Boyfriend & I have blow out fights every so often - what's going on?
December 15, 2013 1:46 PM   Subscribe

We've been together for 6 months and things have generally been lovely. But on two occasions now we've had two big fights with a similar theme.

We're both passionate/stubborn people but I feel my boyfriend takes things too far. The first time we fought I was talking about a favourite movie and said I liked the 'dry humour' in it. He then said he'd heard a lot of bad reviews from friends and also "really didn't think it was dry humour at all." He then went on to tell me the definition of dry humour as though I was stupid/which I found extremely patronising considering he hadn't even seen the film but was determined to disagree with my thoughts on it regardless.

The second fight was very recent and a lot worse. I had picked up a magazine and groaned when I saw comedian Frankie Boyle was one of the main people featured inside. My boyfriend asked why I was groaning as he "quite likes" the comedian & I told him I disliked the comment he had made a while ago about Katie Price's disabled son. I thought it was a step too far, ie. he shouldn't have been using a disabled, brain-damaged child who cannot defend himself as the butt of comedic joke.

However my boyfriend didn't see the problem citing free speech. But this descended into a big debate rapidly. He ended up saying I "really had to put it into context with what's happening in the rest of the world"- ie. children starving in Africa! This then turned to him saying that he thought governments should be looking after poorer people before we start looking after people with disabilities (as though they come second, because "disabiltiies are often linked to poverty" -where's the proof?) - instead of doing both at the same time as I suggested. "Well there are varying levels of disability" he says. "I could survive without having one hand, but life could be a lot worse for someone in real poverty." Eventually he started picking out words I was saying, while analysing them to death. And suddenly we both feel very disconnected despite having such a nice evening earlier on. Another time I was having a terribly stressful week and told him so (my relative was dying from cancer) and he responded with "well, everyone has varying degrees of stress in their life". He later apologised but I feel like he can't talk about one topic without having to discuss everything else on earth and it's frustrating. This doesn't happen often at all but when it does it's horrible and exhausting.

Don't get me wrong, he can be a wonderful guy. He is supportive, a great cook, funny and obviously intelligent and caring. But this has reared it's ugly head twice now and I'd like people to help me get to the bottom of it! I confided in a relative earlier (who likes him a lot) who said we might just have to agree to disagree sometimes, but I'm not sure...
posted by Kat_Dubs to Human Relations (48 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Ugh, I know this personality type I think. Has to be right, condescending, morally relativistic, lacking empathy (for you and others). Either this guy is 21 or he just thinks like he is.

Regardless, I see this sort of ugliness popping up again and again for the foreseeable future; it's up to you whether you want to deal with this sort of thing. And if this guy is over 25, I vote DTMFA.
posted by charlemangy at 1:54 PM on December 15, 2013 [36 favorites]

It's not really necessary to hear the details of the argument. Disagreeing without acrimony is an important life skill that will serve you in numerous settings both personal and professional.

That all said, I wouldn't want to go out with someone who I thought was a patronising, arrogant douche and insisted on having the last word. Especially if they were sexist, ableist etc.

But if you can't disagree about preferences in comedy without having a blow-up fight, you are in a world of trouble when things get serious, believe me.
posted by smoke at 1:57 PM on December 15, 2013 [23 favorites]

If he's normally easy to get along with and very much the sort of person with whom you want to be more serious, then it sounds like, on these occasions, either something was going on with him that was coming out in misdirected fashion, or something you're doing at those times was preventing the usual smooth way of incorporating it into your time together. Basically, there was something happening those two times of which you're not aware, that caused the interaction to go into the ditch.

Wait for it to happen again, pull back, and ask yourself what's really going on there. If he's the sort of guy who's able, enlist him in this so that the next time you're getting into a knockdown-dragout, you can stop and say "what's going on here?" Then maybe you both can stop and look around and maybe notice something going on at that moment. Maybe one of you is tired or stressed or holding back on some perceived slight from earlier that you think you're ignoring but you're really not.

Of course, it might simply be a failure to notice that the conversation has gotten all strange until it's too late, in which case a stop and look can also help key you two into the fact that you should back down.
posted by fatbird at 1:59 PM on December 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

I dated this guy once. Dump him.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 2:01 PM on December 15, 2013 [24 favorites]

I've been your boyfriend. I would say the dynamic you describe would characterize much of the relationships in my 20s. What would happen is eventually the woman would leave and I'd feel crushed.

it took me awhile - years, really - to figure out in therapy all the insecurities and fears of abandonment that were mixed up in me. They would come out as all kind of superiority and arrogance and trying to win arguments by showing how smart I was. It ultimately left me even more lonely and alone. It took me awhile to figure out that it was me.

To answer your question: I think as you say your BF is intelligent and caring, but he's got some issues that need to be addressed if he is going to want to connect closely with people. That's what's going on.

And if he's anything like me, it's going to take a bit of time to figure that out - in other words, he won't see himself in what I am saying. It's up to you to decide what you want to do and whether you can accept him as he is or need to move on.
posted by miles1972 at 2:02 PM on December 15, 2013 [40 favorites]

You wrote: "Don't get me wrong, he can be a wonderful guy." But you did not say he IS a wonderful guy. Big difference in the small wording there, maybe something to think about further.

You wrote: "I'd like people to help me get to the bottom of it!"

