Boyfriend anger, one time occurrence? what to do now...
August 12, 2014 2:52 AM   Subscribe

I've been with my boyfriend for a little over two years. We've had a good, happy, supportive, and very loving relationship with very few bumps in the road. He has a tendency to get irritated more easily than I, which usually diffuses rather quickly by him realizing he's overreacting. On occasion I've said to him "oh come on, its not that big of deal" when he is overreacting and it diffuses. So nothing outside of the norm. My temperament is on the extreme end of laid back, while his is closer to the high strung end.

Last night, I witnessed for the first time him getting very angry, angrier than I've ever seen. His anger was not directed at me, but at a family member that he was having a disagreement with. I really didn't like what I witnessed, especially the yelling, and it made me really uncomfortable. I was so embarrassed by his behavior and felt like it was so out of line, and that he had an incredibly strong reaction to something really minor. This happened at the end of the night of a social gathering, so we went our separate ways shortly after the argument.

He realized after the fact that he crossed a line and and sent me an email apologizing within an hour of what I witnessed. He says he knows he was out of line, he knows sometimes he gets too angry/irritated too easily, that he's apologized to all the people involved, and saying he'll give me space.

I know I don't really want to be around him for a couple of days, I feel like I need to process and that I need my space. He knows me well and suggested this also. Part of me feels like this is a red flag, another part of me feels like this is a one time occurrence and that people overreact sometimes.

Since the occurrence I've sent two very frank emails regarding how it made me feel and we've communicated through email. So I feel like I'm doing a good job communicating my feelings and he is also, but I still have questions about how best to handle this.

My question is what do I do now? Is this something to work through together? Do I just keep an eye out for more behavior like this? How do we move forward without holding this what seems to be a one time occurrence over his head?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I see lots of green flags. He's realised his mistake and is giving you space. Perhaps he would be open to anger management or therapy? Maybe something to bring up when you talk next. If he doesn't want to do therapy that might be a red flag. Oh, and some therapy for yourself to clarify what you want to happen.
posted by Mistress at 2:57 AM on August 12, 2014 [11 favorites]

Given that it's the first time you've seen this behavior in over two years, personally I'd keep alert for a repeat of the same sort of thing, but I would also try to let it go and not obsess over it too much. Were there extenuating circumstances? Often people behave with family members in ways they never would with anyone else - what kind of history is there between your boyfriend and the family member?

If you told me that he hit his family member during the argument, my answer might be different. But (and maybe I'm picturing something less severe than what happened), yelling happens sometimes, and is a lot less shocking when it happens with a family member versus a stranger or acquaintance.
posted by amro at 3:01 AM on August 12, 2014 [11 favorites]

Don't forget that minor events, in families, can have long histories behind them that can cause people to 'overreact' to an outsider. It's hard to comment on whether this is a red flag without knowing what the anger looked like but I wouldn't necessarily assume that what appeared minor to you didn't have lots of lovely family dynamic issues behind it.
posted by jojobobo at 3:03 AM on August 12, 2014 [67 favorites]

This hits close to home for me: I grew up in a family in which losing one's temper, yelling, loud proclamations of irritation at people and outright fights were normal. I was very quick to express annoyance and shout. Once I got together with my partner, who is extremely calm and has a family where conflict is virtually unheard of and is definitely conducted using inside voices, I realised I couldn't continue to allow my anger to get out of control and I've worked very hard to damp down my reactions to irritation and cultivate higher levels of tolerance for annoyance. And I never shout at my partner, ever. It's hard, and when I'm at my parent's without my partner it is very easy to slip back into the family way of doing things, and behave in ways which my partner would find unacceptable. I'd like to think that this isn't the worse thing in the world and something that can be forgiven, as long as I keep on trying to do things differently.

So it seems to me like he's being good in general about keeping his levels of irritation and temper under control, and the way you two are handling this seems healthy. So unless this becomes a recurring thing or he turns his anger on you, I would say chalk it up to a stressful day, family tensions, one too many beers, or whatever, and move on.

If he was threatening violence that's a different matter and I would take that very seriously.
posted by mymbleth at 3:22 AM on August 12, 2014 [13 favorites]

I clicked through expecting this to be about anger at you. And was actually, for lack of better phrasing, pleasantly surprised that wasn't the case.

