How do gf and I deal with different approaches to irritation and anger?
September 27, 2014 7:02 PM   Subscribe

Our relationship is mostly great, but we disagree about the appropriateness of expressing irritation and anger at your partner. She can be outbursty, and I can be over-sensitive, so we might bicker, and then fight about the fighting, and we're trying to break the cycle.

I've (straight dude) been together with my girlfriend for around 2 years, and our relationship is usually warm, loving, supportive, intellectually stimulating, and increasingly serious. We're both around 30.

However, we do fight, and then fight about fighting, I would say 5-10 times a month, depending on stress levels (which can be high, we both have very demanding careers).

The fights usually start with a snap or reprimand directed at me for something trivial (to me) that I'm doing (looking at maps on my phone as we walk, getting distracted by conversation while cooking, asking her where to put her stuff away instead of figuring it out myself - these are typical examples.) The snap usually consists of my name or a "DUDE" followed by a "WTH are you doing", is delivered in a not-quite-indoor voice, and sounds to me like profound exasperation, offense, and/or anger.

What happens next requires a little background: I come from an emotionally abusive childhood wherein my mother solved all parenting issues through constant nagging, berating, and shouty hysterical rage while my dad tuned out. I basically escaped my family as early as I could and have tried to not look back. In my adult life, I've learned to diffuse annoyance and anger as soon as they appear, and to never direct those emotions at my loved ones. Any problems I have with those around me are typically resolved with after-the-fact talks that happen after any anger/annoyance have dissipated. I've always associated unrestrained anger and irritation with cruelty, lack of care, love, and effort.

My girlfriend, on the other hand, says that minor anger can be a healthy part of a relationship, and that it can be the mechanism through which partners learn to grow toward each other. Generally – while I tend toward the introverted/cerebral, soft-spoken, and held-back part of the spectrum, my girlfriend is extravagant, cutting, sarcastic, and has a tendency to “rise up” (as she puts it). I normally like this about her and feel like it complements my personality and is fun, but the “rising up” quality is an intrinsic and not easily removable part of the whole package. Also related: Girlfriend has PMDD and before she was medicated there would be a week of viciously-hate-all-things-including-self disaster every month. She now takes a low dose of an antidepressant which has made that one week much less dramatic. Nevertheless, I notice that our fighting tends to happen around the PMDD week (though not always), and also seems to be correlated with stress-induced side effects from the PMDD meds (migraines and such.)

Back to the fighting: I think about 75% of the time, I succeed in letting girlfriend's snaps roll off my shoulders and the day goes on. But the other 25% of the time, I feel hurt and belittled and either become silent and sullen (usually) or say something snide back (rarely). Then, the fight is typically girlfriend reiterating her point: (looking at maps on a phone while walking is annoying), while I argue that although she's probably right about whatever annoying thing it is that I was doing, the thing is so trivial that I don't feel that it warrants the aggravated reprimand from her. Then, the typical argument is about me being abnormally sensitive against her being too hair-triggered. We've agreed that we'd both try to work on our issues (less sensitivity from me, less outbursts from her), but somehow the cycle keeps repeating itself.

I would appreciate any general advice on breaking this cycle.

Also, I'd love to hear some input on what seems to be a general issue for us – my insistence/expectation (that despite myself I'm not quite willing to let go of) that real anger and exasperation have no place in a loving relationship. I feel and/or want this to be the case, but I don't actually know what normal is, or how abnormal I am. What amount of anger and aggravation can be expected in a loving and respectful relationship? How do I judge this? Is there a standard or does each couple have to develop one for themselves?

Last thing – while I wrote this post, my girlfriend has read it and agrees that it's accurate/fair and is open to whatever advice we get.

Thanks all for staying with me.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (53 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I can see some similarities between your upbringing and mine. Being the object of someone's irritation/anger/rage is no fun. As a fellow 'sensitive', I also tend to shut down after being dumped on by someone else who's having a bad day.

There is NOTHING wrong with you for having the temperament that you do. It is not a character flaw. Don't let anyone tell you that it is.

GF needs to learn coping skills to deal with her anger stuff (counselling, yoga, what-have-you). It is hers alone to deal with, though you can be supportive. Life is full of annoyances, forever and ever, amen.

Please don't bring kids into the equation until this is dealt with. As you and I both know, being a child in an angry home leaves some scars, even if that anger is not directed at you specifically.
posted by SpecialSpaghettiBowl at 7:20 PM on September 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

Last thing – while I wrote this post, my girlfriend has read it and agrees that it's accurate/fair and is open to whatever advice we get.

Wow, really? Because as I was reading this, I kept wondering if we were getting the whole story. Because the story, as presented here, seems to be that your girlfriend is completely out of line.

She constantly snaps at you, and the only acceptable response is for you to ignore it? And she does this knowing about your abusive childhood? That's really shitty. I'm not surprised you can't take it.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:21 PM on September 27, 2014 [37 favorites]

"Please don't speak to me with that tone of voice because it is hurtful. Thank you."

It is no more or less difficult than using your words in an appropriate manner. Every. Single. Time.

I think you are feeding the drama and overthinking this. Stop taking the bait! Quit being such drama llamas and instead repeat those sentences as necessary.

It won't take long for her to "get it" and this will help both of you grow. Yep. It really is this simple.