If you'll indulge me for a bit of armchair psychobabble, the "blow-outs" are you and your boyfriend playing out your old, unconscious childhood pains together in a joint power struggle, as you both attempt to heal yourselves and become more complete people. According to Dr. Harville Hendrix, author of the excellent, classic book "Getting the Love You Want" our childhood and relationship with our parents subconsciously influences who we are attracted to and marry. We have the feeling this person will make us whole. After the romantic phase wears off, most couples slip into the power struggle phase you find yourself in right now - where it is painfully clear that this person is not making us as whole as we would like to be.

Or on preview, exactly what @miles1972 said about what he learned about himself in therapy.
posted by hush at 2:10 PM on December 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

OP here. charlemangy - the morally relativistic thing sounds right on the money! He doesn't believe in any absolute morals or good/bad whereas I do think there are some things that are absolutely wrong etc.

fatbird - he is usually very laid-back and easy to get along with. He himself said he doesn't know why he goes into major debate mode but that he's "going to think about it more".

miles1972 - I'm really interested by what you said. My boyfriend joked about having abandonment issues before - and it makes sense as his parent died when he was young. He was in counselling briefly but didn't feel the particular counsellor helped him much. How is abandonment directly linked with needing to be right etc though? Do you mean trying to convince yourself that you are worthwhile and deserving of being loved and not abandoned? (I'm just making guesses here!)
posted by Kat_Dubs at 2:16 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Somehow I find it significant that you started telling us about the "two times" you've had big fights – and then went on to describe three instances. A person who's trying to make a difficult relationship work will often try to minimize problems until they get too big to be justified away, and I think that's why you're posting at this point.

Someone like your boyfriend will have you picking and choosing your words. He's editing your opinions and your ideas. Instead of taking pleasure in finding out what you think, he's watching you for weaknesses and jumping on them.

You do not need this. You know it. It's why you posted now.

DTMFA is rough before the holidays, but it's probably worse to wait till afterwards.
posted by zadcat at 2:29 PM on December 15, 2013 [20 favorites]

It takes some time to figure out, but in a nutshell it works in the opposite way than what you have suggested.

Those of us with abandonment issues have learnt that they get left by those that love them (or a version of that - can be death of parents, narcissistic parents, and so on) and as children too young to know better, we feel responsible. We feel we have caused the leaving and for some reason are unlovable. So we go about creating that dynamic, by pushing people away. This can be all kind of things - always wanting to win arguments, is one such way - and what it does is prove to ourselves what we believe deep down: that we are not worthy of love - the very thing that was taught to us when we were young.
posted by miles1972 at 2:31 PM on December 15, 2013 [13 favorites]

With the Frankie Boyle thing, I think what is happening is he is protesting too much. Basically, because he like Frankie Boyle and finds him funny, he looks for any perspective that justifies that and tells him that he is OK and not a bad person for liking Boyle's jokes. It's a defensive reaction. He's taking your dislike of Frankie Boyle's sense of humour as an implicit criticism of his own sense of humour. He'd rather patronise you and tell you you're wrong then face up to the possibility that his perspective is problematic for his girlfriend.

I assume he doesn't really think (or I hope he doesn't think) that it's OK to laugh at one vulnerable group of people because other people are also having a hard time. I think his arguments are driven by the desire to be right, and to be affirmed as in the right. It's also an interesting quandary for those of us who are anti-censorship, but also believe in compassion for others and picking your jokes with care. You and/or your boyfriend might enjoy Patton Oswalt's reconsidering of rape jokes as comedy material. It might help you to successfully frame your argument; however, it might also be a passive aggressive way to reignite this argument, so be warned.

I've observed similar behaviour in a lot of guys (and girls, including me from time to time) and I think it is really common. However, I personally would no longer choose to keep dating someone who was so immovable, because I've been in those arguments and they are, as you said, exhausting.
posted by dumdidumdum at 2:32 PM on December 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

Oh, I dated this exact same guy a few times before, too -- one time for several years. Speaking from experience, let me just suggest you consider this: if he's behaving this way when you have disagreement over pop culture, think of how he'll behave when you have a disagreement over something far more fundamentally important to you. Has he given you any meaningful reason to believe that he'll respond with less defensiveness, contempt, and condescension when the stakes are higher?
posted by scody at 2:39 PM on December 15, 2013 [32 favorites]

Why are you engaging in these arguments? Yes, it seems like your BF really wants to win them, but it seems like you do too (otherwise why would his opinions of a movie be that important at all?)

What happens when you try to disengage when the conversation turns?

There's nothing wrong with always wanting to win arguments when the arguments are about something important -- even something as trivial as "where to eat dinner tonight" is a thing with consequences and if either of you guys have strong feelings about it they should be heard.

But "the definition of dry humor"? Whether Frankie Boyle is a monster? These are pointless things, just don't talk about them. As for the comment about your stressful week -- is is possible that he was just trying to help you feel better by putting your troubles into a larger context?

Why does he have to think about why he goes into "major debate mode" while you get to continue having opinions?
posted by sparklemotion at 2:41 PM on December 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Sorry, one more thing: anyone can act like "a wonderful guy" when things are going well. It's when things are going badly -- when you have a disagreement, or are under a lot of stress, or when a crisis hits -- that you often find out who someone really is.
posted by scody at 2:42 PM on December 15, 2013 [10 favorites]

dumdidumdum - this sounds exactly right. He even ended up admitting he didn't like Frankie Boyle that much, so it was clearly just about winning the argument (though he denied this...).

sparklemotion - I do see what you're saying. But it wasn't really about Frankie Boyle - it was about the fact he didn't seem bothered about someone picking on a much weaker member of society - or even found it funny.

