How to stop emotional "attack" reflex?
July 11, 2011 12:33 PM   Subscribe

How can I be more comfortable with my SO's vulnerability? Whenever he's emotionally open with me, my claws come out! Our relationship is healthy/supportive/friend approved, and I don't want to lose him over this.

I am becoming more comfortable with my own vulnerability (yay therapy with snarky therapist!) but the more my live-in SO opens up to me, the less I think of him. I have recommened SO seek therapy when he's having particularly rough patches (he's on anti-depressants, mom left when he was 3, etc) but I don't think his expectations of support from me are unreasonable. Whenever he complains about his day or gets teary or whiny I just think, "shut up already!" Cognitively I know being vulnerable is part of being in a relationship, but emotionally I still want to attack him whenever he's let his guard down.

I was raised to respect strength and exploit weakness in everyone. My family members are all aggressive, both personally and professionally. In my house, if you weren't defensive, you got hurt badly. My mother would scream at me until I went to bed, then would sometimes wake me up in the middle of the night to keep yelling at me for something like forgetting to wear deodorant or getting a "B" on a test. You had to watch what you said/did all the time, lest you get smacked/yelled at/whatever fun Mommy Dearest could dream up.

I love my boyfriend, but me thinking he's "weak" has killed the passion and has me fantasizing about living with Chuck Norris. I am pretty sure leaving would be a mistake, so how I can I chill the frick out when my SO needs support?! I've left men before because I've thought they were "too nice/whiny/needy" before, so I see a pattern.

Thanks much.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like you grew up in a classic emotionally abusive household and that now you abuse your boyfriend. Suggest you get help for this problem.
posted by zia at 12:46 PM on July 11, 2011 [44 favorites]

I have this same impulse, and what works for me is to shut my mouth as much as possible and rely on physical demonstrations of support and love for my partner.

I also have let him know that while I am willing to support him when he's upset, it's not my strong suit and I would appreciate it if he'd spread the load around to other friends and other means of expression. I don't consider whining or venting to me as a last resort, but I can't be the default, either, just because we live in the same place and I'm around. It's too stressful for me.

His expectations aren't out of line, but I can't go back and re-do my childhood, so we have to compromise on this particular issue. I suspect you might have to have the same conversation(s).
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:46 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Can you try to approach his problems and concerns constructively? I am not a warm-and-fuzzy type but find that a lot of my friends are comfortable talking to me about their problems because I listen carefully to what they say and offer concrete advice, even though I'm not too good at showing sympathy in a more huggy way. Maybe if you focus on ways that he can become less stressed and upset going forward, you can take your mind off feeling like he is too weak, and take steps to make the situation better at the same time.
posted by mlle valentine at 12:49 PM on July 11, 2011

It's good that you're thinking "shut up", rather than saying "shut up". It shows you have some measure of control over your emotional reaction to another. Next time you have that impulse, try taking a deep breath and a metaphorical step back, and saying something supportive instead. Or doing something, if that is more your style.

As you're already in therapy, mention this impulse to your therapist. However, you might want to consider mentioning to your therapist that it might be an idea to try a different therapeutical approach. Being snarky when you're vulnerable is perhaps not a great way for you to learn how to be nicer to others when they're being vulnerable.
posted by Solomon at 12:52 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

You've told us what you think in these situations, but what do you actually do?

Your impulse is to attack, but you're not following that impulse, are you? If not, what specifically are you doing instead?
posted by tel3path at 12:53 PM on July 11, 2011

Being excessively whiny or negative would be a turn off to most people. There's nothing wrong with wanting a partner that's more stoic and solution-orientated towards life's little issues. Your dude may be great in every other way, but he probably won't turn into some grim, gritty hardass that only responds with grunts and one-liners.

That said, opening up to someone is the opposite of weak. Especially if he understands how you view it or knows about your childhood. Whatever else, he's showing you he has the strength to be honest and open in a way many men can't or don't.
posted by anti social order at 1:01 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

You don't need a snarky therapist, that's just more of the same for you.