Thank you.
posted by jbenben at 7:34 PM on September 27, 2014 [8 favorites]

it's not really about how much anger is justified or how much can exist in a relationship - it's about how much can you tolerate and how that anger is expressed and received. i don't think she's expressing too much anger for some relationships, but she seems to be expressing too much for yours. by the same token, you are not too sensitive or withdrawing too much, but you do seem to be too sensitive for her.

from your description it feels to me like you're recreating your parents relationship in some ways - you took your father's role and find someone who fit into your mother's role. she snaps, you withdraw. you might both be really amazing people who are good for someone, but you might have to really consider if you're good for each other. those of us who came from abusive childhoods have to be more vigilant in our partner selection because it is so, so easy to feel love in situations where it's unhealthy for us.
posted by nadawi at 7:38 PM on September 27, 2014 [30 favorites]

I've got no history of abuse, a reasonable tolerance for anger in general (which I get tons of from my teens) and I sometimes wish my extremely un-angry husband would express a little more anger. Having said that, I would have serious doubts about continuing in a relationship with someone who snapped or raised their voice to rebuke or criticize me multiple times a week. If my partner came at me with "WTH are you doing?" in a situation where I wasn't, like accidentally setting the drapes on fire or driving the wrong way down a one way street, I would not consider that acceptable. To me, it seems disrespectful and somewhat controlling if you're so constantly being irritated by minor foibles of your partner that you're snapping and correcting all the time. You've not only got to chose your battles (the habits that really, really grate on your nerves) but also chose how to fight those battles (with respectful communication).
posted by drlith at 7:40 PM on September 27, 2014 [22 favorites]

Looking at a map while walking is annoying? That, quite frankly, is crazy talk. And getting involved in a conversation while cooking? What else are you supposed to do? Cook silently and with laser focus?

I'm pretty concerned that you picked a girlfriend with such "my way is the only right way" views. I agree with the folks that say this sounds like a dynamic in which you're your dad and she's your mom.
posted by MsMolly at 7:56 PM on September 27, 2014 [8 favorites]

I grew up with a mother like yours, and perhaps since I'm the female part of a relationship, my natural tendency is to feel like your girlfriend's behaviour is a normal way to act in close relationships. I recognized early on in my adult life that I never liked being spoken to that way and have worked hard to remind myself of the golden rule whenever my husband begins to get a rise out of me. Your girlfriend needs to think about how she would feel if you spoke to her in that way about something equivalent. Or failing that how she would feel if she specifically asked you not to speak in a way that makes her feel small but continued to not only do so, but was dismissive of her feelings.

Also nowhere in your question do you say that she thinks the intensity of reaction is on par with your actions. It seems to be more about how you each understand how to be in a loving relationship. Frankly making someone feel less deserving of love and respect when they just had a one off moment of distraction is not a good way to be.
posted by waterandrock at 8:04 PM on September 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I also come from a household with an emotionally abusive parent (my father) and as a result have put a lot of effort into learning healthy conflict resolution skills in my relationships, but I still struggle so much with learning how to meet anger in a healthy way.

The thing is, anger is totally normal in the scheme of human emotions and relationships and it's really ok to feel anger towards someone you love. And in fact, it's a better idea to talk about the anger rather than bury it, because that's when it blows up in your face.

Maybe you and your girlfriend want to look at is how that anger is expressed. Because as emotionally mature adults (unlike our abusive parents), we can choose how and when we express that anger and to really critically looked at why we're experiencing those emotions.

Using the argument that I snapped and said those hurtful things because that was just how I was feeling at the time and that's ok and you should be ok with that is TOTAL bullshit. If your partner knows your history of abuse and how sensitive you are to anger, then it's totally reasonable to ask them to work with you on ways that you can both talk about your feelings that allow you to feel healthy and safe in the relationship.
posted by twill at 8:05 PM on September 27, 2014 [14 favorites]

Honestly, from this little snippet, she sounds abusive and high strung to this random internet stranger. She needs to go to therapy or something, else you should leave her rather than deal her shit.

You should also be in therapy for allowing yourself to put up with this. Because it doesn't sound like she respects.

I agree with her that being able to express anger at each other can be healthy but this ain't it. She knows how this makes you feel, yet continues to do it. And the shit she's getting not only mad about but berating you sbout: 'cause you look at a map while walking. Holy shit, what the hell?!

Do not marry this person and consider whether this is the type of relationship you want and is good for you.

Ask yourself this: over the two years y'all have dating, have these types of outbursts been growing in intensity and number?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:08 PM on September 27, 2014 [9 favorites]

I also come from an emotionally abusive household, where my alcoholic mom would have sudden and very, very long fits of screaming, berating, and belittling over minor, ridiculous things, and my dad would stay inside his garage for hours to get away from her. Like you, because of my mom, I want nothing at all like that ever again in my life, so I'm very, very rarely a yeller or very confrontational (because if I do yell and/or get confrontational, I go nuclear instantly), and being snapped at for something minor instantly shuts me down. I turn into my dad and run off to go somewhere alone for a long while. As it goes, I married a man who 100% inherited his father's hair-trigger temper and snappishness. Before we got married, I made it clear to my husband that either he learned to control that (and stop using "I got it from my dad!" as an excuse), or there was no "us." It took a lot out of me to explain to him why something so minor to him is so huge to me, and to explain to him why when he snaps over something small, I stop whatever we're doing and hole up in the bedroom for hours. He's worked on controlling the snapping, and I've worked on not running away when he slides. If we both hadn't made an effort to learn each other's language (where those angry outbursts are nothing to him, and, to me, they're triggering, awful, and take me back to the worst moments of my life), we wouldn't be together right now; FWIW, my husband carries the weight of that compromise. Your girlfriend has to recognize that her behavior isn't minor, let alone a way to build a relationship. It also wouldn't hurt to try to learn why she is the way she is, in that regard, as figuring out that my husband and his dad have the same exact temperament was an enlightening moment for me. That's the best advice I can give.
posted by coast99 at 8:25 PM on September 27, 2014 [17 favorites]

