Communication between two hypersensitive, beanplating marshmallows
August 12, 2014 9:12 AM   Subscribe

My boyfriend and I both hate making each other feel bad. Does this mean we can't talk about things that aren't going well? He in particular feels very hurt when I bring up things that are bothering me.

First, I just want to point out that I'm a noob at relationships and expressing myself and even just knowing what I want or what's bothering me or why. But I do think communication is paramount and that it's important to talk it over when the inevitable conflicts of two humans trying to fit their lives together come up.

I've been seeing this guy for a short time (we're in our mid 20's), and I've noticed that he might not share quite the same view. The first few times I brought up something that was bothering me, he's immediately expressed feeling really bad about it, and then that makes me feel bad. Occasionally I've even mentioned something offhand that I've noticed about him that he's taken to mean I didn't like it, and thereafter never did it again. It's possible that I'm just really bad at expressing myself and came across as critical?

Lately I've been scared to say anything to him that might sound like a criticism or a complaint. We're both a little over-sensitive and hate making people feel bad. The problem is that I've been feeling like I'm unable to communicate with him, and that's making me feel helpless and resentful. The other night, I wound up crying on him about it (ugh, overreaction much?) when it all came rushing out. Of course he felt terrible, I felt terrible, hence this question.

As an example, let me tell you what the source of conflict was. I was feeling miffed about some of the activities we did together, which seemed to be basically him leading his normal life and me observing him. For example, we'd be setting up the computer to watch Netflix together, and he'd start checking his work email. Being in bed with him, at his apartment, I really had nowhere to go and no way to similarly entertain myself, especially since I couldn't predict whether this would be a minute's distraction or 10. Similarly, I didn't like that I spent a lot of time waiting for him to get home from work (since he was always getting stopped on his way out the door to answer more questions, making it impossible to time when I should leave work myself), or that we did a lot of his hobbies together (because I liked them) but none of mine (because he didn't).

Obviously, telling him this while crying was not going to end well. He was so hurt, and I immediately realized that 1) I did like being part of his life and getting to know him in this way, and 2) if I didn't like the activities we were doing together, I should just stop them and propose an alternate, and 3) when you open your computer of course your instinct is going to be to check your email, what's not normal about that? and 4) in any case none of these were big enough deals to actually cry over. I immediately started trying to take back everything I said, but the damage had already been done and he was already feeling bad and I was feeling bad and it was in general a bad time. Now he feels like he can't do his thing around me and we have to try one of my hobbies at least once a week and he has to let me make all the decisions about what we do together or I'm going to be mad at him. I just want to undo that whole conversation.

So, this is where I need help. If I don't talk to this guy, I wind up spewing my crazy at him all in a concentrated dose, which is unacceptable. If I do, it usually winds up going similarly to this, but less dramatic: he's hurt, I rationalize for him, we have sad hugs and secretly wonder if we're even compatible (I presume).

I guess my questions are two-fold.

0) What on earth is wrong with me? I have a very critical mother. Maybe I'm turning into her. No, I know you have no way of answering this.

1) What should I do when I start to get bothered by something that we're doing? Especially when I don't blame him for it in any way or even quite know why it bothers me? Is the right approach to be more aware of my needs (somehow) and gently steer us away from things I don't like as they're happening? Or is it to diary about it and deal with these problems that don't even matter on my own? I like to think I'm very good at seeing from his point of view, so I understand why he's doing a lot of these things, and I like making him happy, so I do enjoy them, somewhat. I don't think he's a bad person for it and I don't want to hurt him for such petty complaints.

2) Can you help me understand this mentality? Why does he feel so hurt when I tell him, "Oh hey, I thought about it, and I'm actually not really into this show you suggested after we tried the first episode."? I'm pretty sensitive myself, so I more than understand a fear of criticism (I sometimes think of him as me, but ~5 years ago). But fearing criticism myself, I've always thought I was good at saying things in the nicest way possible, explain that I don't blame him for it or think less of him for it. But he said something like, he has to feel bad or he won't remember and change his behavior. He's also never told me anything I was doing that bothered him, so maybe in his mind we're not supposed to talk about things like this.

