to her about it. You are a team, so everyone needs to be on the same page for things to run smoothly. Good luck!
posted by anniek at 10:46 PM on April 29, 2009


You mention that you lose your cool when "her anger escalates". Does that mean she's yelling at you? Calling you names? Or is she calm but just perturbed at your point of view?

Food for thought: I've never raised my voice to my wife in 11 years of marriage...during disagreements I never lose my cool. The hottest I ever get is saying, "I'm sorry, I just disagree." (i.e., I've never said, "You're wrong!") In couples therapy, my wife considered this a weakness ("You're passionate about nothing; when I grew up everyone in my house yelled.") My wife on the other hand must raise her voice when she thinks I'm wrong (Remember, she has "passion").

Point and question: Is this behavior bothering her? or just you? Some people's upbringing contained yelling, screaming, and name-calling...with no one ever getting insulted.
posted by teg4rvn at 3:09 PM on April 30, 2009


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