Research shows that expressing anger tends to reinforce the anger. Venting makes you angrier; blowing off steam is not a successful thing. If it's coming home, bitching about the jerk at work for 5 minutes, fine. If it's finding out you overdrew your account, and you slam doors, throw stuff and yell at the dog, it's rotten for the dog, the other people in your home, and it keeps you angry and cranky.

If she snaps at you and/or is rude and/or unreasonable, talking about it is not working. Say Cut that out or Stop that or That's unacceptable. Then stop discussing it. If you can, walk away, go to another room. If she brings it up, just tell her I deserve civil behavior at a minimum. All the fighting about you being too sensitive, or whether your behavior is annoying is a way for her to avoid responsibility and not change. Pay less attention to her words about her behavior and pay more attention to her behavior. Do you want to be with someone who behaves that way? If someone doesn't like your behavior, they can say Hey, it bugs me when you look at maps on your phone as we walk, get distracted by conversation while cooking, ask me where to put my stuff away (Srsly?).

profound exasperation, offense, and/or anger, cutting, sarcastic, tendency to “rise up”, hair-triggered, aggravated, dramatic. She needs to learn some emotional self-awareness, and behavioral self control. During her pre-menstrual time, try being extra attentive, and cut her extra slack. I feel hurt and belittled and either become silent and sullen (usually) or say something snide back (rarely). You need to learn to stick up for yourself and to not engage in the bullshit fighting, and not be sullen or snide, because it's not effective.

Read What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage and John Gottman's research on the things that destroy or build relationships. More links in my profile.
posted by theora55 at 8:34 PM on September 27, 2014 [8 favorites]

I think this is a temperament issue. Some people "get off" on having a relationship that involves low-grade bickering. For them, it's a sign of caring. How attached is your girlfriend to this kind of behavior? How attached are you to your non-confrontational, quiet self?

I myself am someone who is more cerebral and assume that if someone is angry, they must be really angry, because my threshold for anger outbursts is quite high. Not just that, but I don't want to get angry on a regular basis, because it's not good for me.

What's the expectation from your girlfriend here? Does she wish that you would stop reacting so strongly to her outbursts, or does she want you to outburst right back at her?

You want my opinion from another introverted, cerebral person? My life is too short to give up the kind of peaceful life I currently enjoy if I dated someone like your girlfriend. I spent a lot of my life trying to create the life I want to live in, and I don't need someone to tell my that I need to "learn" more about life by having constant disruptions of that peace in the form of angry outbursts. Others may find that kind of life unstimulating and boring and would prefer a more contentious relationship. De gustibus non est disputandum.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 8:35 PM on September 27, 2014 [11 favorites]

OK, maybe I'm being too literal, but you say that about 25% of the time, her snapping at you result in a fight, and you fight 5-10/month ... so that means she's snapping at/reprimanding you 20-40 times/month? That's like once a day.

I would personally find that completely untenable and exhausting. Further, I think that if someone is expressing anger at their partner every day (or, honestly, every week), then there are larger issues going on either with the relationship or the person getting angry.
posted by lunasol at 8:37 PM on September 27, 2014 [20 favorites]

Some people "get off" on having a relationship that involves low-grade bickering. For them, it's a sign of caring.

I meant to say this. I know some couples who bicker all the time and it's fine but only because they're both comfortable with it.
posted by lunasol at 8:39 PM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Anger is definitely a healthy part of life, and close relationships, because people in close relationships are going to have differing needs, desires, goals, and methods of meeting all those.

The appropriate way of dealing with anger in close relationships is to talk about it in a loving, respectful way. "Hey, it really bothers me when you X, can we figure out a different way of accomplishing that?" is a request that comes from anger/annoyance/irritation, but is expressed with respect and compassion.

For most couples in relationships like yours, the non-angry partner needs to make sure they're not just swallowing their anger/irritation/needs/desires for the sake of (artificial) harmony, and the angry partner needs to get in the habit of calming down, deciding what's actually important enough to bring up, and expressing their needs or desires in a respectful, loving way. (And that way should ideally not involve any swearing; our brains actually process swear words differently than non-swear words and they can push listeners into fight-or-flight, at which point the listener's brain gets highjacked by anxiety and further discussion is pointless.)

When Anger Scares You is a great book about these issues.

Anger does bring closeness, in that it takes vulnerability to be able to tell your partner what your needs and desires are and when they're not meeting them. But the closeness doesn't come from displaying anger but from feeling anger (/irritation/annoyance) and being committed enough to the relationship to talk through it in a respectful loving way (or mature enough to realize that everyone's annoyed sometimes and this particular annoyance is actually not a big deal).
posted by jaguar at 9:01 PM on September 27, 2014 [25 favorites]

I would appreciate any general advice on breaking this cycle.