You didn't grow up in a household that was "competitive and aggressive." Nope. You grew up in a household that was abusive.

The sooner you start telling yourself the truth about your upbringing, the better.

You've got a long road ahead of you if you want to overcome the hurtful behaviors and dynamics you've been conditioned to accept and propagate. It's a lot of work. It can be done.

Get yourself a new therapist. You don't need anyone modeling bad behavior for you, you've had enough of that already.

Or, y'know, you can keep on down this same road. lots of people hurt each other and pretend it's OK. They get by.
posted by jbenben at 1:07 PM on July 11, 2011 [34 favorites]

I was raised to respect strength and exploit weakness in everyone.

You will find it difficult to sustain relationships using this model. It can be done, but a large number of people look to relationships as a place to let themselves rest and relax. They will be desirous of conditions that allow themselves to do that. This will necessarily cause people to look to people who can provide that for partners.

More importantly, you need to get effective therapy as soon as possible to find some relief from a past that was obviously personally quite painful. Seek a different therapist in your area.

As for how to handle your boyfriend, I'm not sure what to do. I agree with Zia, that you are quite possibly heading down the road where you could abuse others. Most who do suffered their own abuse as a child.

A snarky therapist might not be the best for you.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:27 PM on July 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

I am becoming more comfortable with my own vulnerability (yay therapy with snarky therapist!) but the more my live-in SO opens up to me, the less I think of him.

These two are connected. We see our partners as reflections of ourselves. Your aggression towards him is sparked by your discomfort with your own vulnerability. It probably has very little to do with his actual character.

Which is not to say that maybe you could find a guy who never showed his vulnerability in a way that would trigger your defense mechanisms. But it's orobably a good idea to learn how to separate yourself from others.
posted by yarly at 1:32 PM on July 11, 2011 [7 favorites]

I don't know if this works the same way for you, but I can tell you what sometimes happens with me.

When I was growing up I was raised in a very strict way with very rigid principles. I also have a much younger sibling from the same parents, and they raised him without any of that. So, I ended up watching him do many things that I would have received excessive, bizarre, and frightening consequences for, and saw him receive indulgent smiles from my parents. This created a large amount of hatred, disgust, contempt, and rage towards him, at the time. He is a brat, he is worthless, he is spoiled, etc.

But did I really believe that there was anything so wrong with (most of) the things he was doing? Like, I don't know, deliberately "decorating" the garage with muddy handprints. Or, later, drinking and doing drugs in high school. Yes, it's kind of unwise, but was it really something I held people in *contempt* for doing, normally? No, it wasn't. I was mad because it was unfair. I was mad because I would have liked to live that way, without constant punishment and stress, and it was withheld from me. And then, once I went to college, and shortly afterwards became independent, I did get that for myself. I lived the way I wanted, and nobody could tell me what to do, judge me or punish me. And then I was a lot less angry, and resented my sibling a lot less.

And I find it's been the same in my adult life too. When I've been broke or been otherwise in a tight spot, and have felt like people around me (both friends and strangers) were inconsiderate or uncaring, I've found myself thinking, "well, fuck you too then" to humanity in general, and stopped feeling like I wanted to help anyone. When I've felt cared about by friends and strangers, I find myself volunteering more, donating more money, etc.

So if there's anything that resonates with you about this, I would say -- it might help if you can get yourself into a position (which you're already working towards with the therapy) where you can be more vulnerable, more often, with more people, and see yourself consistently supported. Where you can and do whine and complain at times and people are okay with that. Then you may not resent it like this when others want to do it.
posted by Ashley801 at 1:35 PM on July 11, 2011 [10 favorites]

I've found that I picked passive "weaker" partners because they were less threatening and wouldn't steal control from me. I ended up being the chronic supporter, which seems all longsuffering and nice until I realized it was driven by a need to maintain control. When the relationship crumbled it was super easy to blame him for not stepping up and doing XYZ, or helping me out how I needed when I had a hard time. It's kind of a fake-out though, because I didn't pick the sort of person who would "step up", anyway, and then I trained him to be passive by enabling his behavior.