I actually think you're right about putting my troubles into a larger context - like the way he did with the joke/disability issue + making an odd comparison with Africa - but the point was that I was having an awful time and needed comfort from him. I felt like my feelings were being minimised because of this need he has to continually put things into a 'larger context'.
posted by Kat_Dubs at 2:50 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

However my boyfriend didn't see the problem citing free speech.
Frankie Boyle absolutely has the right to say whatever he said. But that doesn't change the fact that you absolutely have the right to think that Frankie Boyle is an ass for saying it.

In my experience, arguments of this sort ("That guy's a jerk" -> "BUT FREE SPEECH!") are generally made by people of one of three types, or possibly a combination: (1) People who want to argue in order to seem smart; (2) People who want to argue for argument's sake; (3) People who are particularly dumb.
posted by Flunkie at 2:59 PM on December 15, 2013 [30 favorites]

I sometimes get into these discussions with my husband, who is also wonderful, affectionate, loves animals, mild mannered, etc. It can be frustrating, yes. He wouldn't do it about disability because he has a disabled sister, but other things that I think are important and he doesn't, and it ends up feeling like a competition to see who's right or who's wrong. Grrrrraaaaaaarrrrrrrrrr.

The thing I have realized about him is that he often doesn't really care about the subject but he does care about me not being upset. I like to vent and I don't want him to argue or solve it, I just want him to say, "yes! I agree! The purple cows are suffering because the alien vultures are picking off their young! It's horrid!"

So it sucks but sometimes I have to say, "dude. I don't want your solution. Or you are being insensitive. Just listen and I will shut up after X amount of minutes."

Then I call my daughter, who is sensitive, and will listen and empathize with me, or I write to my girlfriends and talk to them. It's not that he's a bad person, far from it! But sometimes we get on different wavelengths and I don't even want to go there with it, and he doesn't want to hear it, so I figure, he's good in so many other ways as a human being, why should I expect him to be Mr. Perfect 100% of the time? Because I'm so far from perfect myself and he puts up with me.

This stuff has been ongoing for years, and we now are used to each other and he still annoys me sometimes (as I am sure I do him), but overall we have great affection for one another, and speak openly and honestly despite any discomfort in doing so. A few bumps, but no insurmountable mountains.

TL;DR: Sometimes other people aren't perfect and you can discuss it with them but if they're not trying to be a jerk, let them know and then leave it alone.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:09 PM on December 15, 2013 [9 favorites]

He lacks empathy. Is that a problem for you? It seems each individual debate reveals that it is a problem for you, on a fundamental level.

we might just have to agree to disagree sometimes, but I'm not sure...
I think you may be on to answering your own question here.

Sparklemotion made some good points also.
posted by 0 answers at 3:17 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I hate to say this, but seriously sometimes you have to be the one to just fucking let it go.

These are not big disagreements. There's no root issue at the core of your arguments, aside from two stubborn people willing to die on Every. Single. Fucking. Hill.

My main bit of advice would be that, if you find yourself actively being uncharitable or unkind or arguing in bad faith, IT ENDS THERE. Say "You know what, babe? You have a point. Maybe 'Scary Movie 5' wasn't really that funny, and either way I'm being a total asshole right now. I'm sorry. Can we make up?"

Better yet, don't wait till it gets personal, and things get said that are impossible to take back.

My hope, if your boyfriend is a good person, is that when he sees that you can be the bigger person in these tiffs, he will realize he's been acting like a dick, too. And hopefully you guys can work together on not getting into these fights anymore. But, I don't know, maybe your boyfriend is just an asshole and you should dump him.
posted by Sara C. at 3:21 PM on December 15, 2013 [14 favorites]

...clearly just about winning the argument...

Make that keeping the upper hand in deciding about the course of the argument, and you're right there where his core insecurities seem to lie. Look, the Boyle argument is mostly about shifting in and out of perspectives: micro (disabled kid) versus macro (the rest of the world) (all the other examples have the same characteristic, and dynamic of argument, even the 'asshole versus free speech' one). The interesting thing here is that he assumes his stance not because of the logic of the argument itself, but in order to locally and momentarily create leverage against your position, so he can control the next step of the discussion. The choice of topic is entirely secondary here. Not for you, I mean, but for him. His battle is not to drown - hence likely his lack of empathy in your third (pretty terrible) example.
Scared like hell, he seems. So here's the thing: you, as his partner, can't be his therapist, but I feel like he needs one. The question is whether you ought to wait and see him heal, or for your own sake to move on.
(I wasted ten years of my life defending myself in battles of this ilk; it's no fun to realize that you've lost time. Time's in short supply. I tentatively advise you to move on).
posted by Namlit at 3:26 PM on December 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

What happens if you call him on it?

"Why are you explaining the definition of 'dry humour' to me like I'm stupid? It's really patronising, especially considering you haven't even seen the film and I have."

"We were having a really nice evening. Now you're picking out words I'm saying and analysing them to death so you can, what, prove I'm objectively wrong to not like Frankie Boyle? I'm fine with you disagreeing with me, but it seems like you're more interested in winning some kind of debate here than in having a conversation where we both listen to each other."

"Hey. Stop. This is not some hypothetical thought-experiment about relative degrees of stress; this is me telling you that I'm having a really hard week and need your sympathy."

If he responds with "ugh, was I doing it again? Sorry, I'll stop," then maybe he's just immature and this is something you can deal with. If he digs in his heels and keeps on trying to Win The Debate At All Costs, though, well... I wouldn't stick around waiting for him to grow up, myself.
posted by Catseye at 3:36 PM on December 15, 2013 [33 favorites]

After your update, I will add that my current beau only wants me to be happy. My former beau was in contempt of me and my views, my fashion choices, etc. So while my husband might be a bungler in the ways of communication, he means well. I guess it's an overall feeling of love and affection and oops I messed up, rather than contempt and lording it over you, which is not a good feeling at all in any relationship. However, only you can judge if this guy is for you.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:48 PM on December 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

He then went on to tell me the definition of dry humour as though I was stupid/which I found extremely patronising considering he hadn't even seen the film but was determined to disagree with my thoughts on it regardless.