By leaving.

I was quite taken by "she says that minor anger can be a healthy part of a relationship". I have no idea where this idea comes from and I find it to be toxic. Combine that with the fact that she is "cutting, sarcastic" and I think she doesn't act this way because of a medical condition. She does this because she likes it and there is no reason to believe she will stop. After all, it's "healthy". That is why the way to break the cycle is to leave the cycle.

I found it telling that you describes your girlfriend's interactions with you as "reprimands". Reprimands are what superiors deliver down to subordinates. My wife and I do not reprimand each other.

I agree with those who have said that you are reenacting your parents' relationship. I also think that until you address those issues, you will repeat this dysfunction with the next girlfriend.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:08 PM on September 27, 2014 [23 favorites]

This dynamic will eventually kill the relationship. Either get into therapy and resolve to change it, or break up when you still like each other enough to be friends.
posted by lunastellasol at 9:26 PM on September 27, 2014

My girlfriend, on the other hand, says that minor anger can be a healthy part of a relationship, and that it can be the mechanism through which partners learn to grow toward each other.

(Emphasis mine.)

If those are her words (and you've said she's read your post, and agrees that it's accurate): I would say to her that she needs to check her head. There is no place for sarcasm, cutting remarks, or cursing directed at a partner. None. It does nothing to build trust, respect, and open lines of communication.

What you are describing sounds like emotional bullying. Does she speak to her women friends that way? Her boss? Or are you the emotional punching bag?
posted by nacho fries at 9:35 PM on September 27, 2014 [17 favorites]

Everyone gets irritable, yes. That does not make it excusable to take it out on your partner, even through "minor" things like snapping or reprimanding ("major" things would be screaming and throwing things). Your girlfriend likely grew up in a family where that was normal and acceptable, but it's not. Why would you want to accept that that's okay in a relationship?

PMDD or medication or lack thereof is no excuse for abusive behavior. If she's irritable often enough that you need to write this question, then she needs to seek more help managing her irritability. Whether that's more/different medication or yoga or just removing herself from the room when she feels like she's going to snap at you.

This will absolutely kill your relationship if she doesn't realize 100% that she is in the wrong and takes immediate steps to stop. Since she doesn't believe she's wrong, and there are no real consequences for her actions, she is going to keep doing this.

We've agreed that we'd both try to work on our issues (less sensitivity from me, less outbursts from her), but somehow the cycle keeps repeating itself.

No, you don't have to be "less sensitive" - if someone jabs you with a sharp stick, the answer isn't to "grow thicker skin" it's for the person to stop fucking jabbing you with the stick.
posted by desjardins at 9:42 PM on September 27, 2014 [9 favorites]

When she wants you to (not) do something, can't she just ask, instead of reprimanding you?

Personally, I find it inappropriate that she's *reprimanding* you at all. You're equals, which already makes that way of talking to each other inappropriate, imo.

The things she's reprimanding you for also are only tangentially related to her, and there's really no reason for them to be under her control. It's up to you whether you look at your phone right now even though you're walking, or finish your sentence before stirring the sauce you're cooking for dinner, etc. The micro decisions that you make every second about what you're doing with your body or what you're thinking or talking about aren't up to her to control, so it seems inappropriate and imo controlling that she'd reprimand you when you (unwittingly) fail to do them her way.

I get that she's probably a Type A person in general, and maybe a variation of this kind of behavior is OK at work, but it's a really demeaning way to relate to your SO, I think.

In your place, I wouldn't be able to deal with this kind of low-grade hostility that comes out of nowhere, it would make me incredibly anxious.

If she wants to work on this, she needs to seriously work on her anger, and you need to seriously work on expressing yourself. "Working on" means at least consciously trying to behave differently. Since you say the relationship is serious and on the road to becoming more so, really take *this issue* seriously -- you don't want to bring kids into this dynamic and basically recreate the natal family you tried so hard to get away from as fast as you could, and it sounds to me like that's what you're on track to do.
posted by rue72 at 9:51 PM on September 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I also think that couples counseling is not going to help, but individual counseling might (with two different therapists). You can get a better idea of how to assert yourself without resorting to passive-aggressiveness (the sullenness & snide remarks) and she can learn how to not jab you with sharp sticks. If she wants to learn.
posted by desjardins at 9:53 PM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm going to step away from the big picture and assume that this is a relationship worth fixing and that both of you are serious about wanting to change. If other people's assessment are right, this won't work but I want to give you something to at least try - if it doesn't work, at least will have learned something about your capacity to meet the other half way.

I'm also going to assume that you are both trying to make an effort to accommodate the other person's style. In the meanwhile, there will continue to be many slip-ups. What you want to change is what happens when that happens and to try to remember that the relationship is more important than the details. For you, this is what you remember when you let things slide off of you. But when it doesn't, then it is her turn to let go of the little annoyance and put the relationship first.