Maybe this guy just isn't right for you because you are prioritizing a safe and non-threatening dynamic instead of someone who is capable of caring for you when you are vulnerable - especially if that means some tough love. Do you trust your partner to do that? Maybe your guy is right for you, and you should look very carefully at what part you play in the dynamics of the relationship and how you reward/punish him for his vulnerability. Are you encouraging him to seek therapy and open up on one hand, and then on some primitive level jealous or resentful of the safe environment he has to do just that?

How does the idea of dating someone with his shit together and doesn't need therapy strike you? (Thinking about this and my reactions are what helped unlock my passive-guy pattern. I realized I was afraid that someone like that would see right through me, and I would be discarded.)
posted by griselda at 1:54 PM on July 11, 2011 [13 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
When my SO is being open/vulnerable I often don't DO much except steam inside. Sometimes I withdraw to another room or go for a walk after offering whatever advice I can think of and/or back-rubbing. I'm proud of myself for not clawing into SO yet, but it's lurking! I'm trying to find other stuff to do to distract myself in these situations.

It would also be helpful to hear more about how people explain these impulses to their loved ones, ala The Young Rope-Rider's answer. SO can tell something is amiss when I get in these moods, which just makes him clingier. I do my best to explain that I'm just dealing with my own junk and it's not his fault, but it doesn't soothe him.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:45 PM on July 11, 2011

Oh, Hon. You sound resigned that you will always feel this way and have these responses to your boyfriend, and that's just not true.

A good cognitive behavioral therapist can help you reframe and redesign your inner landscape into something healthier. Once you change the programming from your childhood, you have to make excuses to your boyfriend or hide your "real" feelings because you will literally have nothing shameful going on once you work this out with a professional.

Once you are in therapy, you can honestly tell your bf, "Hey bf! Sorry about my reaction there. Good thing I am working on eradicating these feelings and behaviors in therapy so we can have a happy life together!"

CBT. Don't let the awful programming you received growing up control you. You do have a choice.
posted by jbenben at 3:30 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oops. I meant to write "won't have to hide..."
posted by jbenben at 3:32 PM on July 11, 2011

Realize that you are impervious to verbal abuse in many ways because that's what "normal" is to you, but your boyfriend is not - and you are in many ways trying to break him down, just as you were broken down by your parents, psychologically.

You are in this relationship to be his S.O., not his therapist, parent or abuser. Whenever you're irked at him and he sees it, maybe you should tell him you're trying to undo years of negative reinforcement and abuse by refusing to repeat it because you realize that's not a loving behavior. This is a chance for both of you to get over your difficult pasts together - but yeah, therapy.

Perhaps you could set aside a special time/day to be vulnerable with each other specifically? With a scheduled time to vent and share your frustrations with each other in a neutral setting (i.e., you being willing to open up to him, and vice versa), perhaps some of the frustration/need to attack will abate, because you will be surprised by it less and know when to expect it?

And yes, like jbenben I highly recommend CBT as well.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 3:34 PM on July 11, 2011

SO can tell something is amiss when I get in these moods, which just makes him clingier. I do my best to explain that I'm just dealing with my own junk and it's not his fault, but it doesn't soothe him.

Of course it doesn't; saying it's not his fault is a reflex "there, there" response, and when you say it to him you're lying. There's no getting away from that; your family history aside, you openly admit here that it's his behaviour that sets off the mood changes he's sensing.

Is it entirely his need for support that's affecting you at these times, or is there also an element of your defences being triggered due to him having a degree of insight into your lack of control and vulnerability when faced with something that causes an emotional response?