I understand that not all relationships are destined to work, or work easily, but I just wonder if there's any way for this one to, since the problem seems to be that we both care too much.
posted by segfault to Human Relations (22 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Most relationship skills have a "counterskill"; both parties must have both skills for a relationship to function optimally.

Both of you have one skill; not wanting to make the other feel bad. That's a good skill, and one not everyone has. It sounds like neither of you have the counterskill, which is not taking personally the concerns of the other person; as an example, if my wife tells me she needs more help with the baby, I don't take it as a referendum on my parenting. It's a statement of my wife's needs, which I try to accommodate because her happiness is important.

Like you, I had the "not hurt" skill long before the "not be hurt" skill. But my relationships were not really great before I got the second skill.

You can't make someone not be hurt even if you're not trying to hurt them. It may be that you and your boyfriend develop that critical second skill together, and that's great. It may be that you don't. With just one of the two skills, your relationship may limp along--maybe for a long time. I was in a 15-year relationship with limited relationship skillsets. And you may break up sooner. No one can say.

Hopefully as each year passes, and with each new relationship, you get more skills to help in the future.

Good luck.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:27 AM on August 12, 2014 [55 favorites]

"seemed to be basically him leading his normal life and me observing him. For example, we'd be setting up the computer to watch Netflix together, and he'd start checking his work email."

listen, i don't think there is anything wrong with you. some of this behavior is pretty rude and you are right to feel frustrated and annoyed by it.

when you are a guest at his house, there for the purposes of interacting with him (not, for example, "can i come over and sit on your couch and do some work of my own before we have dinner") then when he checks his email he is being rude and ignoring his guest. not cool. if i invited even just a platonic friend over, i would not start watching a show or movie then bust out my cell phone to reply to work messages. no.

work when you work, and socialize when you socialize, barring an actual emergency, which should not happen all that often. next time he does that stop him and ask, "do you have to do that right this minute? can it wait until tomorrow, or until after i go home? it makes me feel disappointed when you check your work email right in the middle of us hanging out. makes me feel like i am a distraction, and this is supposed to be quality time, so i don't do that when i'm with you."

as far as this: "since he was always getting stopped on his way out the door to answer more questions, making it impossible to time when I should leave work myself"
the best way to handle this is to just make plans at a set time, and act as if they are what will happen. "let's meet for dinner at Place X at Time. looking forward to it. see you then." go there at that time. if he shows up more than ten or fifteen minutes late, leave and go home. say, "we had plans for Time. when i saw you wouldn't be able to make it at Time, i waited a bit and then i went home to enjoy my evening. let me know when you'd like to reschedule for, i'd still like to have dinner with you at that place." watch as this happens maybe once or twice and then all of a sudden he starts showing up at the time you agreed on because now he realizes if he runs late he can't just make excuses and bum you out, but the date actually. won't. happen.

when having a Discussion About Problem Things:
1. make sure everyone is well rested and has recently eaten
1a. not when you're crying.
2. make sure the discussion is not happening during a bad time hormonally (YMMV, maybe this doesn't apply to you, to some ladies it does)
3. make liberal use of the phrases "i like spending time with you," "thank you for X enjoyable thing," "i love it when ___," etc. and liberal uses of "i'm not trying to make you feel bad. let's find a way of handling this that works well for both of us." and then figure it a way to do it.

re: your hobbies, does a preferred hobby involve any kind of final event or performance? maybe he doesn't have an interest in joining you in doing the hobby but he agrees to attend your final show/performance and be proud and supportive of you in that context, which can be a wonderful thing.

or maybe this dude isn't a good match for you cause he's rude. i don't know. but those are my ideas, if any.
posted by zdravo at 9:29 AM on August 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

0) There's nothing wrong with you, but go see a therapist. A therapist will help you find ways to express your needs, concerns, and feelings in a healthy and constructive way, and also sort out your feelings toward your critical mother. Hello, I have been there.

1) When you start to get bothered by something, speak up about it in that moment. If he starts checking his email when you guys are about to Netflix, say something like "hey, I thought we were going to watch Doctor Who! Let me know when you're done with that," and then do your own thing for a minute or two until he's done. It's not a petty complaint, it's not a criticism, you're not hurting him, you are stating a thing that is happening.

