How do I learn to pull my punches?
October 4, 2005 10:24 PM   Subscribe

How do I learn to fight fair? Once or twice a year, I end up completely flipping out over a completely insignificant event that results in a drag-out, no-holds-barred argument. I'll be the first to admit that hormones are a major factor in these cases. When this happens, I find myself completely unable to behave in a rational manner. I drag in previous relationship drama, I make statements that I know are deeply hurtful and unfair and essentially commit emotional blackmail. After a few hours I come to my senses but I would much prefer that it not happen in the first place.

Let me completely clear here: I love, cherish, and respect my spouse of many years. 363 days out of the year we are happy, we resolve our issues with moderate maturity, and while there is good-natured ribbing and occasional bickering, the household is peaceful and happy. This is not deep rooted passive aggressiveness bursting out. As far as I can tell, with as much candor as is possible in self-examination, I learned how to fight dirty from observing my very unhappy parents. I cannot seem to shake the reflex to go to the mattresses when an argument escalates. When I became aware of the behavior, I made a conscious effort to stop and have been mostly successful in keeping fights about the issue at hand and keeping PMS from causing a fight every month. The problem is when I fail to keep my emotions in check. On these occasions I find myself deeply hurt over small things and unable to restrain myself from using every emotional weapon available to me. I hate it. After the fact I can recognize that I was unfair and cruel but in the heat of the argument the reality that I am hurting the person that I love does not register and I lash out.

This is not a common occurrance, but I would like to make it a nonexistant one. The "just do it" attitude works most of the time but there are still instances when my reactions are not based on that of a reasonable person but that of a cornered animal and my instincts in that situation are abysmal. I am apparently an excellent pupil and am all too good at making devastatingly hurtful comments. My spouse has been patient and understanding and does not engage me in these arguments. He endures it until the wrath wears off and I am human again, which only makes the guilt worse. In retrospect, argument may be the wrong word to use as it is more of a one sided assault. I know rationally what must be done, the problem is actually being able to do it when I am feeling nothing but rage. How can I keep from acting and speaking out of spite in my worst moments? My honest feeling is that most couples experience occasional strife and I truly believe that we are not unusual in this regard. I know that sounds an awful lot like denial, but in the interest of getting useful feedback, I have attempted to lay down the soul baring truth as I know it. I am very good at fighting, but it is not a sport that I wish to excel in.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, this can be hard. I would actually focus on the area *around* the problem. It's hard to attack the problem itself, because, as you intimate, you feel righteous and clear-headed at the time you're doing it. It's hard to overcome that with forced thoughts of patience and tolerance. It's like a temporary loss of sanity, so sane solutions tend to be ineffective.

So when I say focus on the area around the problem, I mean: make sure that you feel secure about yourself and your relationship. Be sure that you are taking good care of your health (moods can be fragile when your blood sugar is low or if you're mildly depressed or if you haven't exercised in a year). I think you should look at this as a behavioral problem you have, and try to heal the underlying causes in yourself, rather than look for solution you can whip out of your pocket in the heat of the moment.

I have totally been there so I know what you mean. FWIW, this is how I think you need to approach it.
posted by scarabic at 10:42 PM on October 4, 2005

First, kudos for recognizing and naming your problem. Blah blah blah, the first step is admitting you have a problem, blah blah, but it's really true, and you've actually gotten past the hardest part which is identification. The trick now is redirection. To clarify - I learned a long long time ago that we as human beings don't have the power to change how we feel about something; our emotional reactions to stimuli are buried pretty deep (resulting from upbringing, ie unhappy parents, or genetics, ie PMS, or what have you) but we do have the power to consciously change our reactions, how we behave when presented with these emotions. So, boiling the jibber-jabber down, can you choose another target? As in, when your spouse PISSES YOU OFF LIKE FIRE AND THE END OF THE UNIVERSE IS IMMINENT, maybe you can remove yourself from the situation and go pound on a cardboard box, or shriek with fury into a pillow. You may find that the physical exertion helps drain off some of the furious energy and gets you past that crucial "I'm going to cut your punk ass to the bone, bitch!" imulse that you end up regretting.