The opposite mindset from that which you describe yourself as having grown up with is built around empathy. Empathy is what your SO is looking for from you he's down, and empathy is almost certainly what he's trying to offer up when he knows something's wrong with you.

It may sound like a fluffy, "weak" emotion, but at it's core empathy is a challenging, frightening thing to truly cultivate. Caring for people when they're vulnerable inevitably exposes us to the idea of having that same care offered back to us; accepting care means relinquishing self control and exposing our own vulnerability.

Practical advice; make a conscious effort to face up to and assess your own emotional responses in these situations, rather than peremptorily judging him in order to suppress them. You might be able to untwist your conception of weakness and accept its place in your own character, and you may even end up genuinely wanting to offer him some support with his problems rather than platitudes.
posted by protorp at 5:09 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think the OP has made it clear that they don't act in a verbally aggressive or abusive way.

Some (hopefully) practical advice:

When I explain the stress and difficulty of dealing with these emotions to my partner, I've had good luck comparing it to things that are hard for him.

For example, it is very easy for me to read and write, but it is very difficult for him. Reading a book takes him much longer than it would take most people. I accommodate this in various ways--when we I want him to know something about pregnancy or birth, I read it out loud to him. I can just send him an article, and he can read it, but it takes a huge amount of effort and that stresses him out, so I adjust my expectations.

I use things like that to help him empathize with the difficulty I have in dealing with strong negative emotions. I can deal with it and comfort him, just like he is able to read, but it can be overwhelming and difficult and if it's not important, it might be worth finding an alternative instead of having me struggle through it.

I also do a "time-out" where I simply tell him that I need a break immediately. I then go take a walk or a shower or something that takes the pressure off. If he gets upset about that, well, that's kinda too bad.

I'm sure this makes me sound like a horrible partner, but I've been through multiple funerals, a job loss, and various other stressful situations and was able to be supportive of my partner throughout. However, not going to be a martyr and be miserable, stressed, guilty, and resentful so that he can complain about a mildly difficult workday. He just has to find another way to deal.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:11 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe you're just a hard-ass--not very sensitive or tolerant, both tough and thick-skinned. Maybe you'd better with a man who is stoic and strong and silent.

The default position of those posting here, yourself included, is that there's something wrong with you if you are, and that's bullshit.

I can't stand clingy, sensitive, vulnerable women-so I don't date them. Maybe what you're finding out is that you can't stand clingy, sensitive, vulnerable men. A lot of women feel that way. You wouldn't be the first

if you're a shark, find another shark.
posted by 3rd son of Adam and Eve at 7:12 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Let's deconstruct this a little: "being vulnerable is part of being in a relationship". This isn't untrue, but. The whole 'being vulnerable' thing is a question of sharing, which isn't the same as just saying emotional stuff in someone else's presence, and that someone else making proper noises. I mean, that's not what it's about at all.

Like, for instance, I am (I think it's fair to say) a highly empathetic person, especially so with people I love, and though I have trouble expressing feelings, I am really good at tuning into others'. However, I too get frustrated with whiny/negative people, though the reason is that they're projecting negativity I can't escape. Sharing isn't about them projecting negativity and you 'mopping up' (even ideally). It's not them going 'waahh' and you always being in a position of saying 'there there'. That's not vulnerability; if it successfully worked, it'd be codependence.

Sharing is taking down barriers and being honest. It doesn't have to be positive emotion, and it doesn't mean that support is always 'there there'. It's more raw and genuine than that. It means exposing your own real reactions just as the other person exposes theirs. Therefore, by suppressing your responses and simply 'bearing it' and not blowing up, you're inhibiting your intimacy and (as you said) your sexual passion as well (because the two go together). The repression is strong, and inevitably spreads and gets pervasive. If you 'allow' him to be honest about his feelings, you're not doing him a favor or sharing anything if you are not also honest about yours. You're simply tolerating someone, like people may tolerate horrid in-laws, say. That is the opposite of intimacy.