First of all, i think how someone interacts with their own family is something that has to be taken completely separately from any other social interaction. I don't buy into any of those "oh, watch how he treats his mom he'll eventually treat you like that!" theories. It's sooo easy for a shitty family member to pick at some years and years old wound, from long before you even met in a way that would seem completely innocuous to an outsider and rightfully angering to the other person.

I really think jojobobo has it here. I could absolutely imagine some of the really cringe worthy painful moments i've had with my family(especially my extended family) around looking like me, or one of my parents blowing up out of nowhere because someone was trolling and making light about something that was a Big Deal, or subtly snarking and making callbacks about past bullying/abusive behavior, or whatever.

It can seem like an explosion, and it can seem out of line... but sometimes it's really like getting psychologically pantsed by a grade school bully. And sometimes that's exactly what they're looking for.

But yea, anyways, i think he handled this in honestly a really adult Stand Up Guy way. I was fairly impressed reading it, since i probably wouldn't have handled it that well.
posted by emptythought at 4:06 AM on August 12, 2014 [9 favorites]

I think it's odd that you gave the bare bones of the story (he was angry at a family member he was having a disagreement with). What's the relationship with the family member? What was the disagreement about? What's the history between the two? What did he do that crossed a line?

My point here is that you seem to focusing strictly on the fact that he got super angry without considering why. As others have pointed out, there could be years of relationship dynamics that resulted in this blow up.

This sounds more like your laid back personality being bothered by his high strung one. You should ask yourself whether thats a one time thing or something that's been building.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:25 AM on August 12, 2014 [11 favorites]

I wouldn't worry about this too much. Echoing others here that families can bring out the absolute worst in us.

If someone were to watch my family's interactions with my grandmother they'd probably think we were all terrible people. But the thing is that my grandma is the original concern troll. When one of us blows up at her, seemingly way out of proportion, when she says something relativity innocuous, of course we look like we're overreacting. But what you don't see are the 10 other times she's said it today, or the last half a century of her saying it every day.

Family history can cause tensions to bubble very close to the surface. Mix that with someone who already has a tendency to lose their temper and man, it's a perfect storm.

I think your boyfriend sounds great. He recognizes that his level of anger was inappropriate, he apologized, and he's opened a dialog about it with you. Those are all very good things. It may be useful for him to see a therapist for a while to find better outlets to manage the stress his family causes him. It helped for me.
posted by phunniemee at 4:46 AM on August 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

I just got home from a two week visit with some family and am still shocked that nobody got murdered. Sounds like this behavior isn't usual for your boyfriend and that he is handling the situation well. People flip out sometimes and it doesn't mean they are abusive or unstable.

Family brings out a special brand of crazy in some of us like nothing else.
posted by futureisunwritten at 4:55 AM on August 12, 2014 [12 favorites]

Anger is not always bad or unhealthy, nor is it always inappropriate. You and your boyfriend have very different anger thresholds (fwiw, I'm just like you), and it seems like communication is good.

The question for you is whether or not you can live with a slow, sporadic, possibly-never-complete process of your boyfriend's adjusting to an expression style that you find more comfortable. If so, then you seem good to go--he's willing, it's doable. If not, then I'd cut bait fast and not drag it out too long.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 4:57 AM on August 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I really didn't like what I witnessed, especially the yelling, and it made me really uncomfortable. I was so embarrassed by his behavior and felt like it was so out of line

I think you need to figure out why seeing his display of anger makes you uncomfortable and embarrassed.

Your boyfriend's behavior, from your description, is well within the range of normal behavior and he was very considerate about the effect his anger had on you. Therapy and anger management seem like overkill here. He got very angry, he yelled, so what? Different people have different styles. It doesn't sound like there's anything wrong with him, or with you -- but it does sound like, to live happily together, you may each have to change. Your boyfriend has already recognized that his anger bothers you and backs down when you point out he's overreacting. Maybe it's time for you to give a little too, and learn to tolerate expressions of anger as long as they're not disrespectful.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:53 AM on August 12, 2014 [16 favorites]

Do you spend a lot of time trying to diminish your partner's feelings as a way of getting him to back down from his anger? If so, I would suggest that you stop doing that and instead talk with your boyfriend about what he's feeling so that he can process his concerns rather than subvert them just because you don't know what to do about them. Stop telling him his concerns are minor just because YOU think they are or ought to be. You're not being supportive or fair right now, and I imagine he's been walking on eggshells around you for some time because you seem to respect his right to feel what he feels very little.
posted by Hermione Granger at 6:21 AM on August 12, 2014 [42 favorites]

