My boyfriend is an emotionally healthy person with situationally appropriate emotional responses! How do I deal with that?
August 18, 2011 1:16 PM   Subscribe

After years of not-quite-emotionally-healthy surroundings, I'm usually tense and awkward around people when they get angry because I'm expecting them to inevitably turn their anger towards me. My boyfriend totally doesn't do that! But now I realize that I don't know what normal people are supposed to do when their S.O. is frustrated.

With working full time, being creative, and moving into a new place together, there's a lot of projects on our plate, and sometimes he gets justifiably frustrated and angry, like real people do. He'll be knee-deep in a personal endeavor, and complications and grumpiness will ensue. Still, he doesn't snap at me or conflate outside distractions with his personal grouchiness.

It's taken me this long (6 months) to get used to it so that I don't get all anxious and weird when he's irritated with something, but now I want to know what the positive things are to do! I don't want to be annoying, but asking about the difficulty is good, right? Like, "What's wrong?" pause for listening, nods "Is there anything that would help?" . And then just...backing off and doing my own thing again? Is that all there is to it?

Help me out, folks. Healthy feelings, healthy responses. That's what I'm aiming for.
posted by sometimes_a_pony to Human Relations (13 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, that's pretty much it. He may not know or be able to articulate what's wrong or what would help. He probably has his own set of responses that grew out of his childhood, and you'd do well to not take those personally (e.g. if he withdraws).

Sounds like you guys are doing fine.
posted by desjardins at 1:26 PM on August 18, 2011

asking about the difficulty is good, right?

Not necessarily. This could easily train him to be irritable more often as a way to get your attention. In general it's best to ignore the behavior you don't want, and reward the behavior you do want.
posted by jon1270 at 1:29 PM on August 18, 2011

That sounds about right. You could also see if he wants to take a break from whatever it is, or you could offer something specific that might help: Hey, do you wanna watch an episode of Arrested Development to take your mind off the stress? or, Would you like some coffee to help you get through the rest of the project?
posted by mlle valentine at 1:31 PM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I guess I didn't really answer the question. Some positive things that many people like when they're grouchy:

distractions like a funny movie or videogames (hey let's go see a movie! works wonders on my husband, especially when it's something I wouldn't normally see mumbleCaptainAmericamumble)
sex (ymmv a lot on this one)
food magically appearing without any effort required on the part of the grouchy person
posted by desjardins at 1:32 PM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Well, is he ranting, or being grumpy? Those are two different things.

When I'm frustrated, especially about work related stuff, all I want to do is rant. The ranting out loud helps me work through it, so I feel like it's useful for me. What I like the most is is when whomever I'm ranting to agrees with me that my rant is about something that is indeed upsetting.


Me: You won't BELIEVE what Mr. Douchebag did today at work/that my dog crapped on the floor to spite me/that I was painting a room and spilled an entire bucket of paint on the rug! [length story ensues] I am righteously angry and/or frustrated!
Significant other, friend, etc: omg! I cannot believe that! I am righteously angry and/or frustrated on your behalf!
Me: I know, right!

Then the conversation can branch:

Me: ... so I'm not sure how to deal with it.
SO/F/etc: Let me offer useful advice.
Me: Yay! Let's all go about our day.


Me: ... so yeah, that sucked.
SO/F/etc: Sounds like it. Hey, wanna go ride bikes?

If he wants help or advice, he'll probably ask for it (though it may be subtle). But mostly, ranters gonna rant and you just need to listen and agree that they are terribly put-upon.

Alternatively, if he's just being grouchy, speaking as the person who is usually the grouchy one in the relationship, I appreciate my SO having a sense of humor about it. One of my exes used to tell me I was being a Rageasaurus (or Wrathadactyl, or other creative angry dinosaur names), which would make me smile, be aware that I was being grumpy, and usually make me launch into an explanation that he would listen to sympathetically. After that the air would be clear and we could go about our day. If his grouchiness is due to something kind of ongoing -- like if he's having continual frustration at work -- if I were him, even if we kind of joked it away initially, I'd think it was awesome of you to check in again a few days later. "Is your boss still being a pain?" or whatever. That way I'd know you actually *did* listen, and you care, rather than just pointing your ear toward me while I grumble.
posted by olinerd at 1:35 PM on August 18, 2011 [11 favorites]

Ask him. Really, he'll have some suggestions.