I get the feeling like you're not terribly comfortable doing things on your own. When I'm partnered, I like to do most things with my SO as well. But it will be tremendously helpful to you for you to learn to be ok independently doing your own thing. It's ok for people in a relationship to have separate hobbies and do them separately.

2) It's entirely possible he has his own issues that make him react to discussions like this. You can't let yourself take responsibility for his personal reactions. I think you'd both benefit from being more honest with each other in the moment. Sitting on your feelings until they reach the point where they just explode out of you in a crying fit doesn't make anyone feel better.

Good luck.
posted by phunniemee at 9:32 AM on August 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

You probably need to be more assertive.
He probably needs to be a better, more gracious host. One's responsibility to be gracious and thoughtful doesn't end just because you're sharing a bed with your guest.
You both probably need to grow thicker skins.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 9:40 AM on August 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You sound insecure. You could have some abandonment / rejection issues going on here. You could have the subjugation schema (when bringing up your needs causes extremely bad feelings).

First step: Do not diminish your own feelings by stuffing it down as 'crazy.' This will only lead to more pent-up outbursts. These days my bf and I read our phones in bed but if this were to happen when we were first dating I would be annoyed as well. Early dating stages is "let's explore stuff together" not "be my shadow."

It also sounds like you're building your emotional world around him. Waiting for him to come home, or holding off on your interests. Are you afraid to be an individual? Afraid that if you push away from him, he won't still be there? Afraid to speak your own voice?

Just as an experiment, just for kicks: say what you're thinking/feeling, simply and in the moment.

The way you bring things up is important. "You're self centred and ignore me!" would be hurtful and so of course he'd be upset by hearing that. "Honey I'd love to do X this weekend, it's something I like a lot and want to share with you" is better.

It's hard to tell if this guy is a self absorbed douche or easily distracted (setting up netflix --> work email) or simply feels comfortable in the relationship. All you have to say is "work again honey? save that till tomorrow!" Don't build him up in your head to be self-centred by not expressing your needs.

Oh and of course when you get upset about X, he never does X again. That's normal. What is not normal is then you feeling guilty/bad/responsible for him now that he doesn't do X anymore. (That's a subjugation schema.)

A common trope, but the book Attached may help. So may Reinventing Your Life. (for some reason I can't get that link)

About the feelings (#2) - he likes Movie and wants to feel validated by you also liking Movie. When you don't like it, he takes it personally either as a critique of him or a rejection of him. Everyone likes to feel validated but regular people can accept that you won't always like the same things. For him (and maybe you) that invalidation really stings because it brings up all these previous feelings of rejection. It's not about Movie it's about accepting him as a person.

So the bad feelings start bouncing back and forth: he feels rejected and acts that way, you feel insecure because he's upset and in your mind upset=rejection, you start to back-track on your preferences to try to stop him (and yourself) from feeling bad and the house of cards collapses.

That's my read anyway.

tl;dr - Emperor SnooKloze has it.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:49 AM on August 12, 2014 [11 favorites]

Just to add to what Admiral Haddock said very well, there are two essential skills that go with being a grownup in relationships. (I don't say this condescendingly, it's just that many people just truly don't know this.) Like Admiral Haddock, I had the first well before the second.

1. Being able to express your needs honestly, clearly, and kindly.

2. Being able to receive what other people are feeling and expressing without internalizing those things as moral obligations for you to fix.

Regarding #1, this can be hard for people, if they grew up in an environment in which it was rarely okay to express your feelings; or if you did, it pretty much had to be an emergency. For #1 to work effectively, there needs to be an understanding between both partners that it's okay to express needs without fear of retribution. There also needs to be at least a healthy self-understanding between both parties that expressing needs is not the same thing as pressing the other person on a number of issues in an effort to control them (because for some people, constantly pushing or complaining is not a part of healthy need-expression, but wanting to manipulate). Sometimes expressing genuine needs can get messy and raw, and there also needs to be the freedom to do this at times, also.

