Am I turning into an emotional abuser?
February 23, 2012 10:12 AM   Subscribe

Am I repeating my abusive relationship? I had an extremely triggering fight with my boyfriend tonight, but he was the one describing me as "violent."

First off, the particulars. Five year relationship with bf after 14 year extremely emotionally abusive relationship/marriage. Tons of therapy for me. Relationship with the bf has had it's ups and downs, but on the whole solid. We both quit smoking three weeks ago, which has led to a lot more fighting and nastiness than is typical for us. Until tonight, we had both agreed that we would understand that that was part of quitting and apologize and make up and let it go.

Tonight he did something very inconsiderate which he has done several times before, and which we have talked about several times before. The thing he did affects my work life, which I am extremely protective of. Not like a "Get me fired" type thing, but a "Mess up my entire day" thing.

When I found out, late tonight, after a long and stressful day, that he had done this thing, I was very angry. I said "That was extremely inconsiderate" and "That fucks with my world" in what he described as a very belligerent tone of voice. To be clear, these are the worst things I did during the fight.

He described my reaction as "violent" and extremely out of line. This set off all kinds of abuse triggers for me, as my ex-husband was often really violently emotionally abusive and unreasonably angry at the smallest thing.

I immediately apologized and said it didn't matter what justifications I had for my anger (quitting smoking, that the things I said were true, that we had talked about this issue several times before, that it would have taken the push of a button from him for it not to happen) were of no matter, that the fact that he had that reaction were all that mattered. I said it was an extremely serious thing for him to say to me as a victim of emotional abuse, and that I was taking it extremely seriously, and that it would never happen again.

Now he's sound asleep and I'm up really late triggering and writing this question. Was I emotionally abusive in my behavior? If so, one time is the only time, and I need to get more therapy immediately. Or is he overreacting and using my triggers of emotional abuse as a rhetorical tactic against me?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like he's overreacting, but I'd hesitate to say that he's using anything as a "tactic" against you. It sounds like you are both touchy and stressed out. You snapped at him, he snapped back at you.

If this is the first time this has happened in 5 years, I would not be especially concerned unless it happens again when things are more normal. You can and should, of course, have a talk about how it triggered you once everything is calm and well, but this doesn't seem like abuse territory to me so much as bad day territory.
posted by zug at 10:23 AM on February 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think more therapy would be helpful, although don't think that by saying that I am saying that you were emotionally abusive. Instead, I think that it would be valuable to have one or two visits with a therapist who knows you in order to process what happened and discuss a few things, including your fear of becoming abusive and coping strategies to deal with your nicotine withdrawal and this particular recurring conflict with your partner.

I think it's also important to point out that he might have been overreacting or being a jerk, but that does not mean that he is necessarily using your triggers purposefully, as a tactic. I sympathize with your fears about this, having spent a long time around manipulative people, but sometimes an asshole move is just an asshole move, not part of a bigger strategy.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:25 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think anyone can judge whether your behavior was abusive or not - the words you said don't set off any warning bells for me, but your body language and tone are probably more of it and we can't see that.

However, if you're up all night freaking out about this, I think that going back into therapy is not a bad idea. Not necessarily to "fix" you and prevent you from being emotionally abusive, but to give you an objective ear to talk this sort of thing through and a way to learn some different strategies both for having emotional discussions with your partner and for processing this sort of triggered freakout (which sounds both totally warranted and really, really not fun.)
posted by restless_nomad at 10:26 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

the only thing you said that i might think is out of line is 'fucks with my world'- that depends on your relationship and whether you use the word 'fuck' lightly or not. i sometimes do so lightly, and when i talk to people who don't, i often find myself in awkward situations where I think the response is being blown out of proportion but since for them it's such a heavy word, their response is normal.

how often does he use this word? if not often, then he might be sensitive to it.

you can probably chalk 75% of this off to withdrawal symptoms. your apology seems a bit extreme and more a result of your victim of emotional abuse issues, unless he only uses the word 'fuck' in heavy situations.

of course it's hard to evaluate much of this concretely unless we know what the fight was about.
posted by saraindc at 10:27 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

If after five years he has never used your triggers against you before, he was likely referring to how he actually felt at the moment. But context and tone are so important to answering whether you were actually out of line or not. Check in with him tomorrow, or over the weekend, to see if he still feels that you were out of control. And I would trust the second answer, whatever it is. Five years is long enough for him to know what is in and out of character for you, and a few days of cooling off is enough for him to not be speaking from a defensive place.

(My instinct is that you were out of line but not violent, and you're both very touchy right now. Which happens.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:27 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's not emotional abuse to be upset and angry. When bad things happen or we feel like we're treated wrongly, it's natural and even right to be upset and angry.