BTW, personal experience and several years of therapy as a young adult inform my opinions here. I wish you the best of luck -- your goals are admirable.
posted by ZakDaddy at 10:53 PM on October 4, 2005

What's my wife doing posting to Ask MeFi?

Given that it happens when you're angry and highly emotional, I suspect it's virtually impossible to properly control. You can't stop it unless you can catch yourself doing it. At that stage, if you can't keep your mouth shut but you know that you can't, I would say your best/only option is avoidance. Immediately go for a walk or leave the room, until you calm down. Much better than saying stuff that you'll regret later.
posted by wilful at 12:14 AM on October 5, 2005

My first thought is that you shouldn't pass it off as hormone related. Own it, as they say. Whatever you do, it is important to make it a habit for every conflict. Twice a year doesn't count.

I've found a very important rule to remember is that you may NEVER say "You always" or any variation thereof. Most conflicts are original, and though they may remind you of past behaviors, they don't seem that way to the other person.

Focus on a solution. If somebody's doing something that bothers you, understand that the person probably has a perfectly logical (maybe seemingly necessary) reason for doing so. Focus on how both of you can get your desired outcome and try to assimilate the other person's interests as your own, as best you can.

Those are two things that I've learned through trainings related to working with the mentally ill. More personally--and please don't take me to be proselytizing here--Quaker meetings have been immensely helpful. Every week, you essentially sit for an hour and listen to others without responding. When you really need to say something, you can, but you make damn sure you've thought it over before you do. It doesn't really matter what you say--faith isn't really involved (at least east of the Mississippi or on the west coast, where there are no ministers)--but just the fact that you sat there quietly thinking about it makes a world of difference. It's a training ritual. If you don't do it with Quakers, do it with some other group. It doesn't matter.

The very first thing is the key though--do it for every conflict, no matter how small.
posted by dsword at 12:42 AM on October 5, 2005

Learn to avoid the argument in the first place. Take a time out or learn some way to resolve a conflict before it escalates. Once it begins, it is too late.
posted by JJ86 at 1:54 AM on October 5, 2005

What are you arguing ABOUT? Maybe you can find a common trigger...if you can be fairly chill the rest of the year, seems to me there is something else going on with these particular fights.
posted by konolia at 3:29 AM on October 5, 2005

Speaking for spouses everywhere, thank you for making the effort.

I have noticed that for some people who experience this, it doesn't much matter what it's about. If they are in a bad mood, their inclination is to justify the mood by finding a reason, and spousal behavior is always convenient. A lot of the time, though, a bad mood is just a bad mood,and if left alone, it will go away. Often the immediate subject of the argument is not the thing that caused the bad mood, and it's hard for the one with the feelings to let go of what looks like the trigger and figure out the actual one. Stress about something you cannot change, like a bad boss, can surface as anger with someone else.

Probably recognition of the conditions that exist when this happens is a key. If you know it's likely to occur, it'll be easier to head it off. If you do have problems in or outside the marriage, make sure you can talk about them with the spouse. He may not actually be able to help you solve them, but having someone else who knows your feelings can expand your emotional comfort zone, so you can be more resilient.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:52 AM on October 5, 2005

Why does your spouse "endure it?" Because he believes he has to? Or he's trying to be sympathetic? Or he thinks you'll calm down sooner if he does?

Seriously, is just walking away an option for him? And if it's not, can you allow it to be? Just say, hey, when I get like this, just leave until I'm human again.
posted by zanni at 4:25 AM on October 5, 2005

If those fights are preceded by you going over and over things that you're angry about, maybe you can learn to recognize the lead-up and not reinforce the anger.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 4:35 AM on October 5, 2005