For #2, this can be a hard skill, because needs can sometimes feel like accusations. It is an issue of reframing what is happening when requests are made, and this needs some intentional discussion at times. Letting people have their emotional stuff without feeling as if you are responsible for it is the more difficult skill to develop, I think, because a lot of this can be grounded in histories of emotional abuse, either overt or on a micro level. The good news is that there are skills and exercises that can help partners express and listen while not feeling defensive. Not internalizing other people's emotional stuff is not the same thing as not having empathy, by the way. It's more of a distancing internally from what sometimes feels like a moral obligation to fix other people's emotional states.

So, much talking is needed, but it's not a path that many have not trod previous. I would highly recommend looking at writings that talk about attachment theory and how this effects how we give and receive love. It can have a whole lot to do with how we interpret giving and receiving of information, and what context feels free to do so.

Good luck to you!
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:55 AM on August 12, 2014 [14 favorites]

As Admiral Haddock observes, your natural tendency as empathetic beings to take each other's feelings personally needs a complementary trait to balance it. Without this trait, the bad feelings tend to feed back on each other into a painful spiral of suck: you feel bad, he feels bad that you feel bad, you feel bad that he feels bad that you feel bad, etc.

The balancing quality that both of you need to develop is what I would call centering: the ability to be present with your partner's unhappy feelings without making them all your fault. This is a vital skill not just for your partnership but for pretty much all relationships.

The trick is to keep track of what your partner is actually feeling and saying, and not getting it mixed up with your own internal judgments. For example, he might say "I don't like it when you do that," but in your mind that turns into "Oh my god, I'm hurting him! Why am I like this? What a horrible person I am! I can't show my feelings or he might leave me!" This process of conflict escalation based on jumping to internal conclusions is sometimes called the ladder of inference.

It sounds like both of you could benefit from working with a counselor who can provide some coaching so you can take turns practicing sharing your emotions while the other one stays centered.
posted by ottereroticist at 10:04 AM on August 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

There is an I don't like to make others feel bad that is a terrific, graceful skill to have, involving quite a bit of mastery of etiquette and a degree of sophistication with putting others at ease. There is another I don't like to make others feel bad that tends to have a lot of navel-gazing attached and has more to do with oneself than with efforts directed outwards. The latter can sometimes come with a lot of piling up of perceived errors and slights and (self-)recrimination, and it isn't actually making anybody not feel bad; more usually the opposite.

I would re-frame the We're both a little over-sensitive and hate making people feel bad as just We're both a little over-sensitive. You used "bad" repeatedly in your question. You guys are making each other feel bad. You have communication problems.

When you start to get bothered by something, speak up about it in that moment is sound policy for "Hey, your spaghetti is spilling on my duvet; I'll pause the movie while you grab a tray." I do find it useful to sit on some things, though, because if you routinely speak up about every irritation...that way lies madness. Let yourself at least sleep on the bulk of what you are bothered by, because twenty-four hours often either reveals something to be trivia that needn't be mentioned, or makes clear that it is non-trivial, but has given you enough distance and pause for thought to come up with solutions and a positive way to suggest solutions.

Presumably part of the rub for you will lie in sorting out what parts of (1) are stop-spilling-spaghetti-ASAP (or other, more serious, need-to-be-addressed) issues, and issues that are just the mundane adjustments one makes for the payoff of sharing one's life with a person one enjoys.

If you can't find a way to make the adjustments in such a way that leaves both of you happy and feeling like the adjustments are worth it, I'd re-evaluate whether or not the whole thing is worthwhile. I would not have a terrific amount of patience for somebody who put on a show of hurt feelings over every reasonably phrased "X isn't working for me and I'd like to Y or Z." Can you guys talk not about the X issue, but about the reactions to bringing up X and see if you can't move forward with that stuff?
posted by kmennie at 10:09 AM on August 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

This stuff's hard for everyone to do.

You may want to consider adopting a specific script for a while. I suggested a certain approach in another AskMe; it was something I based on something I heard in Sunday School, of all places. The nun told us kids the story of the Marriage at Cana, where Jesus turned the water into wine, but she focused on what Mary did. "She just told Him 'they've run out of wine,'" she said. "Mary didn't tell Jesus to make more wine, she just told Him what the problem was, and let Him decide what He was going to do about it on His own."

She was telling us that as a way to say "this is how you should all pray", but it actually works well with more earthly interpersonal relationships. If you go to your boyfriend with a problem but you approach it like "I don't like it when [foo] so you need to do [baz]," but he can't do [baz], then you're stuck.