My husband is the most mellow person I know, with a "high tolerance for inappropriate behavior" (a therapist told him that years ago, and it's one of our jokes). We've weathered some really tough things. But occasionally he will get really, really upset about something small -- an appliance broke, or he was late renewing something, etc. It comes on kind of suddenly; he'll swear and sound kind of despondent, like "This always happens to ME! Everything sucks!" and it's hard to get him to see things being better.

I know he's doing this because he doesn't let things bug him in other circumstances. This is one way that all of those other emotions come out -- even though he usually does a great job of talking about rough times while they're going on. It just frightens me because it's a complete 180 from the person I know.

It's tough to deal with because I WANT him to be able to express himself in whatever way he chooses. I had a lot of times growing up where my mom, especially, made me feel like my emotions were inappropriate. It's so demeaning when that happens.

So I don't know what you can do about it except understand that he probably is just needing a very infrequent pressure valve to come open. When it happens, maybe you can talk through it with him (if he's in that kind of mood to accept it) and help him get to a better point.
posted by Madamina at 6:29 AM on August 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Honestly, given the communication that you guys have been having since the event, the apologies, and the appropriate amount of space you're given each other, I would say that you two are the most emotionally mature and resolution-oriented couple that has ever appeared in an anonymous askme.

You're doing everything right, but without knowing the context and nature of his outburst (was it at all physical?), it's hard for us to say anything specific.
posted by Think_Long at 6:34 AM on August 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've known cosmically laid back people... who were actually rather emotion-avoidant and used the laidbackness as an excuse not to engage. Therefore strong emotions from others were especially difficult for them to cope with but they flipped it on the other person "why are you harshing my mellow dude....."

People get angry sometimes. Sounds like you've talked it out maturely. I'd just ask myself if I had any discomfort about anger, either my own or others anger. That might round out how you are looking at things. Just a thought.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:48 AM on August 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think you're handling this well. But it might do both of you good to be reminded that emotions and actions* are not the same. One can be very very angry and not ever yell or throw things or call people names, or whatever verb you found embarrassing and didn't clearly articulate to us.

It also helps to note that anger is often a secondary emotion. The primary emotion might be frustration, or fear, or shame, or embarrassment. The primary emotion usually a vulnerable and uncomfortable thing. Without practice in identifying the underlying emotion, it can be very hard to get to the bottom of preventing/defusing angry behaviors. Often the brain shifts from the primary emotion to anger in less than a second (think about getting cut off in traffic and shouting angry swears at the driver being wreckless), so practicing identifying a range of emotions can help slow down the way the brain reaches for anger (and it's attendant verbs).

That said, is that verb that embarrassed you generally within a range of normal for his family of origin?

Some non-judgmental but leading questions for you.....Does he have a variety of healthy ways to express anger, or does his irritation come out consistently in things like belittling someone (even behind their back) or griping about a situation? Is he solution focused when he is irritated? Does he complain or express that other people have it in for him? Is he getting outwardly irritated about things like restaurants with long wait times, poor grammar in television shows, or about social injustice and people not meeting actual important obligations. To bring it back to the recent incident, was this a disagreement over a sports team/favorite color/ice cream flavor, or about world/political/financial/big picture stuff?

Finally, poke around for your anger. You have some, even if it's just a little bit. Make friends with it. Anger isn't a bad thing. It can help you get stuff done, and it can tell you a lot about your world.

*Seriously, I discovered in my mid/late 20s that I was one of the most angry people I knew and it blew my mind. Yay therapy. I just didn't know how angry I was because for me anger was so tied up in yelling and breaking things and hurting people, and I didn't do any of that.
posted by bilabial at 6:50 AM on August 12, 2014 [8 favorites]

In the last 20 years I have gotten really angry once. It was a yelling fight with my dad over how he was treating my mom. I was really upset and shaken up and my partner really helped me get over it. I hope you go back to him soon, he probably needs you right now.
posted by ftm at 7:26 AM on August 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Nothing really happened here. He got into an argument with a family member (family being one of those things that triggers anger in a lot of people), he got overheated and then apologized. This isn't a red flag. It isn't even a flag. I'm not even sure he gets angry easily, it sounds like you may overreact to anger and that's why he's apologizing all the time.