Your husband is your team. What hurts him hurts you, and what hurts you hurts him. If something he is doing hurts you, I'm sure he'll want to solve the problem, whether the problem is his behavior or your perception of it. Just as if something you're doing hurts him, you'll want to solve the problem, whether the problem is your behavior or his perception of it. You're in this together. He's going to be there with you every day and every night until one of you dies, helping you, loving you, laughing with you, maybe raising kids with you. If you say hurtful things to him about things he can't change that shatter his confidence, he will be a worse husband. You are his safe place, the one who will always be there. If he is afraid to talk to you or if he feels self conscious about his flaws around you, it will definitely hurt your relationship. Hurting him hurts you. It doesn't mean that you shouldn't discuss or even argue about the things he can change; you should, because it will benefit both of you. But hurting him hurts you, too. You wouldn't want to do that. If you stab him, you'll both bleed. Just know that, so if you see a knife coming at you you reach out to block it.
posted by leapingsheep at 5:00 AM on October 5, 2005

Take a look at The Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work by John Gottman. He describes at length how your fighting style impacts the success of your relationship, and offers various ideas on how to improve it.
posted by blueyellow at 5:38 AM on October 5, 2005

I am very good at fighting, but it is not a sport that I wish to excel in.

I have this same problem, and I've managed to make it significantly less bad, though I'd still be pretty proud of myself if I could get it down to two days a year, but me and the bf agree it's improved mightily. Here are some things that have worked for us.

- "I have a temper problem" no matter what the other instigators are for my bad mood and/or outbursts, this is the part that I keep saying to myself, to him and to others. Why I have a temper problem isn't as important as owning up to the fact that it's me. I'm sure there are reasons for me to be irked and annoyed by my bf, but it's the temper problem that turns it into a melee. If the temper itself has triggers [and for me it's lack of exercise, eating too much sugar, stress at work] I can deal with that on my own time.
- No fighting while hungry [this just helps give the bad mood a chance to work itself out in a more appropriate way] and both me and the bf stick to this.
- If I say anything nasty, my bf has been getting good at saying "you crossed the line, let's talk about this more later" not "later WHEN YOU CALM DOWN", just later. He's gotten pretty good at being part of the solution which can be tough if someone is being a harpie to you. Even though there is a kid-gloves aspect to all of this, the key is to solve the problem in a way that does not diminish either one of you, even if the solution is nutty.
- other things that help at the time are thinking of how I must look, spewing bile on the person I love most in the world [shameful, terrible] and thinking what i would say to a friend who I saw having this sort of reaction to whatever I was having a reaction to.
- The next step is to actually talk about it later. Almost all the time, the issue vanishes, which is embarassing for me but somewhat gratifying for my bf. Talking about it later also lets us make sure that there wasn't a kernel of truth to whatever we were fighting about which sort of helps us move forward.

Part of the big picture for me is realizing that I want to be in this with my boyfriend for the long term and I am actively jeopardizing that with my behavior. Part of it is a strong desire not to be my parents, and to try to be BETTER than my parents. This is hard since my parents both still do this in their new relationships and I see it and it's lame. My bf has learned some stealthy ninja tricks where he can often redirect my anger and get at what's really bugging me. Often just bringing up what he thinks the trigger for the particular issue is ["you have a trip this week, I bet that's on your mind" "hey let's go inside and get some dinner" "how do you think your Mom's visit is going to go?"] without getting all "you ALWAYS get like this..." is really a huge part of the solution and I can't say enough how important it is to have a partner that can help you with these things.
posted by jessamyn at 6:13 AM on October 5, 2005

Aren't spouses handy? You get to go off on him and be exceptionally cruel and he puts up with it, all because you're just unable to behave in a rational manner. Do you also go off on your friends, the postman, your dog, your kids? What gives you the right to abuse your spouse that way? Feeling guilty afterwards doesn't make it okay (gee I'm sorry, I just can't help myself, I really want to stop).