But if all you do is say "hey, I don't like it when [foo]," then you're leaving things open for him to say "Huh. Well, I can't do [baz], because of these reasons - but I can do [schmeh], would that help?" And maybe you realize that [schmeh] would fix the problem better than [baz]. Or, heck, maybe even you hear why he does [foo] and realize it's for a totally different reason than you thought, and you realize that you're okay with [foo] after all. Or maybe he hears that you don't like [foo], and understand why, and decides all on his own that he'll do [baz], and maybe he'll also do [schmeh].

And also, speaking as a person who also sometimes has trouble asking for what she needs, this script sort of feels less scary. You're not asking someone to do something, you're just giving them information - "Hey, just so you know, I don't feel good about [foo]. Y'know, just keeping you in the loop but it's okay if you don't want to do anything about it oh god hide me." I tried this approach when I had to talk to a few of my friends about some behavior they had that didn't feel too good for me, and it worked like a charm; in some cases, the people apologized and changed their actions (they even asked what I would prefer they do!) and in other cases they apologized and explained some stuff about what was going on in their lives that explained their behavior totally and we came up with an alternate solution. But in each case, that was the exact script I used - "hey, you maybe don't know it and didn't mean it this way, but when you do [foo] it kinda feels bad to me because [reasons]. Just lettin' you know." This is what people mean when they say to "use 'I-statements'" when you're talking - "I feel [foo] when you do [baz] because [schmeh]".

These conversations aren't like playing with a field of puppies ever, but this kind of script may feel more comfortable for you, and will go a long way to keeping things calm. Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:21 AM on August 12, 2014 [7 favorites]

I am pretty emotional. I have one son like me and one son not like me. With the son who is like me, just physically being in the same room together when one of us is upset and the other is, say, not feeling well, becomes a positive feedback loop that makes both of us more and more upset. We have learned that there are certain situations where physically separating us will reduce the drama and emotionalism by at least half, even if no solution to the actual problem is found.

I am saying that to say this: It is possible that you two beanplating little marshmallows are both reacting to something physical, like pheromones. So maybe it would help to discuss certain things by phone, email, text, or something while physically separated so you aren't physically reacting to the other person's upset.
posted by Michele in California at 10:36 AM on August 12, 2014

I noticed that, buried in question 1, you said "these problems that don't even matter." Well, wait a second, now. These problems do matter. There's nothing wrong with you for feeling bad about being ignored, or feeling bad that you don't get to share your hobbies with him and only do what he enjoys together. There is nothing wrong with you. Your problems are real and they matter. It is OK to cry when you feel bad.

I don't know. This description is raising a lot of yellow flags for me. His reactions sound extreme and over the top. He "has to feel bad or he won't remember and change his behavior"? Really? So in order to communicate about something which you two do not agree, he is going to, by default, feel bad? Something about that doesn't sit right with me. His reaction sounds pretty disproportionate and dramatic. Yeah, you were crying, but you know what? A good boyfriend, if his girlfriend started crying and telling him that she felt bad? He would shut up, he would listen, and then he would say: "What can I do to help?" He wouldn't turn the entire thing around and then say "You made me feel bad." And then, when the dust had settled, he would say, "Hey, honey, when you have problems, it's important to me that you speak up when you realize them. If you bottle them all up like that and then let them all out in one big crying jag, it makes me feel flustered and confused and a little bit hurt, and I just don't want to feel like you are bottling things up. Can we figure out a way to make it so that you don't bottle things up when you're feeling them in the future?" Alternatively, he might say, "Hey, I need to take a quick walk to process this all and cool down a bit. I'll be back in five minutes." Sometimes people do need to remove themselves for a moment or two and that's OK too.