This is something that you have to talk about and agree to a plan ahead of time. Step 1 - you both agree that when you are triggered, you will speak up and tell her using words that you have agreed to ahead of time (eg. Honey, I'm feeling triggered here, I need your help) When you say that, it is time for her to remember that the relationship is more important that whatever she is bothered by. She needs to shift focus from the problem to helping you calm down and feel safe in the relationship. Have an agreed upon response (eg. OK, sweetie. You know I love you. Take a deep breath. You OK now?). This may be hard for her to let go of initial annoyance just like it hard for you to not be provoked but once you get triggered, it is her turn to accommodate your style/needs.
posted by metahawk at 10:07 PM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am certainly no expert at relationships, but the Gottman Institute is, and they have this to say:
There is a big misconception that anger is harmful to relationships. Anger does not predict divorce. Dr. Gottman discovered in his research that anger by itself does not predict anything negative in a relationship. But, anger does not predict anything positive either. Anger is just a fact of life. All emotions are a part of life. Dr. Gottman’s research revealed that in every relationship people retaliate with anger when met with anger, even in happy stable relationships. But, when anger is blended with the Four Horsemen, it is a different story.

The Four Horsemen, in Gottman terms, are defensiveness, criticism, contempt, and stonewalling. In his research [see q 9]:

Dr. Gottman calls these destructive behaviors, “A Positive-to-Negative Ratio of 0.8 or Less,” and has named the most corrosive negative behavior patterns, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Specifically, these are:

Criticism: stating one’s complaints as a defect in one’s partner’s personality, i.e., giving the partner negative trait attributions. Example: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.”

Contempt: statements that come from a relative position of superiority. Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be eliminated. Example: “You’re an idiot.”

Defensiveness: self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victim-hood. Defensiveness wards off a perceived attack. Example: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late; it’s your fault.”

Stonewalling: emotional withdrawal from interaction. Example: The listener does not give the speaker the usual nonverbal signals that the listener is “tracking” the speaker.

These predict early divorcing – an average of 5.6 years after the wedding. Emotional withdrawal and anger predict later divorcing – an average of 16.2 years after the wedding.

I don't know much, but I do know that stonewalling was my consistent downfall. My takeaway from this research is that your strategy of "defusing" the anger in the moment by ignoring it and trying to patch things over later is counterproductive; Gottman seems to believe you should solve and resolve things in the moment.
posted by dhartung at 10:07 PM on September 27, 2014 [7 favorites]

Gottman seems to believe you should solve and resolve things in the moment

No, he doesn't. He's very explicit about taking the time one needs to calm down and act with the rational part of one's brain and not out of anger or fear.

From Making Sure Emotional Flooding Doesn't Capsize Your Relationship:
The difference between flooding and more manageable experiences of our emotions is one of magnitude. You reach the point when your thinking brain -- the part that can take in gray areas, consider other sides, stay aware of the real state of affairs -- is shut out. Psychologist John Gottman explains this emotional hijacking as the hallmark of our nervous system in overdrive. Something happens -- and it could be almost anything -- in your interaction with your partner that sets off your internal threat-detection system. This is your parasympathetic nervous system in action, preparing you for battle or flight. In this state, you lose some of your capacity for rational thought. Science describes this is as a decrease of activity in your pre-frontal cortex, the center of higher cognition.

The stuff that works well when you are being chased by a mastodon doesn't work so well in the home. Our instinctive reactions in these moments usually make the situation worse. The fight response we are primed for becomes a cascade of angry words that just deepen wounds. In flight, we might stalk out of the room or shut out our mate with icy silence. Basically, when we react in the grip of emotional flooding, we do and say the kind of things that are likely to trigger emotional flooding in our partner. And then both people in the room are out of control.

Here are some things I have learned along the way from my own experiences, and from counseling other couples, that may help you and your mate find your ways when either of you gets derailed by emotional flooding:

* Make a commitment to try self-soothing the next time you find yourself caught up in a heavy emotion over this or that with your partner. The reality is that it is not easy to hold back from acting out when we are completely enraged or feeling utterly devastated. But if you have essentially accepted the idea that you can't entirely trust yourself and your perceptions when you are in a state of total reactivity, you at least have a fighting chance of pulling yourself back from the spiral. Some part of you will have registered the notion that you probably shouldn't be so quick to buy whatever blame narrative or catastrophic rendering of things that your mind has come up with.

* Mentally store a picture of your partner at their best -- a moment when you experience them as loving, generous and well-meaning. Add as much detail as you can to really capture how you experience your partner when you are feeling loved and cared for. I like to picture my husband standing at the top of the stairs waiting to greet me at the end of day with a look of pure happiness. Try shifting your focus to this image when you get trapped in a negative story about them. This helps your brain move out of the reactive myopia and reintegrate a more balanced view of your partner.

* When you do get flooded, you need to hit the pause button on your interaction and turn your attention inward. I find that before I can do anything, I need to reassure myself that I will be fine if I wait for this storm to pass. Like a standoff with an armed hostage-taker, I have to convince her to at least put down the gun before we can keep talking.

* Observe what's happening. This is the key to creating some distance between yourself and the storm of thoughts and feelings. Mentally note that you have gotten activated. Start to investigate what happens when you get emotionally flooded. Notice what thoughts take shape in your mind and what sensations move through your body.

* Use images to ground the process of slowing, observing and letting go. You might want to imagine your mind as a wheel that was suddenly spinning furiously. With each breath, you are able to slow down its speed until it is barely turning. Or picture your racing thoughts as a cloud of sand that has been kicked up in the water. Wait for the sand to sink back down to the seabed, leaving clear water. As your frantic thoughts subside, your nervous system can calm down, too. Imagine any constriction melting. Relax your hands, imagining yourself physically letting go of the story you created about what has happened with your mate.