The story would be entirely different if he said some truly hurtful things at the drop of the hat, or ever got physical or abusive, but from you bare bones description, you witnessed a family argument. Uncomfortable and embarrassing, sure. But staying away from him for days? Therapy? Overkill.
posted by spaltavian at 7:27 AM on August 12, 2014 [8 favorites]

I agree with Hermione Granger; telling him he is overreacting isn't helpful in this kind of situation. It's his family, for one thing. You're not really in a position to understand. Otherwise, yes, I think you are both doing a good job. Giving each other space is excellent at times like this.
posted by BibiRose at 7:31 AM on August 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think you are overreacting honestly. It feels like you are deeply uncomfortable with feelings that are not positive. I don't think you should need space because he had an angry argument with someone else. That's totally strange to me. I feel like some couples are always talking about their issues without really ever talking about them. You both say all the right things, and you feel encouraged because you're communicating but you're only communicating about communicating, not communicating about what's really going on.
posted by Aranquis at 7:48 AM on August 12, 2014 [17 favorites]

Oh, I don't think OP is overreacting, but I also agree that the boyfriend has been open and communicative about OP's feelings, which is good. I am conflict averse, big-time, because of past family dynamics, and I can see myself freaking out over a partner yelling angrily at someone. I would want to be reassured that the partner was taking my discomfort seriously, which is sounds like OP's boyfriend is.
posted by feste at 8:28 AM on August 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

The thing is that the OP appears to be taking any and all anger on the part of her BF as personal and utterly not okay, and that's not reasonable. People get mad. Their reasons for being mad are usually personal and valid. Asking someone to never be angry is not something healthy or fair. The BF is dealing with his emotions in a healthy, human way. If anger upsets you, OP, that's on YOU. Your BF has already gone the extra mile to cater to you. What are you doing for him and his needs?
posted by Hermione Granger at 8:54 AM on August 12, 2014 [22 favorites]

Anger is one thing, yelling, though, really freaks some people out. You may think it's okay to yell, but that does not make it so. And of course, it is personal. The OP is wondering if he would ever yell like that at her (or at least, that's what I would be wondering, and worrying about). Don't act like her feelings are not valid. And he's "catering" to her? He seems like a good guy, in my opinion, to be making great efforts to reassure her, and that is not catering.
posted by feste at 9:22 AM on August 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

"Anger" can mean so many different things. Anger can be appropriate and healthy, a signal that someone's crossed our boundaries and an inspiration to adjust the relationship so it works better for everyone. "Hey, it bothers me when you leave the cabinets open. Can you remember to close them, please?" is an expression of anger, though polite and respectful. Anger isn't necessarily a problem; disrepectful, controlling, belittling, destructive, or damaging expressions of anger usually are problems.
posted by jaguar at 9:59 AM on August 12, 2014

Telling your partner "oh come on, it's not a big deal" when they're upset is extremely disrespectful. It's an awesome way to build up suppression of feelings and quiet resentment in your partner. Agreed with the above that from the information given, you are vastly overreacting.
posted by celtalitha at 10:17 AM on August 12, 2014 [7 favorites]

I was so embarrassed by his behavior and felt like it was so out of line, and that he had an incredibly strong reaction to something really minor.

Feeling embarrassed (or frightened, or upset) are all emotions that you have every right to experience and express within reason. The same is true of your boyfriend. However, the rest of the sentence I quoted above is just your judgments about the situation. It's not really up to you to make a decision about what counts as minor or an overreaction. And yeah, I absolutely have responded to family member's in a way that I would never respond to everyone else, and that has to do with a lot of baggage and history and whatnot.

With all that being said, what exactly was the behavior that bothered you? It's one thing to have some raised voices and a bit of shouting. If we're talking slammed doors, broken objects, full on temper tantrum, that's a whole other thing. Beyond that, threats of violence or actual physical altercations are another level that for me would be absolutely unacceptable, but I'm assuming it didn't come close to that based on your description.

It's up to you to decide what you are and aren't willing to tolerate in a partner. Maybe you two aren't a good match temperament-wise, but I don't think there's anything inherently "better" about being laid back versus emotionally expressive.