I don't feel sympathetic towards your problem and I don't believe for a minute that you can't control your behavior. Perhaps my words will help you realize that there's always a point at which you decide it's okay to go forward with your rage. If you honestly can't recognize the point where you make that choice then perhaps it'd be helpful if your spouse spoke up and said, "You're deciding to abuse me right now." Own it, take responsibility for your choice, and if you still choose not to stop your verbal assaults then get professional help.
posted by LadyBonita at 7:13 AM on October 5, 2005

Having been on the other side of this, my advice is more to your husband. He needs to develop some kind of early-warning radar for when you're going off on a 'flip-out.' Once detected, he needs to calmly say "Listen, this is one of your flip-outs, and I simply will not argue with you right now." He should leave for a little while if necessary.

Maybe you could print up and give him a few (just a few) "get out of argument free" cards that he could play when necessary. That might help defuse the tension.
posted by adamrice at 7:17 AM on October 5, 2005

I noticed that when I broke up with my last boyfriend, my "uncontrollable PMS emotional outbursts" disappeared. Completely. Because I was no longer dealing with constant low-level annoyance about his not washing dishes, or refusing to go out with me, or not paying me back for rent, or playing online poker till 4am every night... Basically, there were numerous things that bothered me slightly about his behavior, that I was able to write off as "Well, I just need to compromise" for most of the month, and then when the righteous bitch "You DON'T need to put up with this shit" hormones kicked in, it was like my body was trying to force me into addressing issues that I should have addressed weeks ago.

Had you asked me during those weeks if I was annoyed, however, I would have no. No, it's fine; no, relationships take compromise; no, it's not that big a deal.

Which is not to say that it's OK to fight dirty. I'm working on really listening to myself (through meditation and yoga for me; the Quaker meetings sound like another great idea) so that I can address issues as they come up and not just write them off until they explode elsewhere. And none of this implies that you have to live your life as a nasty harpy 365 days of the year -- just learn that it's totally fine to be pissed off, and totally fine to let people know you're pissed off, assuming that you also treat those people with dignity and respect.

You might want to check out Dance of Anger, too. It addresses the tendency of women to flip between the "Everything's fine!" and "I'm a raging psychopath!" things.
posted by occhiblu at 7:52 AM on October 5, 2005

My parents were like this, only three times a week instead of three times a year. Gets a bit, um, chaotic for a child of such parents.

Firstly, talk to each other -- and not during or after a specific fight. Talking about a specific time or a specific person tends to produce a blame-chasing session, and that gets you nowhere. Instead, talk about these episodes and about what you can do as a couple.

Second, ditch the talk about hormones and how you can't control yourself. You're able to somehow stop yourself from punching cops or pulling the grocery clerk's hair. Admitting that you fail at controlling your emotions sometimes is not an admission that you're a worthless person (although you may have learned such a thing from your family when you were a child).

Third, come up with a practical solution. Something you can actually do, both of you. Not: "I'll promise to respect your feelings." That's vague and enormous. Instead, give each other a signal, a code word, that you both promise to respect when the start fights. I would suggest that at the signal you both have to sit next to each other, in total silence, for 30 seconds. That would cool any fight down considerably.

Fourth, good luck. Nothing in the life of either of you, I'd wager, merits being screamed at by the person who loves you.
posted by argybarg at 7:54 AM on October 5, 2005

I tend toward dramatics when I feel like I'm not being heard or understood. It's a way of pushing the moment to its crisis. There was often conflict in my childhood home, so fighting is somewhat natural to me. My partner's parents divorced, but he never once heard them fight. He's unfamiliar with conflict, and he'll go to extraordinary lengths to avoid a fight.

When it comes to working out problems, we're both a little right and a little wrong in our approaches. My hysteria is rarely warranted or fair, but we've come to realize that his passivity and avoidance can be even more toxic. Like you, we've spent years trying to negotiate our rules for healthy conflict.

Another problem is that I tend to bolt right out of the gate in an argument, while he's still stretching and wondering why I'm acting so crazy. Waiting for him to catch up can be maddening. It helps tremendously if he's there with words and actions when this happens--sitting on the couch and motioning for me to join him in talking like adults; saying, "Hang on, help me understand you, slow down." That way I know he's engaged and not pulling an Avoid.