Your boyfriend's reaction suggests that your anger bothered him a lot, which is also natural.

None of what you've told us justifies the conclusion that you (or he) has been emotionally abusive. Maybe you (or he) have, but I suspect you should just think of this as another little episode of touchiness and anger that's come with quitting smoking, and in the grander scheme of things will be some part of any relationship you have.

You probably don't need to treat this as metastasis of the cancer of abuse. Just strive to be kind and understanding to him and to yourself.
posted by grobstein at 10:27 AM on February 23, 2012 [7 favorites]

I know nothing about this situation except what you've told us. But from the limited information you've given, this sounds like it could be classic gaslighting. "Violent" is a rather strong word. Again, though, it could be a one-off. I'd need more details - so would you - to know for sure.
posted by dekathelon at 10:28 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

The short answer is there's really no way for us to know if this one incident means you are now an emotional abuser. However, from what you've said, it doesn't sound like you were being emotionally abusive at all-- it sounds like you were very frustrated and angry and you voiced those emotions to your partner, albeit, maybe a little more harshly than he deemed necessary.

It doesn't mean you shouldn't have said those things-- it means you (may) need to consider how you are saying things. Regardless of your history of abuse and your extremely understandable aversion to being emotionally abusive yourself, as a human being with feelings you are allowed to voice those feelings to people with whom you are in a relationship. I don't know if you need therapy; that's not really something we can determine from this snippet. If you have the means, I can't see any harm in it; even just a regular (monthly?) checkup with a therapist might be beneficial to have the opportunity to say "is this normal?", etc.

Final thought, I agree that there might be some creedance in his saying that you were "violent" and "out of line" because he knew they would invoke triggers for you. Maybe he just wanted to weasel out of being the person in the wrong.
posted by Flamingo at 10:29 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

(MAJOR MAJOR MAJOR clarification: On his part. Not yours. Again, "violent" is a really, really strong word, particularly in context.)
posted by dekathelon at 10:30 AM on February 23, 2012

It's hard for us to know how out of proportion various reactions were or weren't without knowing what the thing was.

It's really unfortunate that he triggered you, and I am not going to tell you that you had the wrong reaction -- we can't really control how we react to things, at least not initially. Unless he has a history of emotionally manipulating you, I really don't think that he was using your triggers as a rhetorical tactic against you. More likely, he was alarmed and upset by what felt to him like an out-of-proportion reaction to what he did, and he felt that he had to stand up for himself.

I'm not defending him, particularly since there's so little information here about what happened. I just wouldn't go down the road of wondering if he's intentionally/maliciously triggering you unless you really thing that makes sense in the context of his other behavior toward you.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:30 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

"That fucks with my world" wouldn't be something I'd tolerate from my girlfriend. It's totally disrespectful. Not everyone will agree. I don't know if I'd describe it as abusive or violent, but I'm not sure the label matters, and I don't think analyzing who was right is useful because it sounds like there's some fault on both sides. Instead, I would suggest that you do something nice for him, spend some quality time together doing something fun, and show him that you're sorry. Relationships thrive when people do things to fix issues before they become problems.
posted by smorange at 10:31 AM on February 23, 2012 [7 favorites]

It's hard to know from what you are describing if you were really out of line. I have to say that it worries me that he violated a boundary that you have clearly established and then accused you of being "violent" when you protested. It could be mindfuck territory or maybe something more innocent, but in any case I recommend this book: The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. Read it and see what resonates.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:33 AM on February 23, 2012

Was I emotionally abusive in my behavior?... Or is he overreacting and using my triggers of emotional abuse as a rhetorical tactic against me?

Is either of these necessarily true in this situation? You're describing his actions as if he makes and interprets them from the same context as you. But he doesn't. Even if you've shared your background and reactions with him in depth he is not going to understand how certain words and reactions are going to affect you.

Without knowing more about the specific situation and without being able to have witnessed your actual behavior in the fight it's really impossible to say who overreacted and to what degree. I think you should think over the possibility that you're catastrophizing a situation where nobody really went that far outside of acceptable boundaries and talk it over with him more - including being frank about your reaction to how he described your behavior and your later ambivalence about whether his description was justified or not.