However my boyfriend didn't see the problem citing free speech. But this descended into a big debate rapidly. He ended up saying I "really had to put it into context with what's happening in the rest of the world"- ie. children starving in Africa!

Eventually he started picking out words I was saying, while analysing them to death.

In all three of these cases, the strength of his argument rests on its alignment with a greater authority's. He apparently thinks that strong arguments are those that align with an authority's.

That makes me think that you shouldn't expect much questioning of authority or creativity or resourcefulness from him, and that you shouldn't expect him to value those things in you. On the other hand, he probably hopes to display, and values in you, any signs of competence, stubbornness, and loyalty.

And suddenly we both feel very disconnected despite having such a nice evening earlier on.

Another time I was having a terribly stressful week and told him so (my relative was dying from cancer) and he responded with "well, everyone has varying degrees of stress in their life".

Again, he seems to be disconnecting from you in order to align himself with abstract, larger "authorities" (like "everyone"). That makes me think he needs to feel he's in control, or at least aligned with the people who are. If so, he's probably never going to want to be the person not in control of the situation or aligned with the person/people who are not in control of the situation, even if that person is you. I'd watch out for him being manipulative or controlling of you "for your own good," and for him avoiding accepting responsibility or blame. I'd also be careful about appearing weak or needy in front of him (he's likely to either exploit it or to abandon you).

Probably this is all about him having felt powerless and alone at some point (maybe when his parents died), and being really really really anxious about not feeling powerless and alone again, even by proxy. But that's really for his therapist to figure out with him, not his girlfriend. I wouldn't really worry about the "why" of it, I'd just bank on it not changing.

Anyway, if you want to win an argument with him, than start from a close read of a document/author that he respects, and build your argument from there. He's never going to respect or concede to an argument built just on your own thoughts and feelings, regardless of how coherent it is or how much he can empathize with it himself.
posted by rue72 at 4:33 PM on December 15, 2013 [7 favorites]

It's not uncommon for couples to engage in a competitive conflict style, i.e. both want to win. In this case, no one WINS in a philosophical debate unlike "who is going to take out the trash today." What most people WANT is to have their point of view understood and respected rather than the other person to AGREE with them, which is why the argument over the comedian was so irksome to you. You didn't want him to stop liking the comedian, you simply wanted your opinion to be acknowledged and respected by the person you are dating. He obviously didn't do that, WHICH IS NOT OK, no matter what the subject matter is, which is why these arguments sometimes trail off into hurtful territory.

I don't recommend simply YIELDING every time you don't want to cause a deeper argument. That can lead to the chilling effect, where you begin to withhold any disagreement you have just to prevent an escalating argument. It's a tough line to walk, but in this case, if what you're arguing about is IMPORTANT to you then you should never dismiss it as "non-important" for the sake of your own self-esteem in the relationship. Yes, some things are worth rolling your eyes and letting your partner win over, but NOT if they are important to you on some level. He shouldn't be the one to come out the "winner" all of the time just to keep peace.

I dated a fellow like this, who would straw person every argument we had. In this case, I think you're starting to discover incompatibilities in your ideologies that you find distressing. It is bothering you because you're still evaluating the relationship and him as a partner. If you think it is just his conflict style that needs addressing then have a counselor talk to you BOTH about conflict management in your relationship. Maybe he doesn't KNOW that his dismissing your opinions is hurtful because he never thought of it that way (humans aren't perfect!). If it is his WAY OF THINKING about things in general that bothers you, then you need to determine whether you can keep dating him despite it.
posted by Young Kullervo at 5:13 PM on December 15, 2013 [7 favorites]

Hm. When I think "blow out fights", I think yelling, crying. Possibly throwing a coffee cup or punching a wall if things get really extreme.

Arguing about the definition of dry humor just seems like an annoying, nitpicky argument. It doesn't even sound like anyone raised their voice or insulted each other (aside from on an abstract level. Implying that you know the definition of dry humor or the suffering of the poor better than another person doesn't really count as a direct insult - I'm talking about things like "you're being an asshole.")

So, my conclusion is twofold.
1. Reconsider your standards for "blow out fights". Everyone gets irritable once in a while. If this is the worst things get between the two of you, I think you've generally got a good thing going.
2. In my experience, I usually get antagonistic and irritable when I've been working too much or I haven't been connecting enough romantically with my significant other/spouse. When I'm in that mood, I might be argumentative about whatever it is that comes up, even stupid things, mainly because I'm just in an unhappy place in general. It's important to be able to identify when this is happening (either having some code phrase that gets used, or maybe just trying to flag it to yourself in your own mind) and then being willing to just say "you know what, forget about it. That's not important. I love you." Or just make a joke and say "hey, I don't want to fight. Let's go get ice cream." When my husband does this for me, I typically gain perspective on my mood and then apologize for being fighty. If your boyfriend can do the same, he's probably worth keeping around for the time being.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:15 PM on December 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

p.s. he scores extra points if in addition to apologizing for being fighty, he concedes points from the argument. "You know what, I've thought about it a little more and jokes about disabled people aren't really funny. I don't know why I was arguing with you about that - I must just be tired."

subtract points if he apologizes with some version of "sorry I made you upset." plus/minus "but I WAS right, you know."

game over if he doesn't apologize at all and never defuses an argument himself, just gets smug when you "lose" the argument by refusing to continue it.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:21 PM on December 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

He sounds like a ... guy? Who disagrees with you sometimes? I mean sheesh, two arguments in six months and you're being told to dump him? And people in thread are psychoanalysing his fear issues?