* Take timeouts when you need to. Sometimes you can self-soothe on the spot. At other times, you may need to take a break from the interaction. Make a plan with your partner that if either of you gets too activated in an argument to hear the other -- to avoid saying things you will regret -- you will take a time out. Agree to come back together to continue the discussion within a certain period of time, but don't delay indefinitely. Use the time to actively soothe yourself rather than obsessing over your version of what went wrong, which will just keep you activated. The point here is to disengage with your reaction so you can re-engage with your mate.
Survivors of abuse, especially child abuse, tend to continue to have nervous systems that flip into fight-flight-freeze mode a bit quicker than average. This is not because survivors are oversensitive but because their brains were developing in an environment in which being exquisitely tuned to their caregivers' moods, tone of voice, and movements was a matter of survival. That "tuning" is likely persist through one's life, though survivors can of course work on coping mechanisms (like those listed above) to stay calm.

When one is in fight-flight-freeze (or "flooded," as Gottman calls it), it is physiologically impossible to talk through a relationship conflict. The body and mind are primed to worry about survival only. If one or both partners are flooded, they need to allow each other time and space to work their way out of that heightened survival-mode and back into relating-mode. Otherwise, the only options are fighting, fleeing, or freezing, and those are not great ways to solve relationship conflicts.
posted by jaguar at 10:28 PM on September 27, 2014 [50 favorites]

That is, stonewalling would be, "I refuse to talk about this." Healthy conflict resolution would be, "I cannot talk about this right now, I need to calm down first. Can we take a break and talk again in one hour?" Healthy partner response would be, "Yes, of course, let's talk in an hour," even if the partner was feeling anxious about having to wait. First partner, then, needs to live up to the promise of coming back at the designated time to discuss the issue. Repeat as needed.
posted by jaguar at 10:31 PM on September 27, 2014 [11 favorites]

This is borderline abusive behaviour. It's already out of line to get so snappy over minor annoyances. But what makes it worse is that the things you describe aren't even minor annoyances, they are just Normal Things That Happen.

Antecdote coming - I was you in a previous relationship. My boyfriend grew up in a household where this sort of behaviour was okay. He understood on a theoretical level that actually, this wasn't okay, but he could never put the theory into practice. We were together for 7 years. In retrospect I can't believe I put up with it for so the end I had basically just given up and started accepting the criticism/anger and apologising (ruining my self-esteem in the process). I've had a few relationships since then, and I've now finally realised how much my ex messed up my mind. I still frequently will apologise for little things that don't need apologies. I still brace for criticism or anger when I do something like park the car badly or forget to buy milk even though my current boyfriend couldn't care less.

I think you need couples therapy at least, but I'd probably just get out. I wouldn't want to be with someone that is so easily annoyed, and I think that sort of thing is pretty fundamental and difficult to change.
posted by peanut butter milkshake at 12:41 AM on September 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

There is a lot of criticism of your girlfriend here. Before contributing my two cents, I just want to say that it speaks well of her that she read your post and is open to other's opinions. It is not easy to do that. This gives me the sense that you two have a lot going for you, if you can work through these issues.

Just wanted to say two things -
1. You wrote "We've agreed that we'd both try to work on our issues (less sensitivity from me, less outbursts from her), but somehow the cycle keeps repeating itself."
I'm sure you know this already, and some others have alluded to it as well, but changing this cycle is going to require a lot more than an agreement.
Changing these relationship habits is, at least in my mind, absolutely no different from changing any other habit. And as we know more and more through research, habit change occurs at a far, far slower pace than any habit-changing person would ever wish (or that mainstream media implies is possible). It also requires a lot of self-awareness, which you both seem to have, and a plan, which I'm not sure you guys have.

Maybe individual therapy for each of you is in order, but in the meantime, I like jbenben's simple suggestion above, because something similar really worked well on me, where my automatic reaction to something was not in line with who I wanted to be (I would get HANGRY at my husband and snap and bicker).
I don't know if it's enough, but it's a start. Perhaps for now, apply it in EVERY situation where you both notice this cycle beginning, with the simple goal of disrupting the cycle. Maybe agree that any "justifications" of aggravation etc. will be discussed at a later time. Which leads me to my second point...

2. About your statement "... that real anger and exasperation have no place in a loving relationship." I completely agree.
My question is then, is what your girlfriend is feeling "real" anger and exasperation? It seems that she has real reasons to feel generally irritable, health-wise, although the reported frequency of these outbursts is alarming to me, and is clearly eroding the relationship.

It strikes me that there might some real issues being lost in the "noise" of her habit of snapping. As in, you may be doing things that ARE really aggravating to her, but it's hard to distinguish them due to feeling constantly attacked/irritated. This gives yet another motivation to tone down/end this cycle somehow - to get clarity about what things are real problems (that can presumably be addressed).
It may be helpful for her to sort out which triggers are really, really, important ones for her ("When you constantly ask me for instructions I get irritated...") and truly trivial ones ("I don't like the way you are stirring the peas"), and make a plan to deal with the trivial ones on the spot.