As a side note you might think about whether there is any way you could ameliorate this problem of whatever the thing is he is not doing without relying on him. Sometimes everyone forgets to do things even if they are important.
posted by nanojath at 10:37 AM on February 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I immediately apologized and said it didn't matter what justifications I had for my anger

I find this concerning. It is not wrong to get angry or express anger. Especially if your partner has done something he a) knows messes up your day, and b) has agreed not to do (right?), your getting angry and expressing that anger is reasonable and healthy. There are better and worse ways to express anger, sure, and it is possible to get angrier than a situation warrants, but it sounds like you view anger itself as a wrong against your partner.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:38 AM on February 23, 2012 [28 favorites]

Maybe stay apart until you've fully kicked the smoking habit? A friend of mine stopped smoking recently, and he went fucking nuts.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:42 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, I think it's likely that you are both insane from nicotine withdrawal now. Give each other a break.
posted by thelonius at 11:04 AM on February 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Without having actually heard the conversation, there aren't a lot of ways to know what it was all about. But here's something to consider.

When our emotional baseline is less than ideal, when we're dealing with a lot of factors, it's easy to see that sometimes we say things in a way that come out worse than we intended. Our ability to say things is compromised. But it's important to know that when we're in a place like that, the same thing happens to our ability to hear.

Your boyfriend is cranky from withdrawal, and if he knows that this action can mess your day up and he knows he did it, he's spent the whole day knowing some shit is going to go down when you get home. This is made worse by the fact that this has happened before so it's probably a sore spot for him, it's probably something about which he feels dumb and/or scolded and/or whatever.

All of that is likely to have colored his perception of what you said, and you freely admit you were very angry and probably moreso than usual what with work stress and withdrawal. So he had a weighted perception of something that was already pretty charged.

Lacking your perspective, he said you were being violent and belligerent, and that set off triggers for you. When he says you're seeming violent, maybe he means you're seeming violent right now, but what you hear is, "You are acting in a way typical of the abusive person that looms in your memory."

Let me tell you a story.

A long time ago, I was dating someone who'd had a kind of complicated past, and in that past, they had sometimes been accused of being a little crazy. I found that it was kind of hard to hold conversations with them sometimes because they weren't projecting their voice at all and I kept having to make them repeat everything they said. I finally tried to offer help by saying, "Maybe you could project more? As it is, it just sounds like you're talking to yourself, not trying to be heard by other people."

This led to a huge fight, because what they had heard was me saying they sounded crazy because they were talking to themselves. It was a sore spot for them. People have sore spots and then it's hard to communicate from such a charged place.

If your relationship is mostly good, and things like this are only happening for the first time in five years and that time is coinciding with the time when you are both in nicotine withdrawal, then I would just kind of sleep on it, and in the morning, say you're sorry for the way things went (I use this phrasing because it specifically avoids placing the blame on one party) and you could use a hug.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:08 AM on February 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Is it possible that when you said these things, you were physically threatening without meaning to be? If you were pointing a finger at him, in his face and yelling, especially the "fucks with my world" part, the *combination* might very well have been intimidating.

His use of the word "violent" tells me that he felt vulnerable or fearful in the face of your anger. I wouldn't assume bad faith or tactics on his part with nothing else to back that up. I understand why your history makes you wary, but that wasn't him, right?

So I would give him the benefit of the doubt.

But I'd also let him know that you were up all night worrying about this because it really triggered some bad associations for you. A loving partner would want to comfort you now. And if he really did feel you were violent, the two of you should probably discuss that some more, anyway.
posted by misha at 11:10 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

"That fucks with my world" is something I'd be concerned about and it's a phrase that I'd have a hard time dealing with if I were accused of it. If it's also a reaction that doesn't match your normal demeanor, then I can understand where he could use the phrase "violent".

But you've a right to be upset if he's being inconsiderate. Just be sure that the reaction is equal to the offense. For whatever reason, you didn't say what the thing he did was. Was it an appropriate response to the offense? I don't think any of us can judge that without knowing more detail.
posted by inturnaround at 11:16 AM on February 23, 2012

I think you need to get a good night's sleep.

I know that's easier said than done when you're wound up, but it's going to be better to discuss this when you've both cooled down. I think it would be beneficial for you to chat, calmly, about what was said, what was done and who by. It might be that your boyfriend doesn't get how him doing this thing affects you. Then again he might and do it anyway, which is a whole other situation that you need to deal with.

Given that you've had a long and stressful day, it's completely normal to get irate about something that "fucks with your world", and part of the give and take of a relationship is dealing when your partner is freaking out about something. However, your partner may have felt, justifiably or unjustifiably, threatened by your behaviour or body language (which, again, you've had a bad day to cause).

If you said what you did in an angry tone, or had a raised voice, or got up in his face, or something, then I can see why he might have felt threatened. Note, though, that this doesn't equate to you being violent, those are two different things. I think that violence is different to aggression. It's hard to say whether you were violent without seeing how you behaved. The words you chose are perhaps extreme, but again, him doing this might actually fuck with your world. There's a large difference between calmly sitting and saying "this is a problem" and behaving in a more aggressive manner.