Have this conversation with him, not us, imo. Guys often understand things by breaking them apart to look at the bits. This can be helpful to you but can also piss you off as here. Tell him that.
posted by Sebmojo at 5:30 PM on December 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

My ex-boyfriend behaved in similar ways.

He always had to be right, debates could go on forever about stupid things (which I thought could be entertaining but which he seemed to view as contests proving or disproving his eternal right-ness, which definitely squashed the fun sometimes), would talk over me sometimes. He also seemed to lack the ability to put himself in another person's position as you mentioned above.

What I think it came down to really was that he was very insecure. It is impossible to be in a relationship with someone when they are more focused on proving they are the best/smartest/most succesful rather than on communicating with and relating to each other. He had been supportive of me and had done very kind things for me at times, but his underlying thoughts still remained and our relationship deteriorated.

From what you're saying, it sounds like your boyfriend is dismissive of other people's emotions and that he doesn't respect your intellect. You go on to say that these arguments make you feel disconnected from him. If this is the way he responds to other people's pain or how he views your knowledge and intellect, how will you feel as time goes on and, with every third conversation, this is the result? If this never changes, will you be okay with that? Also, you have only been together six months. This may seem like a long time, but I think six months is really only scratching the surface, especially for people who put up walls to hide the ugly person that they view themselves as. I think after six months is only when I started to see the "not-so-nice" side of my ex.

In my experience, arguments of the type you mentioned are a symptom of a larger problem. Your boyfriend has issues of his own he needs to work out (abandonment and/or whatever else may be going on) before he can be an equal, loving partner to someone. If you stay in a relationship with him, those issues will affect you. I lived with my ex and, while things were good at first, I spent six months feeling ignored, disrespected, dismissed, and eventually, unloved. My ex was very selfish and very mixed-up inside. You are lucky to have realized something is amiss so soon.
posted by sevenofspades at 5:34 PM on December 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

It sounds like your boyfriend has issues with sympathy, not necessarily empathy (although that too). All of these examples are about him dismissing your concerns or troubles in some kind of weird, nominally progressive, callout-culture, you-haven't-really-suffered way. Katie Price's son doesn't deserve sympathy because he's not a starving war orphan or whatever. You don't deserve sympathy when your relative is dying (!) because other people live hard lives. The bottom line here is that he seems to want to dictate what you should be feeling to you, and seems to have decided that you don't deserve support and comfort in your times of need. I don't know either of you or your circumstances, so I don't know where this attitude is coming from or what it's about, but for me, saying "well, everyone has varying degrees of stress in their life" when there's an imminent death in the family would be a dealbreaker. I would not ever again be able to trust that person to care for my emotional wellbeing or have my back.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 5:47 PM on December 15, 2013 [12 favorites]

Needing to be right is about power. Losing a parent means something has happened outside of your control (loss of power). If he had little support for this, it can compound things (why should I care about other people when no one/few people did for me). If he can win the argument, he has the power. Being able to look down on certain groups of people can give you power.

What we don't know is whether he is trying to look down on you when he is trying to win these arguments - that would be quite a big problem if that's the case - but we do know these arguments make you feel bad.

The big red flag here is his response to your relative dying. At the very least, it sounds like he has a lot of growing up to do. It's not necessarily something you need to hang around to help him with.
posted by heyjude at 6:20 PM on December 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

What's going on? This is how he is. If you stay with him, get used to this behavior. "Can't Be Wrong."
posted by tomboko at 6:53 PM on December 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

The big red flag here is his response to your relative dying. At the very least, it sounds like he has a lot of growing up to do. It's not necessarily something you need to hang around to help him with.

As someone who also lost multiple parents at a relatively young age (sounds like possibly still older than your boyfriend, well before most of my friends had started losing grandparents, I want to push back on this a bit.

Personally I have a very very very hard time being supportive of friends when they have distant relatives sick and dying. And by distant I basically mean anyone other than a child, sibling, parent, or grandparent that raised you. To be honest, it's even sometimes hard with my friends who are just now starting to lose parents, when they already have spouses and sometimes even children of their own.

I get all clenchy, tense, angry, resentful inside. I'm so jealous of them, to be honest, at such a perverse moment.

It sounds like you didn't lose your parents at a young age, possibly haven't even lost them yet. It's really really hard to overstate what a big deal it is, how it affects everything, every moment, every interaction, every event, every holiday, etc. If you as his girlfriend are not constantly aware of it as a background issue, then he's already doing a fairly decent job containing it.

Really, ideally he should have been able to suck it up and be there for you being sad about your relative dying. It's what I think I (now over a decade - good lord- past the first losses) would have been able to do. Though depending on the situation I would likely have paid for it later with general downness that I hope I would be self aware enough to figure out.

But if he's still younger, or if this isn't something he's had too much support on or practice with... maybe I am over empathizing but I think heyjude was a little harsh. Maybe on this specific kind of issue, it would help you to keep in mind that an orphan (orphaned young, no less, it sounds like) might not be the best person to go to for emotional support about a cousin or aunt or grandparent's dying.