The way he actually reacted, well, it just sets such a bad precedent for communicating in the future. Because of the way he turned things around on you, you are going to have a hard time telling him that something is wrong. There's a lot of pressure on you now. He's got you walking on eggshells and questioning your behavior. He says that you have him walking on eggshells, but... I don't know. Something about this does not add up, and I feel like your best bet is to find a new boyfriend that you can actually communicate with well. You sound like a fine communicator - you can work on things like speaking up earlier, and not bottling things up inside, but we all have things to work on - and I don't think that you're the problem, here.
posted by sockermom at 10:40 AM on August 12, 2014 [14 favorites]

As an example, let me tell you what the source of conflict was. I was feeling miffed about some of the activities we did together, which seemed to be basically him leading his normal life and me observing him. For example, we'd be setting up the computer to watch Netflix together, and he'd start checking his work email. Being in bed with him, at his apartment, I really had nowhere to go and no way to similarly entertain myself, especially since I couldn't predict whether this would be a minute's distraction or 10.

If this is a recurring theme, I think you need to address it as such. He's not treating you as a guest; he's treating you as if you live with him, but you don't. This isn't even necessarily horribly rude. It's something people fall into because they don't have the imagination to think what it would be like to be stuck at someone else's house with none of your own stuff and be hung up waiting. It probably happens to some extent with any kind of sleepover but if he's this oblivious about it you need to work on it directly.

It's funny-- in another relationship AskMe today, someone made the comment (to me, at least semi-brilliant) that a lot of couples feel like they are communicating but they are really just talking about communication. It sort of sounds like this is happening here. You're not having a good time, and when you bring it up, he feels so BAD. Awfully convenient for him, someone might say cynically. Either way, you primarily need a workaround for the situation.
posted by BibiRose at 10:59 AM on August 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I do not know what is going on in your relationship, but I have observed a friend's relationship where I am pretty sure the guy was using his "sensitivity" as an emotionally abusive tactic (unconsciously). By always getting upset when she raised the smallest issue or made requests to change anything in their life together, he took advantage of her unwillingness to upset him, and over time he got to have everything exactly the way HE liked it. It was a way of shutting down compromise; it seems counterintuitive, but by raising histrionics about how bad he felt in response to any perceived criticism, he indulged his own selfish unwillingness to change. I remember my friend telling me how she felt responsible for his emotional state. Over time she became fearful of saying anything that might make him feel bad; she re-shaped her entire life and being around his will. It was a very effective (even if not intentional) control tactic on his part.

Like I say, this might not apply to your relationship; it could be that your boyfriend just needs to develop a certain interpersonal skill, and can do so while in a relationship with you. Still, please keep an eye on the effects that his sensitivity may have on you. You deserve happiness and you deserve a relationship where your partner meets you halfway on most differences.
posted by Orinda at 11:16 AM on August 12, 2014 [19 favorites]

Admiral Haddock really nails it.

The thing to remember is that you're allowed to want what you want. You're allowed to not want to do his hobbies. You're allowed to not be totally okay with him checking email while you sit there.

And you're allowed to be put off by his response that now he feels SO BAD because that does completely change the tenor of the conversation. It's not about your needs any more; it's you patting him down and wishing you could take it all back, and that's not fair to you.

So, a few things for you to think about:

* are you maybe a little more critical than you need to be? You mention bringing up a few things that were bothering you.

* Are you criticizing things about him that actually point more towards you guys just aren't a good fit?

* You two should have some conversation about how to bring things up in a productive way and what you both consider fair and appropriate responses. There's conflict in every relationship but it doesn't have to be this crazy-making holding-it-in-til-you-explode/nutty-over-reaction whenever you need to talk.

* I'm a little wary of those responses where someone does that whole self-pitying thing or that whole over-reaction. In my experience, this is really indicative of someone who very much lacks good emotional skills and someone who's going to mess with you. A LOT.

I'm a lot older than you so I can say that these types of communication are, for me, absolute yellow-turning-to-red flags.

But you should take some time and see how it goes.
posted by kinetic at 11:18 AM on August 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

"hon I'm not trying to make you feel bad but I do need to let you know how your actions are affecting me, don't I? Aren't you interested in knowing that? I'm asking you to [X]."

(I really have no patience for people who offend, and then skip out on their responsibility for the offensive behavior by being EVEN MORE OFFENDED that they were called out on what they did in the first place.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:22 AM on August 12, 2014

This book might be really helpful for you (or both of you): When Anger Scares You.
Anger is a natural response that can be, if properly channeled, a powerful source of energy and motivation for growth. Some people, though, habitually shy away from their own angry feelings and potentially anger-provoking situations. When confronted with a provocative or confrontational situation, an anger avoider feels that to express anger is to risk losing control, hurting someone else's feelings, or appearing to be a rude, unlikable, or bad person. By side-stepping healthy anger expression, anger avoiders may suffer more than just frustration and resentment: panic attacks and depression, subservience and passivity, headaches and chronic pain often plague people who deny themselves a constructive outlet for their anger.