Please remember that given your history, one tiny thing is going to be blown out of proportion. This is one incident after a long and stressful day. You aren't going to be on top form right now. Maybe re-analyse the situation when you've calmed down and can do it from a calmer place.

I also think that your boyfriend could perhaps choose his words more carefully, given your history.
posted by Solomon at 11:38 AM on February 23, 2012

Call me thick-skinned and ornery, but I'd have no problem with someone telling me that something I did fucked with their world if it did, and I'd have no problem saying it to someone if it was true. Neither feel that out of line to me.

You guys are in nicotine withdrawal. Let it slide. Nobody is being abusive.
posted by ellF at 11:40 AM on February 23, 2012 [12 favorites]

The other thing is that you are still very angry about his not pushing the button or turning the lever instead or whatever. If you came at him with all that anger, between that surprise and his being on edge it would be easy for him to feel that you were being "violent." Not violent as in "I accuse you of being abusive!" but just meaning he was alarmed.

Without knowing more about what happened and why this thing that fucks with your world is his responsibility, it's hard to see this as more than a messy misunderstanding between two people who are quitting smoking.

Tell him that being called violent freaked you out. Find it what, if anything, he was thinking.

And when you say fighting more than usual, what's usual? Do you mean the normal who forgot to get milk why are your muddy shoes on the couch bickering - or do you mean to say you two often have real fights?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:46 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wait, so he does something that fucks up your entire day at work, he knows doing the thing will have that result, you've asked him before not to do the thing and he has said he won't do the thing, and he does it anyway. And you saying "that fucks with my world" is abusive?!

By all means apologize if you think saying "that fucks with my world" was out of line, but I would certainly hope he apologizes for repeatedly doing the thing that results in your world being fucked. And then stops doing it.
posted by headnsouth at 11:58 AM on February 23, 2012 [28 favorites]

nthing headingsouth. That seems to be the real problem.
posted by sockratties at 12:11 PM on February 23, 2012

He changed the subject from his actions that fuck with your world, to your "belligerence." He didn't have to answer for himself and you're the one apologizing.
posted by rhizome at 12:32 PM on February 23, 2012 [28 favorites]

I'm not sure what advice I can give. I'm just remembering this time about 10 years ago, I was in the hairdresser getting a hair color with highlights, and I felt a real burning sensation near my widow's peak.

I diffidently said "it's stinging in that spot right there" and the hairdresser said she would wipe it off in a moment.

I patiently sat there and endured this increasingly urgent burning sensation while she meticulously colored highlighted my whole head. Then she cleaned up her workstation and walked away. I sat and waited, sat and waited. She came back, but put her coat on and left the premises. About half an hour later she came back. Some time after that she rinsed off the bleach.

There was a little gasp as she uncovered the spot where I'd said I felt stinging. I hadn't been kidding, of course. I had a really thick painful scab there for weeks afterwards.

But I didn't dare say anything, because she'd told me she was going to wipe it off in a minute. And as far as I could tell, it wasn't a life-threatening situation, which were the only circumstances where I'd risk saying something.

Because what I expected to happen, if I said something like "this is really burning please do something" is that maybe she'd say I was only complaining because I must have OCD or some other mental illness, or I was being belligerent and I needed to learn to be more patient and phrase my requests better. And then she might have done something to really burn me, just to drive the point home.

Sounds highly neurotic of me, but that was what usually happened back then if I asserted myself, so putting up with the pain seemed like the safest option. Probably being unfair to her, since I never really tested her in this. She might have just wiped the bleach off right away. It seemed like too big a risk at the time, though.

Anyway, you're not likely to complain about his not pressing that button again, or whatever it was. I'm guessing that was his desired outcome.
posted by tel3path at 3:23 PM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think of belligerence or anger as being abusive per se. Neither of your utterances strike me as inherently over the line -- "that fucks with my world" is descriptive of your experience and I don't find it inherently disrespectful (unless you guys are normally anti-cursing), and "that was very inconsiderate", while it labels his behavior, is very mild.

Could they be violent? Sure, if you were grabbing his lapels or screaming or pointing at his face. But I wonder if it isn't more that his unpleasantness sensor is jacked up because of the smoking thing.
posted by feets at 6:02 AM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Whether it's "belligerent" or not, it appears to be the truth of her feelings, but since this is all anonymous we have no idea what is a proportional response. Call her at work at ask where the car keys are? Call her boss and try to pick up on her? Bomb threats? Who knows.
posted by rhizome at 10:05 AM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

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