The truth is I don't really disagree with most of the above posters that how a person deals with disagreements is a key clue to their character and coping and to figuring out compatibility. But just on this specific issue - to me it makes a big difference to hear that he lost both parents young.
posted by Salamandrous at 7:18 PM on December 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Hmmm. His losing his parents at a young age is reason for you to have empathy for him, but certainly not a free pass to treat you with anything less than respect.

I'd give a shot at mentioning to him that his disregard for your feelings in these situations/his need to be right at all costs is bothering you, and you'd like to work with him to navigate agreeing to disagree a little better.

If he reacts poorly to this request by disregarding it or not treating it with respect, DTMFAO.

The key here is that contempt for a partner is the number one indicator that things won't work out. It doesn't matter what background or psychological factors are behind it.
posted by susiswimmer at 7:40 PM on December 15, 2013 [7 favorites]

A sad and kind of scary truth: We tend to attract people with the same amount of baggage we ourselves have. It probably won't be the exact same issues, but the amount will be about the same.

As for the BF, been there, been that kinda ass-ish, and think Miles is pretty spot-on. I'd give him time, personally... Love DOESN'T magically fix people, but a decent relationship SHOULD (in my opinion) make people want to improve themselves... and maybe gives them the structure for some self healing, too.

Course,if yall continue to bicker unhealthily, or have a huge fight and he behaves completely terribly, that is where I'd draw lines. Healthy boundaries should always be set and enforced
posted by Jacen at 8:16 PM on December 15, 2013

I'm surprised no one has used the term "mansplaining" yet. (Like many others, I find the term sexist and a bit divisive, but the concept useful.) Does it sound like this is part of what's going on?

Obviously, there's more than one side to any argument and it takes two to perpetuate a disagreement and so on. As always, it's worth examining your own side; you mention both being "passionate/stubborn people." And I don't know if you disagree about other things that don't turn out into these "blow out fights." (If so, what's the difference between the disagreements which devolve and those which don't?)

Like you, however, the patronization would be what would drive me insane. How can you be in an equal partnership with someone who doesn't treat your thoughts and feelings with respect? As Rebecca Solnit (who had a man at a party explain to her a 'very important book' which it turns out he had not actually read and which she had actually written) wrote, "Being told that, categorically, he knows what he's talking about and she doesn't, however minor a part of any given conversation, perpetuates the ugliness of this world."

Being able to discuss things with your partner and have your views and feelings respected is an important, basic consideration. It's fine to have some topics you agree to disagree on (if such a thing is possible with you two), but it shouldn't be "horrible and exhausting." If you're both very young or in/close to that university examination/discussion mindset perhaps that can account for some of it and you'll learn to deal with it in time, but be sure to call him out on it if he's not treating your contributions with respect and good faith. That's not exactly logical or ethical behavior, and I bet he prides himself on both.
posted by spelunkingplato at 10:14 PM on December 15, 2013 [7 favorites]

many of us have dated this guy. DTMFA. mansplaining gets old fast. find someone who can relate to you as an equal and has better manners.
posted by zdravo at 4:25 AM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

As usual, it's a little crazy how readily people will tell you to DTMFA.

It sounds like your boyfriend's just being a dick from time to time. It's not so terrible and a lot of people (men in particular, I guess) have done something like this from time to time - including me. You should explain to him that sometimes he just needs to listen to what you're saying on its own terms and not argue back in this unhelpful way. It'd also be good if you were actually able to say "You're being a dick again!" to him when it happens. I think part of becoming more mature is recognising that this kind of behaviour is a drag for everyone else, but it's definitely something he can work to change, and it sounds like apart from this he might be worth it.
posted by cincinnatus c at 5:16 AM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Only you know if this is something that you can live with. I'm in the camp that says, don't engage.

So you pick up a magazine and you don't like the person on the cover. Your BF starts in with some kind of debate about it, "You know what? I don't have to like this yutz, and I don't have to justify it. If you want an arguement, do down to the pub and provoke someone there. I'm going to read now."

If you come home and you're feeling full of stress, and you're getting a 'put it in perspective' lecture, simply say, "I'm not asking you to lecture me. I'm asking for some empathy and sympathy. If you can't contribute either of those things, I need you to leave me alone so I can soak in the tub."

Ultimately you'll discover that your BF will knock this shit off, or he'll just argue harder. Ultimately it will get old and you'll break up. If your BF has an ounce of self-awareness, he'll work to stop doing it. But if he doesn't, it won't get better.

You can't change him, you can only change how you react to him when he's doing this annoying thing.

At some point you'll want to be with someone who can take your cues and work with them, not create conflict where none exists. If he's trainable, train him, if he's not, move on.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:48 AM on December 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

It may look, to the casual observer, like your boyfriend needs to be right. But that isn't really what's going on here. He doesn't need to be right - he needs you to be wrong.

Look, the only insight I have into your relationship is your write-up of a couple fights you've had, and you're probably in the state of mind where you're frustrated with him - frustrated enough that you wrote this question - and I don't know what he's like most of the time. But from what you're saying, he sounds like an asshole.

However my boyfriend didn't see the problem citing free speech.

This is something assholes do. At no point do you mention that you stated a desire for Frankie Boyle to be prevented from saying dumb shit - you only said you don't like the guy. Your boyfriend carefully and condescendingly explained why you were wrong to have an opinion about a guy who said shit that struck you as odious.

So Frankie Boyle can say whatever he wants, because of free speech, but you can't have an opinion without having it challenged, because your boyfriend needs you to be wrong.

Here's another thing assholes do.