With this book, first you'll learn to separate anger from rage or fear. Then you'll practice a series of simple, easy-to-follow exercises that coach you to openly express your anger and constructively address difficult people and situations. The book directs you to align yourself with your anger, using it as a tool for positive change. It helps you to set and achieve goals for constructive anger expression.
posted by jaguar at 11:43 AM on August 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is a pattern my partner and I have had to work through. It's definitely a challenge. Essentially you need to redefine the terms of engagement with respect to communication, and have some meta-conversations about what it means when one of you is expressing emotions.

For example -- she liked cooking me breakfast. She was cooking my eggs a certain way, but I liked them another way. I was afraid to ask for this because I thought she might be upset that she had been 'doing it wrong'. But eventually I did ask, and she WAS upset, very self-critical. Or -- she felt I wasn't sufficiently attentive to her needs at time; for example I had a tendancy to start walking without checking if she was ready, but she worried if she expressed this feeling I would kind of freak out and overcorrect. And she did express it, and I DID freak out and overcorrect, and basically started doting over her. These were the early days of our relationship, before we both went through therapy, and before a series of lengthy metadiscussions about our communication styles.

The place where you need to be is just as Admiral Haddock says -- to be able to express your emotions without them becoming a problem for your partner, and without your partner taking them on. My preference for eggs was not a criticism of her or a request for her to anticipate my needs. Her desire to not feel rushed into leaving was not a criticism of my inattentiveness or a request for me to anticipate her needs.

The root of this, since you asked, is anxiety. I can identify with your partner, and for me, my partner's needs are things that I'm anxious about, and I'm especially anxious about doing the "wrong" thing. Somehow I have these fears that if I do something that makes her upset, I'll get blamed or yelled at, or she'll withdraw, or some other disaster will happen that will pull us apart. It doesn't even have to make her upset; even not anticipating her preference is enough. I have reasons for this that have to do with the attachment patterns of all of the previous relationships in my life (i.e. in the past, this was true -- I actually DID have to anticipate needs or else I would get hurt somehow). The way to prevent this from happening is to carefully control behavior, to have all kinds of rules about the way things are supposed to be and to follow them rigidly.

This is textbook for me as well: Now he feels like he can't do his thing around me and we have to try one of my hobbies at least once a week and he has to let me make all the decisions about what we do together or I'm going to be mad at him. In other words, he did the wrong thing and you got upset. So he's added new rules to his behavior, which if followed, will prevent you from being upset. It's very black and white, almost robotic. But maladaptive, obviously, because first these rules don't guarantee very much, and second living under such a regime becomes oppressive for both of you.

My suggestion is to ask for some meta-rules. Have an open conversation about anxiety and rules, if you can. Then ask for something like this: "when I get upset, I just want some space to feel my emotions, and they might be intense, but they'll pass. I don't want you to try to fix it or change your behavior or create any rules to prevent me from being upset. I just want you to comfort me, and go on doing your own thing as best you can. Can you do that?" And similarly: "I feel like you're going out of your way to anticipate my needs. I don't want you do do that; I want you to worry about your own needs, while I worry about mine. can you do that?"

And what if there's a conflict? "If there's something I need from you and I ask you for it, it doesn't mean you failed or did something wrong, because how could you know until I asked? I don't want you to change, because I like who you are; and I don't want you to give things up; but maybe you can give me what I need without too much trouble, and that would be really great, wouldn't it? Also, think about the things you need, are there things I can give you that you're not getting? This matters to me as well."
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:26 PM on August 12, 2014 [12 favorites]

Try addressing these annoyances or "not real issues" as they happen, rather than letting them build and bubble up into a real/systemic problem. Ignoring these things, and trying to be a "nicer" person just leads to resentment. Is it possible that your boyfriend is emotionally abusive? Sure. Is it also possible that you have consistently failed to express your needs? Yes.