This isn't to say you should yell at him to 'shut up'. It's not 'either silence, meaningless platitudes and support, or yelling stop'. Complaining isn't being intimate: it's complaining. Likewise, silence isn't intimate: it's silence. Both are actually forms of emotional passive aggression in an intimate setting in different ways, so both can become quite destructive. If you're silent long enough about your feelings, its as bad as yelling 'shut up'. If someone is always complaining, it's emotional warfare and can be damaging in itself. A bunch of men (and some women) seem to think that 'being tough' is about projecting a shiny metal shell where everything slides right off and you never have to worry about consequences, but if you think about it, that's being delusional, not tough. Actions have consequences. Whether or not you're aware of them, everyone gets their feelings hurt sometimes. Some people are so weakened for one reason or another that they cannot deal with these feelings at all, and thus must reject them. 'I am tougher than that', they say. 'This can't touch me'. But it's always a lie. Always. There's no such thing as 'toughness' that exists through denial and aggression; if you think about it, you'll see why if you observe really angry boys. They have the pose down pat-- the puffed out chest, the ego, the claims of invulnerability. But they're boys. It's a game. When these boys grow up, it becomes less obvious of a game, but a game it remains for everyone who plays it. So: step 1. Realizing that everyone is weak.

Step 2: realizing that strength isn't the same as expression. You can be strong and stoic or strong and expressive; weak and stoic, or weak and expressive. Some people do express weakness by projecting their problems and being emotionally needy. Some people simply open themselves up to those they love and show them their truth. These things are not the same. To show someone your truth, you must genuinely risk rejection. You risk everything. Someone you love can destroy you. That's why real vulnerability is strength, and intimacy makes you stronger.

Intimacy is basically one thing: honesty. It's not 'touchy-feely', alien, or weird. Empathy is also simple: it's understanding. When you take the time to understand someone-- you don't have to approve, or feel sorry, or feel anything; you are simply becoming aware of why and how they feel the way they do. This may be achieved through questions, observation and patience, and requires only a lack of projection. You have to stop thinking, clear your mind, and genuinely pay attention to the other person. What are they really saying? What's really wrong? Once you understand, that's it. You don't have to express any feelings: you've arrived at empathy. Combined with honesty that is non-aggressive-- that is, an expression of feeling that is neither 'weak' nor 'strong', simply true rather than a power-play-- then you have achieved enough intimacy to open the door to vulnerability.
posted by reenka at 7:42 PM on July 11, 2011 [9 favorites]

It helps to have good role models. Your parents aren't one, but maybe you can find a couple you know, or some good friends, who have a relationship that looks like what you want. I find that it's a lot easier for me to be sweet and romantic because I know what that sounds like - I'm familiar with poetry, I have a repertoire of sweet phrases, and when I want to say something romantic I can stop and think, "which of these expresses what I want to say right now?"

I think you need help with knowing how to think about it when he's being vulnerable with you; and that really should be something a therapist should give you. Some places to start would be trying to empathize and think about what's nice when someone's in that situation - "I know how it feels to have a hard day and just want a hug, hon" "You always make me tea after a hard day - would it help if I made tea for you?" or even third-hand knowledge like, "I've heard that some people just want to vent and it makes them feel better - maybe I'll let him finish and then ask if he wants advice, rather than jumping right in to it."

That's a lot harder to do when you're used to suppressing your own desire for affection and reassurance - when you try to empathize with him you end up thinking about how YOU would never dare to show that kind of feeling. But, learning to empathize with him can also help you come to terms with your own wants.
posted by Lady Li at 10:22 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why do you love your SO?

I can understand that because of how you grew up, love is not really equated with being supportive. But do you love him enough to transcend that? Is he the one who you can transcend that with?

I would focus on the parts of him that you do like rather than the parts of him that you don't. If your bond is strong enough, you will be able to overlook his vulnerabilities or re-contextualise them as being a part of who he is and thus something able to be supported.