Sooner or later, an asshole will realize that there's a criticism you can make about anyone, anywhere, at any time, and you will always be right: That no matter how big the issue is, it is not bigger. No matter what someone did, they did not do more. This can be used to bolster any argument you care to make, when you find yourself needing to intellectually express a visceral desire to cut something down. No matter how good a movie was, some dope will explain to you that it wasn't better.

So: You don't like something Frankie Boyle said? Well, you're wrong, he decides, and if his reasoning doesn't hold up (which it often won't, since he's coming up with it on the fly), he can always fall back on that. He can always tell you there are starving children in the world which means you're complaining about something dumb. He's bent on proving it doesn't matter, instead of acknowledging that it matters to you. You even say he admitted that he doesn't like Frankie Boyle, either - he just saw that you were daring to express an opinion, and he jumped on it. He picked a fight over an issue he doesn't care about - in other words, he picked a fight for the sake of picking a fight. That's incredibly unhealthy. It would be a cause for concern if he even did it once (without backing off immediately and apologizing for low blood sugar), but it sounds like he does it quite a bit.

Your boyfriend is starting from the position that you're wrong, and then he is figuring out reasons why. He told you that you were wrong about the humor in a movie that you saw and he didn't. He did this because he cannot imagine a situation in which you are not wrong, and he needed to demonstrate to you that you are wrong.

I personally would not stay in this relationship, because now you're at the six-month mark and he's comfortable and he's showing you what he's really like. I'm willing to bet that he'll continue to be a good cook and funny and all that, but he will also increasingly treat you with contempt.

But if you want to stay, you should address these concerns with him, explain that he seems to have a deep-seated need to be adversarial and correct you and argue with you when it's not necessary, and that this is not okay, and that he's treating you disrespectfully. I'm willing to be a not insignificant amount of money that this is a pattern in his life, though he likely won't see that and certainly won't admit to it.

And you should tell him that these are, again, deep-seated issues and that he should probably be talking to a therapist. If he can't or won't make the effort to figure out where this desire to belittle you comes from (and there's every chance he won't - or that he'll insist he can "work on himself" without the aid of counseling, which is bullshit and basically amounts to the same thing as saying he won't do anything at all), then you should probably just leave because it's only going to get worse.

Good luck.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:47 AM on December 16, 2013 [13 favorites]

> My main bit of advice would be that, if you find yourself actively being uncharitable or unkind or arguing in bad faith, IT ENDS THERE. Say "You know what, babe? You have a point. Maybe 'Scary Movie 5' wasn't really that funny, and either way I'm being a total asshole right now. I'm sorry. Can we make up?"

Wow. You're seriously suggesting that she should just give up when he disagrees with her? Just say "You have a point," and back down and shut up? That doesn't sound like a good strategy to me.

> My hope, if your boyfriend is a good person, is that when he sees that you can be the bigger person in these tiffs, he will realize he's been acting like a dick, too.

Hope springs eternal, but I think it's very much more likely that he'll sit back in satisfaction and say to himself "I'm right right right, and she acknowledges it—I guess I'll keep her!"

I agree with those who say this is a strong signal; even if it doesn't happen that often (yet...), you have to decide whether you're willing to spend a significant chunk of your life with someone who has to be right at your expense and dismisses your emotional needs. Only you can answer that question.
posted by languagehat at 7:54 AM on December 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

People respond to disagreement and frustration differently, some of them by blowing up.

The question that you should ask yourself, because you are in this relationship voluntarily: is this something you will be happy dealing with for the rest of your life?

If not, and it sounds like it's not, then your first step is to tell your boyfriend very clearly what behavior is bothering you. If it sounds like something he's willing to work on, then I'd suggest the two of you come up with some strategies together, perhaps with a counselor.

If he doesn't see there being a problem, can't make the connections between these incidents, thinks you are the problem, etc., then this is not a good relationship.

Wow. You're seriously suggesting that she should just give up when he disagrees with her? Just say "You have a point," and back down and shut up? That doesn't sound like a good strategy to me.

This strategy works fantastically for people that you are not in a voluntary, equal partnership with - stubborn family members, a superior at your workplace, etc. OP, that doesn't sound like the kind of relationship you want to have with your boyfriend.
posted by capricorn at 9:20 AM on December 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

And, this isn't a direct answer to your question but addresses something else in your OP:

Another time I was having a terribly stressful week and told him so (my relative was dying from cancer) and he responded with "well, everyone has varying degrees of stress in their life".

From everything you've said, your boyfriend reminds me very much of someone I know, who sees things in a very black and white kind of way. There is correct, and there is incorrect. If someone is incorrect, that means want to know the facts and will be happy to be set straight. He also likes debating for debating's sake (and lucky for him, I do too, so we mostly get along in that area, but have sometimes had these kinds of bewildering fights as well).

I could easily see this person responding to something in a similar way as what you described above. He would see the above as just a statement, and he would say something related to the statement to make conversation, for instance, making a comment related to stress because he thinks stress is the topic of conversation. He isn't trying "to discuss everything else on earth", he's just not picking up the cues that are telling him the implied topic of the conversation.

So: communication. Don't just say "I'm having a really stressful week," but "I'm having a really stressful week and I'd like you to _____________." Explain all the details that in your mind are REALLY OBVIOUS, but are not actually literally stated. Explain why you are telling him a piece of information. Why is it important to him? How would you prefer him to respond?
posted by capricorn at 9:36 AM on December 16, 2013

Wow. You're seriously suggesting that she should just give up when he disagrees with her? Just say "You have a point," and back down and shut up? That doesn't sound like a good strategy to me.

If it's about a subjective and completely unimportant thing like "was movie X funny" or "what do you think of Y celebrity", yes. Absolutely.