Regarding dealing with trivial irritations - it's hard at first, but I think for my relationship, using humor has been helpful to both my husband and I - we can both be excessively critical of trivial things. Now we just complain in a dumb voice, hiss at each other, sigh overly dramatically, or something similarly silly to release the irritation, but also to show that we don't take it seriously. It defuses the situation 90% of the time and we get some good laughs out of it.

You both sound like good people. You'll get through this! Wishing you the best of luck.
posted by Pieprz at 2:04 AM on September 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

Re. "...real anger and exasperation have no place in a loving relationship."

Some people have relationships that include blow-out fights. I'm not quite ready to say that those people don't really love each other -- I mean, my parents seem to, for instance. But I can tell you that it's possible to have a loving relationship with few or no blowups. My husband and I have been together for about a decade now, dating and then married, and the number of times he has yelled at me is 0.

It's both possible to have that kind of relationship and completely reasonable to seek it for yourself, and to say that too much friction is a dealbreaker for you. I do not want a relationship like my parents have and I was really pleased to discover that not all relationships are like that.

That said, there is one bit of your description that made me feel for her. I also get migraines, and if your gf's experience is similar then there may be times when very small things become overwhelming. My migraines sometimes bring on an acute sensitivity to sound or smell, or even temperature or air quality, that makes normal activities almost unbearable. Just the odor of someone, say, eating a ham sandwich nearby can make me intensely nauseated.

It's first and foremost her job not to treat you in a way that makes you feel hurt and belittled, but if she's also undergoing symptoms at this level, then it is easy to imagine how otherwise inoffensive behavior could be causing her significant distress and pain.

If that is the issue, then a) during an attack, she probably needs a quiet, controlled environment until she gets over it, which you might be able to help her with; and b) it's a good idea to save the heavy relationship discussion until it no longer feels like someone is drilling a hole backward through one of her eye sockets.
posted by shattersock at 3:16 AM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Your girlfriend's "approach" to anger sounds to me completely devoid of empathy for the feelings and dignity of another person. Either she thinks on some level this is justified because she does not feel free to leave the relationship, or she has a personality disorder which prevents her from understanding the boundary between herself and other people.

This is not the best you can hope for in a relationship.
posted by macinchik at 3:43 AM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'd love to hear some input on what seems to be a general issue for us – my insistence/expectation (that despite myself I'm not quite willing to let go of) that real anger and exasperation have no place in a loving relationship.

What? This is not a realistic way to run a relationship. Your partner is the adult in whom you are most emotionally invested. There will be times when emotions run high. I am a reasonably thoughtful, logical and well-balanced human and there have been times when I have been beyond exasperated and outright enraged at my partner. I'm sure the same is true for him.

However, the number of times either of us have lost control and screamed or otherwise acted out that rage is tiny. Generally, "I am so angry I can't speak to you right now; I am going for a walk" means you can come back and deal with the underlying issue rather than the emotions on top of it.

Having said that:

Anonymous, you are an adult. Relating to your girlfriend through the lens of your childhood is, well, lazy. If you equate anger with a lack of love, that's your baggage to deal with, not her baggage to carry for you. Becoming "silent and sullen" or "snide" are both infantile reflexes. Be an adult and use your words. "Hey, that is not an OK way to speak to me" will do.

Anonymous Girlfriend, you are also an adult, one in a relationship of equals. Do not parent your partner. Do not speak to your boyfriend less politely or less respectfully than you would speak to a friend or a stranger. "Honey, please put the map down while we're walking" or "Wait, is dinner burning?" will get you to a better place than "Dude, what the hell?"
posted by DarlingBri at 3:58 AM on September 28, 2014 [18 favorites]

Don't be such a damn doormat man! That kind of expression of anger is unacceptable, and you need to let your girlfriend know that, and that if she keeps it up you'll leave. At the moment she has literally no incentive not to keep doing it.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 4:11 AM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

"i don't think she's expressing too much anger for some relationships, but she seems to be expressing too much for yours. by the same token, you are not too sensitive or withdrawing too much, but you do seem to be too sensitive for her."

This is exactly right, but it doesn't mean that it can't work. I have almost exactly the same dynamic in my relationship, and I am basically a female you, except that I inevitably cry when my partner snaps at me. She never did it that often--maybe once or twice a month--but it was incredibly painful for me early in the relationship.

However, we've been together for nine years now, and I am here to tell you that 1) neither of you is really in the wrong and 2) you can both change. She's not in the wrong because, as said in the comment that I quoted, some relationships are like that--and, frankly, I don't think yelling "DUDE WHAT THE HELL" is this huge anger management issue that some have made it out to be. I think it would be an anger management issue if she kept on and on yelling at you, rather than yelling initially and then calming down. You are not in the wrong for being sensitive, and some relationships would accommodate that better, but that doesn't mean those would be the right relationships for you. I had never been in a relationship with much arguing before this one, and while I don't LIKE the arguing, the good in this relationship far outweighs the bad (including the arguing) and I plan to stick with this one until I'm buried.