I don't want to label you as "overreacting" because that's a value judgment in and of itself, but I think it's worth evaluating why you've responded to this incident in the way that you have. Unless you're leaving out something, this doesn't sound to me like a relationship ending event, or even a relationship changing one, and I say this as someone who has a very low threshold for tolerating loud expressions of anger.
posted by litera scripta manet at 10:39 AM on August 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Are you laid back or just avoid conflict? There is a difference. You sound like you just like to avoid conflict, this is no healthier than someone that get's over the top angry all the time. This sounds like an issue you both need to work on. It sounds like he is working at trying not to be so confrontational and angry around you, what are you doing to become less sensitive and not see displays of strong emotions as always being a bad thing? I really think couples therapy would be really useful for you both. You can both express how you feel and learn tools you can both use, your boyfriend to be less openly angry, and you to not need minimize your boyfriends feelings to feel comfortable.
posted by wwax at 10:40 AM on August 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Last night, I witnessed for the first time him getting very angry, angrier than I've ever seen. His anger was not directed at me, but at a family member that he was having a disagreement with. I really didn't like what I witnessed, especially the yelling, and it made me really uncomfortable. I was so embarrassed by his behavior and felt like it was so out of line, and that he had an incredibly strong reaction to something really minor. This happened at the end of the night of a social gathering, so we went our separate ways shortly after the argument.

Growing up, my next door neighbor had 8 kids. Five of them were boys. One was kind of small and skinny. He was the one you did not want to mess with. He had false teeth by his mid-twenties from having so many teeth knocked out in fights. He was the one who would really put a hurt on you if you started shit with him because, hey, he was the smallest guy, trying to hold his own.

He grew up. He moved to another state. He started a construction company. He would come home to see family at Christmas with his very lovely wife (I don't just mean pretty, I mean really sweet and great to be around) and I would be hired to take care of their two utterly adorable, well-behaved daughters in the evening. And his lovely wife routinely came to pick the girls up a bit earlier than she had planned, in tears because there had been some awful confrontation of some sort and this kind of stuff was utterly alien to her life experience and her wonderful husband was nothing like that any other time.

It is entirely possible that if you just stay away from the family, you will never see this behavior anywhere else.
posted by Michele in California at 11:10 AM on August 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

On occasion I've said to him "oh come on, its not that big of deal" when he is overreacting and it diffuses.

I'm surprised you talking to him in this way doesn't drive him crazy. I would feel very put down by you. Just because it isn't a big deal to you doesn't mean it isn't a big deal to him.
posted by palomago at 12:03 PM on August 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

My sister can wind me up into a crazy-assed lunatic in about 3 minutes. I only takes my mother 1 minute.

Some families deal with anger by screaming and yelling and echoing that what's appropriate in a family looks like absolute madness to a more mild mannered person.

Don't think this means anything. Perhaps anger management would help, but never tell anyone who's angry, "it's no big deal." Because it really, really can be, you just don't know the history.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:08 PM on August 12, 2014

You expect that when you tell him to "calm down, it's not that big of a deal" that he'll listen and drop the subject. So now play by your own rules. Tell yourself "it's just a little anger, people get angry sometimes, it's not that big of a deal" and drop it.
posted by storminator7 at 9:54 PM on August 12, 2014

There are two prongs to this for: long-term and short-term.

In the short term, he's human and makes mistakes, and seems to be making attempts at repair. So, proceed with mild concern.

BUT, that must be bolstered with a concern for the Long Term: he needs to be a person who WANTS to reduce that level of anger. He needs to make that an issue for his own self-improvement.

If he follows up long-term concern with short-term remedies, you've got yourself a real, live, breathing, viable human worth spending your time with! Congrats!
posted by counterfugue at 11:02 PM on August 12, 2014

Others have addressed some of the key points you need to look at in this situation (the family dynamic, the "oh, it's no big deal" about his feelings comments), but I wanted to add this:

You seem to be specifically trying to carry on your conversation with him about this via e-mail (because you're afraid to talk to him? Not clear). That is rarely the best way to discuss your feelings about relationship issues unless you are also having in-person conversations as well. So much can be lost to nuance when you communicate via email. If you feel that this is a really important issue, then this is definitely not the sort of thing you want to be talking about over email.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:28 AM on August 13, 2014

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