In turn, I try to say, "I want to be fair, we deserve a rational discussion about this." I remind him that I need feedback--"I need your input here; please say something so I'm not just ranting." That helps to draw him out and hopefully makes a safe place for him to talk without fear of my angry reprisal.

Your anger is probably often justified, but it's a problem if it hurts your spouse and doesn't make progress. Figuring out what you need from the conflict--comfort? catharsis? release? attention?--can be the first step toward fighting better.
posted by hamster at 8:17 AM on October 5, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm with LadyBonita on this. "I just flip" is a cop-out. You're a rational person who walks upright and has mastered a keyboard. You're not some cartoon character who hits some magical point where your Irritation Bucket gets that last drop in it and you go *kerb00m*. You allow yourself to do this.

I'd suggest you take your laudible introspection one step further and ask yourself if you really only do this a few times a year, or this is the same as some other behavior you engage in more constantly. Because quite frankly I find the suggestion that someone reaches a point there they "just can't help themselves" that infrequently. How many other things in your life happen because "you just can't help it?" I'd be willing to bet a lot, but perhaps not with regards to yelling or being nasty.

You may not think "just do it" is helpful but in the end it's the only real advice for personality changes. You become the person you want to be by being that person, one moment at a time.
posted by phearlez at 8:46 AM on October 5, 2005

Um, I find the suggestion that someone reaches a point where they "just can't help themselves" that infrequently to be improbable.
posted by phearlez at 8:48 AM on October 5, 2005

adamrice and zanni both have good advice. I endured years of this on a monthly basis with my wife. We also have a good relationship, are mature adults, work on our issues, etc. Things are much better now, and these kinds of blind rages are very rare.

Back when it was bad, I used to sit through this behavior, trying to get her to calm down and talk rationally to me. Eventually, I got tired of that and just succumbed to her apparent desire to have a volcanic erruption level fight. I never really learned to walk away on a consistent basis. I wish somebody had been around to teach me that early on.

The few times I did walk away, she would be utterly gobsmacked by my actions. Sometimes it would help her calm down, sometimes not - overall it succeeded more than it failed.


Having said all of that, I agree with the ones that are calling BS on the "can't control myself" thing. I grew up in a horrible household, where the only way to handle problems were with insane shouting matches and tears. Living in fear is a bad childhood, even if everything else is good. I grew up promising myself that I would never act like them, and then spent a long time in therapy and introspection rooting out the behaviors I had assimilated from them. I don't rant at my wife with blind rage ever - that would be wrong, hateful and uncivilized. I don't say the most hurtful fucking things I can think when I am angry at people - it's wrong, I don't like it when it's done to me, and I will not treat others like that no matter what the situation is.
posted by Irontom at 11:05 AM on October 5, 2005

[goddamned preview/post buttons]

I certainly will never treat the people I love the most with such disdain, disrespect and abuse. Because that is all it is - emotional abuse of those who are closest to you.
posted by Irontom at 11:07 AM on October 5, 2005

remove yourself from the situation

This is extremely valuable advice. I've been on the other side of this, and the only thing that worked (sometimes) was physical separation. When you feel yourself getting worked up, just stalk off and punch pillows (my first wife's habit) or something until you've gotten it out of your system.

To those of you attacking the poster: you have no idea what it's like to be her or what it means not to be able to help doing something. Yes, for a lot of people that's a copout; it doesn't sound like it is for her. She's being very straightforward about her problem. You are not being helpful, you're just making yourselves feel righteous and superior, which is not what AskMe is for. So knock it off.
posted by languagehat at 11:23 AM on October 5, 2005 [1 favorite]

Listen. Just bite your tongue and listen. You love this person, you owe it to him to listen. You learn more from listening than talking.
posted by sixpack at 12:13 PM on October 5, 2005

You are not being helpful, you're just making yourselves feel righteous and superior

Piffle. Nobody has "attacked" the poster and you should modulate your tone. "Knock it off" is impolite and you have no authority to be giving orders about how a question is answered.