Also, you don't attack him - you feel like you're on the verge of attacking him - there's a difference. Try to stop yelling at yourself internally for things you haven't actually done.
posted by mleigh at 12:41 AM on July 12, 2011

I love my boyfriend, but me thinking he's "weak" has killed the passion and has me fantasizing about living with Chuck Norris. I am pretty sure leaving would be a mistake, so how I can I chill the frick out when my SO needs support?! I've left men before because I've thought they were "too nice/whiny/needy" before, so I see a pattern.

I don't necessarily think it would be a mistake to leave, he has significant needs that you are not equipped to meet. Would he want to be with you if he knew you thought he was weak for showing any kind of vulnerability? I personally would not want to be with you under those circumstances, but I can't answer for him.
posted by crankylex at 7:06 AM on July 12, 2011

I also don't think it would be a mistake for you to leave. Not for your benefit, but for his. I think he deserves better, and you need to try dating a jerk for a while. Not trying to be mean but based on my experience:

1- I dated men who were vulnerable, emotional, weak, whatever you want to call it. It annoyed me so I gave them a hard time about it and eventually broke up with them.
2- I eventually came to terms with the fact that I had been a complete asshole, so I went to therapy for a while and I vowed in my next relationship I would be more vulnerable, emotional, honest, etc.
3- The guy I dated next was the insensitive asshole who was annoyed by my newfound open, vulnerable approach and made it obvious when he was annoyed or didn't care about what I was saying to him.

From #3 I learned that it actually does feel a lot better to be that way- nice, vulnerable, whatever you want to call it. I also learned exactly how painful and damaging it is when someone has a problem with you being that way. Even if you manage to hold your feelings in, I imagine he can still sense the tension and perceives that you are annoyed by his neediness. That is a shitty way to feel. Now that I've been treated that way, I'm ready to go back to the nice guys. If you are so annoyed by him, you should let him go so he can find someone who appreciates his qualities more. And so you can figure your own shit out without having to take it out on him.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 12:48 PM on July 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

I agree with crankylex, but I can't answer for your SO, either. I will say, though, that this really hit a nerve with me, as your reaction to your SO sounds very much like how my (now estranged) wife responded to me. In the early part of our relationship I was vulnerable with her and I opened up to her freely. It took me some time to realize that she was building up resentment toward me and at some point she started displaying open contempt toward me in certain situations. I tried changing how I related to her, but it just got worse and worse over time. I suppose it’s apparent that my level of resentment rose, as well.

A few years ago, I might have been more understanding with someone who had experienced the abuse you endured in your formative years, but reading "the more my live-in SO opens up to me, the less I think of him," just makes me want to say "shut up already" to you! Perhaps he is clingy, and of course that's not particularly attractive, but judging from your own words, you have precious little tolerance for any sign of "weakness." And your words are very revealing. You yourself say that you "don't think his expectations of support from me are unreasonable". And then there’s, "Cognitively I know being vulnerable is part of being in a relationship, but emotionally I still want to attack him whenever he's let his guard down." I suppose it's apparent to you how corrosive that is or you wouldn't have written it. The one that really gets me, though, is "I'm proud of myself for not clawing into SO yet, but it's lurking!" Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back for this great achievement! Do you also congratulate yourself for not robbing a bank to pay your credit card debt or not running down pedestrians when you’re late for work? What this suggests to me is that you’ll find some way to rationalize your actions when you do inevitably lash out at your SO (I mean, he’s got it coming for being so weak, doesn’t he?)

Look, I'm not trying to invalidate your emotions, but fantasizing about living with Chuck Norris makes me very skeptical that you and your SO can bridge this enormous gap. I’m certain he can feel that you're steaming inside (or will soon enough, anyway). You need to resolve this as soon as possible because it will undoubtedly come between you.
posted by Dead Man at 9:42 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

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