It takes two people to ramp up a disagreement about a matter of personal taste into a relationship-ending blowout. The best way to not get into a pattern of these kinds of fights is to not participate in escalating them. There's a reason the expression "not the hill you want to die on" was coined. Sometimes you just let your boyfriend not like a movie you liked, and move the fuck on with your lives.
posted by Sara C. at 9:46 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I see a lot of long winded responses, but...

However my boyfriend didn't see the problem citing free speech. But this descended into a big debate rapidly. He ended up saying I "really had to put it into context with what's happening in the rest of the world"- ie. children starving in Africa!

...means you are dating an asshole. By which I mean someone lacking in empathy, deeply self centered and hostile to any contradictory viewpoint.

Don't ever date someone like this: Eventually he started picking out words I was saying, while analysing them to death.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:59 AM on December 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

"Free speech" doesn't mean what your bf thinks it means. Freedom of speech (expression) means that the GOVERNMENT can't make laws restricting CERTAIN KINDS of speech.

In this case, you're not saying that the comedian should be restricted by law from making "jokes" about disabled people. You're saying that you don't like the joke that you agree he has every right to make.

Here's another example: You tell your boyfriend to shut up. Are you violating his constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression? No, because you are not a government actor making a law that inhibits his speech. So go ahead and tell him to shut up.

Speech is regulated on a continuum. Political speech is the most protected speech, commercial speech is less protected, pornography is unprotected, and certain kinds of speech, notable child pornography, are criminal.

But I swear 'fore God that I will NEVER date anyone ever again who says "free speech" when they mean "you should shut up." Where's YOUR freedom of expression in that discussion? What a fuckwad, you should excuse the expression.
posted by janey47 at 10:20 AM on December 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

Your question at the at the top is "what's going on?" None of us knows what's in his head so I'm afraid I've got nothing there. But, I've been you - dated a charming, smart, intelligent, talented guy who did this to a T, and when I asked a relative about how to deal with his outbursts, was told that we "might just have to agree to disagree sometimes." His outbursts had this pattern you've seen of rapid escalation from a near-offhand comment: for example, one event started from my discomfort at the idea of circumcising a future baby of my own and blew up to his perceived religious persecution by me and my inability to understand basic scientific and medical research. (This is a grown man in his mid 30s, mind. Oh, and guess which of us has the stronger research background?)

1. You are the only one who gets to decide whether you want to be in a relationship in which it is acceptable to "agree-to-disagree" about your own opinions about a tasteless joke. Imagine your ideal relationship. There will be disagreements. How will they be resolved?

2. I imagined numerous ways to resolve conflicts. I thought I could handle my ex's outbursts by finding a tactic we could both work with. First I tried reasoned intellectual engagement, but his goalposts kept moving ("no, women don't feel harassed by street cat-calls" to "okay so you do, but let me just call this one friend, she doesn't think so" to "well this is just an internet discussion" to "well this scientific researcher is biased"). Clearly, this didn't work. Next time I tried just walking away. When things got heated I said "hey, this started as an offhand comment and kind of spiraled, I love you, can I hang up / I'll go for a walk and see you later." No dice; he steamrolled over me and kept arguing. I had to disengage, so I hung up. He remained angry.

You can see that no "tactic" worked. And he refused to meet me halfway, nor did he see that it was a problem; our conversations about his tendency to escalate ended up with him taking no responsibility for trying to reduce those outbursts in the future. (Yes, his abusive childhood was sucky. No, that doesn't mean he gets to use that as an excuse to continue to act this way as an adult.)

Finally, it was then that I realized this relationship couldn't go further. To this day I don't know where his outbursts were coming from - if he needed to be right, if he needed me to be wrong, if he needed to control me, or if he just cannot process his emotions. The locus of these outbursts wasn't my problem, per se. The fact that he refused to acknowledge that these outbursts were problematic, and his refusal to do any work on his end to make it better, was the death of our relationship.

So it's up to you. First, imagine how a conflict would be ideally resolved between two people who love each other. (And I mean literally ideal: for me, this means no outbursts). Then work from there. If he won't work toward that, then that is a sign it may be time to let this relationship go.
posted by nicodine at 11:46 AM on December 16, 2013 [8 favorites]

...means you are dating an asshole. By which I mean someone lacking in empathy, deeply self centered and hostile to any contradictory viewpoint.

I do not think the facts as presented warrant the sweeping interpretation you have placed upon them.

This is a relationship challenge that will take effort to get over, and the effort needs to come from both sides if it's going to be a good relationship.

So yes, logic-chopping boyfriend could do with seeing that his girlfriend's getting pissed off and back down. Socially aware girlfriend could recognise that what a comedian said once or w/e isn't a great hill to die on and let some things slide.

If neither party is willing to change, then sure, split the hell up. But that unwillingness to change is going to be the reason, not the specific behaviour.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:28 PM on December 16, 2013

Late to the party here, but I just wanted to add that there can be a very fine line between lack of empathy and belligerence that is annoying and insensitive and the same behavior that fits the definition of verbal and emotional abuse. IME, the men I have encountered that fit the description of your boyfriend have ALWAYS gone on to show me how much more hostile and self-centered they really are. YMMV.
posted by strelitzia at 1:13 PM on December 17, 2013

It has zero to do with free speech. Congress has made no law that prevents him from spewing any filth he wants to.
I can't tell you what to do. But I can't imagine spending time with anyone who makes jokes about disabled people. Or Mexicans. Or gays. Or blacks. Etc.
posted by LonnieK at 6:01 PM on April 3, 2014

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