I tend to encourage my Bear to complain loudly because I think his family (and he) have a very unhealthy pattern of swallowing anger and frustration. We worked this out early in our relationship. But everyone is different in terms of the response they want. Your SO may, for example, just want time alone when he gets cranky.

Good for you for working on overcoming your fear.
posted by bearwife at 1:51 PM on August 18, 2011

Empathy, commiseration. "I'm sorry, honey, that really blows / would piss me off / does suck. I wish I could fix it for you. Can I do anything that would help? Want a beer / dog walk / shag?"

FWIW what you experience is really common. It is very hard to know what to do with an angry person, particularly one not angry with you. My instinct is to either run (thanks, mom!) or diffuse (oh hello middle child) but neither is healthy and I do not do that. I do generally back up a bit so I don't feel threatened, but I remind myself that people are entitled to be angry and it isn't about me, take a deep breath and go for empathy and commiseration like a normal person.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:51 PM on August 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

I do this and feel like this works best for me if my SO/I become grouchy (not at eachother just general frustration): ask if he wants to bounce the problem off you. If he says yes, listen and ask clarifying questions rather than jumping to a solution. Help him use you as a second brain to think things through. If he says no then go about your business and maybe try to take care of something that you know may also be adding stress to his plate (laundry, paying the bills, housework, etc.) if he's still frustrated after a while offer a nice break (tv show, a walk, a meal, etc.) I often won't give up on a problem until I'm totally irate without that suggestion of a break. My SO isn't so much like that so don't press or get upset if he just wants to push through. You two sound fine though and being able to be around stressed/frustrated people without absorbing their emotions will get better with time if you're in a healthy relationship.
posted by boobjob at 1:53 PM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Depends on your boyfriend--my partner responds really well to physical affection so if he looks like he's having a hard time I give him a squeeze or pat his arm or something.

If I don't already know what's wrong, I tend to say something like "having a hard time, there, aren't you". It acknowledges his feelings and if he doesn't feel like talking about it he can just nod or whatever.

I had an ex who responded well to gentle teasing but it would not work so great with my current partner.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:26 PM on August 18, 2011

It sounds like he's not doing anything wrong, but stepping in to caretake will either annoy him more or reward him. I would suggest taking a step back and giving him space to think his way through the problem.

Obviously, if it really seems like there's something you should do (he is trying to open a door with one hand while carrying a teetering pile of books in the other) don't just stand there. Other than that, though, just keep quiet and let him think.
posted by tel3path at 2:31 PM on August 18, 2011

You're responsible for your defusing your boyfriend's anger only when you're the cause of it.
posted by BadgerDoctor at 2:52 PM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Depends on the person. Me personally, I'm a brooder. I want to curl up in my dark cave and nurse the wrongs done to me until I deal with it and move on. So unless I'm specifically mad at you (the person who has wronged me), all I want is to be left alone to nurse my grudge until I'm satisfied that revenge will be mine. Or I let it go, whatever.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:12 PM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

It is more of the grumpy thing, not the ranty thing. Frustrated rants are easier for me to interact with, because they're clear verbalizations of where the anger is coming from. I am tucking away the advice about checking on the rant topic a few days later, though. That makes perfect sense.

The phrasing of "bounce the problem off of me" makes a lot of sense; I'm not stepping in like I can fix everything, but summarizing problems can often help a situation. I also like the varying time-based steps in boobjob's answer. I typically don't feel like a distraction is helpful, but after a while of gnawing on a frustrating problem, a short break does seem like a good idea.
posted by sometimes_a_pony at 10:58 AM on August 19, 2011

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