I have no idea what it is to be her, I only know what it is to be a human. I have no doubt she may believe she cannot help herself. I think, barring cases of chemical imbalance or brain damage, that this is never true of anyone. Perhaps you do not concur. You are welcome to your incorrect opinion. I also think that it's an impediment to personal growth to think that way and that on some level she knows it's not the case. After all, if she really cannot help herself, what exactly is anyone here going to be able to offer her?

Making a change in one's behavior inevitably boils down to two things: introspection and analysis about why one does things and then actually engaging or abstaining from the behavior. Someone who is unwilling to do both - for example, saying "I just can't not do it!" - needs to be made to believe that yes, they can. That's not an attack any more than an intervention for an alcoholic is an attack, no matter how much it might feel like it to them at the time.

Anonymous can choose not to be verbally abusive to her partner. She may need to do some soul-searching and there may be some coping techniques or any number of other things that will help her do it, but she's never going to succeed till she accepts that it's within her ability.
posted by phearlez at 12:24 PM on October 5, 2005

I have found that getting angry, and expressing it, a little more often helps me with issues like this. I was raised to repress emotion and we would hold back until we had an "all hands" battle royal once every 3 months that ended with broken dishes. When I learned to express my anger a little at a time, I don't build up rage like my mother taught me to.
posted by Megafly at 12:37 PM on October 5, 2005

phearlez, you need to modulate YOUR tone. There are ways to communicate that don't feel like an attack.

Since you don't know the poster, it would behoove all of us including you to not be so stinking dogmatic. What if she DOES have a chemical imbalance? I DO have one and there are times when despite my best efforts all hell breaks loose. It doesn't happen often, and I work hard to not have it happen at all-but sometimes you accidentally hit that line of no return and then hey, we are off to the races. All anonymous is doing is asking for strategies to help her cope and NOT do this. Just saying "don't do it" is NOT helpful.
posted by konolia at 1:46 PM on October 5, 2005

As we can only speak of our own experiences, it seems pretty futile to pontificate in generalities without having specific information as to what triggers these or any other outbursts.
In my experience, with all other things being equal, sexual frustration seems to lurk behind such fights, and as soon as sexual contact becomes possible, peace returns.
posted by semmi at 9:47 PM on October 5, 2005

As far as the early warning system the husband can try:

I had a GF years ago who occasionally got real mean when drunk.
At one point, during one of her (very emotionally abusive) tirades, I listened patiently, and finished with
"I really look forward to your apology when you sober up."
And left the room.
It sounded like someone threw a grenade in the room I'd just left.

So, yea- I wouldn't advise that method.

Anonymous-- I think you're starting off on the right foot. I think that one of the most important things I've learned after 20 + years of various relationships is that it's about asking questions, not necessarily finding answers.
It's the asking of the questions that one demonstrates to oneself, one's partner, and the universe in general, that one is willing to be wrong, willing to improve, willing to learn, and all that good stuff.

That's why I love ask.mefi.

I hate sounding all new-agey about this ("live the question") but it's true.

Ask him how he feels during these tirades of yours. Ask him for help. Ask a professional for help. Keep asking.

I know this may be overly broad, but as we're not best friends and sitting over a beer, I just don't know enough to be anything but.

Hope this helps.
posted by asavage at 10:27 PM on October 5, 2005 [1 favorite]

There's an organization out there that promotes relationship skills between long terms couples. They created a series of classes called Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills (PAIRS). The classes are generally facilitated by local family therapists that have been through the PAIRS training. One of the topics that they teach on are various skills for learning to "fight fair".

My wife and I took a long course (4 months, 1 night a week and 1 weekend session a month - something like 160 contact hours) and it worked wonders for us. Some of the lessons to years to really sink in, but we use some of the stuff we learned in PAIRS on a daily basis.

I am in no way affiliated with this group. I don't stand to make any money if someone attends their classes. I'm just a geek who credits them with giving my wife and I the skills we needed to make our marriage work for the long term.

Maybe something like this would give you what you need?
posted by Irontom at 4:26 AM on October 6, 2005

« Older Help me name our new dog   |   is emacs worth it? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.