It's hard learning to speak up for oneself, especially if you have a certain type of parent (maybe check out /r/raisedbynarcissists). You're afraid your needs are not worthwhile, that you're being a nag, no fun, annoying, ungrateful, oppressive girlfriend. You're not.

It's ok if someone feels bad; it's ok if they feel bad as a result of your actions/words. Everyone can't be happy all the time. What's not ok is to intentionally or malevolently make someone feel bad. Because you wait so long to discuss these small issues with him, it changes from "can we do y instead of x?" to "you always do x, why????" The first is just a preference, the second implies that he has done something wrong and possibly has done it on purpose or through depraved indifference for your feelings.

When confronted with a mildly annoying thing, make a conscious choice to either (A) address it right then and there ("hey babe, can you check your email later?" "I'm not leaving work until you tell me you're in your car." "I don't really feel like watching that show right now") or (B) let it go FOREVER; do not put it in some annoyance repository to be cashed in when it reaches a critical mass. Speak now or forever hold your peace.

Note: These things can help you but may not help his behavior or reaction. Perhaps a few therapy sessions - together and individually - would be worthwhile.
posted by melissasaurus at 12:28 PM on August 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

> I do not know what is going on in your relationship, but I have observed a friend's relationship where I am pretty sure the guy was using his "sensitivity" as an emotionally abusive tactic (unconsciously). By always getting upset when she raised the smallest issue or made requests to change anything in their life together, he took advantage of her unwillingness to upset him, and over time he got to have everything exactly the way HE liked it. It was a way of shutting down compromise; it seems counterintuitive, but by raising histrionics about how bad he felt in response to any perceived criticism, he indulged his own selfish unwillingness to change.

This is what I was going to say; it's a sadly common interaction. It may, of course, not be what's going on here, but you should be aware of the possibility. If you try some of the excellent strategies suggested above and they work and you get past it, great! But if they don't—if he just keeps being sensitive and moody and easily hurt and the only way you can keep that from happening is to stifle yourself and let him have things his way—well, then, it's not going to get any better and it's toxic and you're better off out of there. Again, that's just a possibility, but it is a possibility, and forewarned is forearmed. Good luck!
posted by languagehat at 12:42 PM on August 12, 2014 [8 favorites]

I don't think this situation is a good barometer of your relationship skills.

This guy sounds plain rude. I think you're feeling stymied because his rudeness is outside of normal dating behavior when it pops up.

Every person I've ever known who invites me over, only to putter around and ignore me, has turned out to be a selfish a-hole. Sorry. But this is the sum total of the outcome every single time I was friends with or dated somebody like this.

Exercise good skills and show yourself some respect by telling him directly once or twice to change his behavior towards you when he's being self-centered. If he keeps doing it, dump him.

"Hey! I'm here to hang out with you, not watch you check your email. Let's start the movie now!"

"If you're running late, please text me so I'm not waiting around. Thanks!"

All that said, it sounds like this guy has been pushing a lot of your buttons, I don't believe he's concerned about hurting your feelings, and the only thing that maybe explains this away is that he's got some sort of developmental challenges which make it hard for him to conceptualize how hurtful ignoring you is.

But, nah. I'm not buying that.

You've only been dating a few months and his behavior made you cry? Dump him.

Too much drama, too early in the relationship.

Data Point: Mr. Jbenben and I have been married 6 years, and we don't ignore or disregard each other in the types of ways you describe this guy treating you.
posted by jbenben at 12:47 PM on August 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have a sense that you are operating under the misconception that this person cares about you the same way you care about him. I think it does bother him when you are unhappy -- because it reflects poorly on his own self-image. He takes it personally. And he does this because he is a narcissist and does not have his own self-image. Instead he sees himself in you. And becomes angry when his mirror has the audacity to show its own ripples.

This was my experience in my last relationship. It went on for a year and a half. Truly, the problem here is not with you. I just know it.
posted by macinchik at 3:38 PM on August 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

Walking on egg shells = a terrible way to live. Don't stop saying how you feel.. But maybe say it to someone else. Leave this guy. Doesn't sound like he's emotionally mature enough for an adult relationship.
posted by Gray Skies at 12:48 AM on August 13, 2014

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