The key to changing is recognizing that neither of you is in the wrong. That might be harder for her than for you, from the way it sounds in your post. I have also been characterized as far too sensitive, and my own personal problem with being "sensitive" is that I am not always good at recognizing in the moment that I am allowed to be as sensitive as I am, period. What I had to work on is being able to communicate that. "I hear you that you feel like it's no big deal that you snapped at me. Nevertheless, it hurt like hell, and I am not pretend crying, here, so please try not to do that." I have also worked a lot on recognizing that when she's snapping at me, it's 1) not my mother, so not coming from someone who controls me (high fives for rage-y mom outbursts defining our childhoods! what? no? Yeah, okay, I get it) and 2) not coming from any real, lasting anger. What my partner had to work on is calming her shit down before she opened her mouth, which I believe came through greater empathy for me and understanding that I had every right to react as I was going to react. We had a huge problem early on where she would insist that my reactions were just CRAZY, and we had to talk a lot about that before it really sank in for her. And, to be honest, it took even longer for me to accept that her snapping in irritation was also completely normal for a lot of people. Part of the problem, here, is that the person with the anger often seems like the person with the power, and being "sensitive" is a more negative trait than being aggressive, I think.

These days, it still happens now and then, but it's very rare that she says anything very sharply and it's very rare that I cry or get that upset. In fact, kind of oddly, I'm a little more likely to snap back now than I was at the beginning, which makes it feel a little more balanced.

Anyway, good luck, and feel free to memail me. I am really struck by how similar y'all sound to us back in the day, and I swear you can get through this, but you might have to go through a tiny bit of hell first to get there.
posted by hought20 at 4:23 AM on September 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

I had a verbose comment typed out and accidentally closed the tab, but luckily nacho fries summed it up perfectly:
If those are her words (and you've said she's read your post, and agrees that it's accurate): I would say to her that she needs to check her head. There is no place for sarcasm, cutting remarks, or cursing directed at a partner. None. It does nothing to build trust, respect, and open lines of communication.
I'll even go one step further and say that not only does it not build respect, it's actively disrespectful, even in jest, when used as an ongoing rhetorical device with people you care about.

Source: I used to be your girlfriend until I checked my head.
posted by Room 641-A at 4:28 AM on September 28, 2014

Also, I'd love to hear some input on what seems to be a general issue for us – my insistence/expectation (that despite myself I'm not quite willing to let go of) that real anger and exasperation have no place in a loving relationship.

Here's my input: You're right about this. In my previous marriage, my wife would become contemptuous towards me when our opinions didn't overlap, or my behavior bothered her. It killed the marriage dead in about 5 years. I am now in a loving, mutually supportive marriage with an adult who does not treat me with contempt when we disagree or I annoy her, which are rare moments, even. I honor her respect with a mutual dose, and we have a quiet, peaceful home & life that is a place of refuge for us both.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:03 AM on September 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

My mom was a yeller, and berater. I just won't tolerate it in my relationships. I resolved not to yell or berate.

Once Husbunny was snappy with me and I told him, "I can't handle that, it's too harsh." It's never happened again.

When I'm annoyed, I say so, "Dude, I get that the phone is interesting, but I need you to be attentive here." I'm direct, I say what I want, and that's that.

We do not argue and have never argued. People get angry, but yelling at your partner is no more appropriate than yelling at a stranger. Intimacy doesn't mean that it's okay.

You can express anger or annoyance calmly and in such a way that allows the person to save face and to maintain dignity. If your GF isn't willing to learn this, then it may be time to bounce.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:29 AM on September 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

This actually reminds me a lot of the question earlier this week about the partner who constantly said "why?" to every minor request. Same thing, different format. Every time you do something minorly differently than your girlfriend would do, she snaps at you.

I am a fairly controlling person. I used to be much, much worse. The line between healthy levels of control and unhealthy levels of control is the line of respect. When you snap at your partner for looking at map wrong (!) or for asking an innocent question, that is not coming from a place of respect. That's coming from a place of "I'm right and my ways are superior and you're wrong and your ways are inferior".

Your girlfriend needs to own up to that as a real issue and knock that shit off. It's not okay to snap at your partner over minor annoyances. Ever. If there's a real issue to be addressed, it needs to start with "hey, can we talk about something that's been bugging me?" and not GRAR.

You are not to blame for any of that stuff. However, you are being really passive aggressive when you stonewall your emotions. Trying to pretend everything is fine when it is not does not help solve problems - you aren't fooling anybody and it can be exasperating to ask what's wrong and to have the other person pretend it's all sunshine and roses when you know better.
posted by zug at 9:28 AM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

minor anger can be a healthy part of a relationship, and that it can be the mechanism through which partners learn to grow toward each other...

uh... 5-10 times a month for 2 years?? --Bullshit. This aggression will not stand man! Meds or whatever... her behavior towards you is disrespectful, egotistical, and shrewish to be sure... you know why you feel belittled? it's because she is belittleing you. At the end of the day, she thinks you're an idiot and feels justified in letting you know.

BUT this is an opportunity for you grow bigger balls and not be such a "nice guy" with her treatment of you (which is tough, since her behavior is emotionally abusive.. esp if she knows your background and continues treating you like this.)

I used to think it was "love" to roll-over and not fight (as in not fight-back) - I was wrong. It is unhealthy to treat loved ones this way / to let loved ones treat you this way

on breaking the pattern:
-- say "it's obvious you are angry/ annoyed... i will talk to you about this when you are calm/ in a more loving spirit.. or something"

-- consider Robert Glover's "No More Mr. Nice Guy" which will give you tools / framing on breaking this relationship pattern.

i strongly predict, if children, or any other major life stressors, are ever in the mix, this dynamic will get worse.

if you stay: speaking from experience, be careful of that "25%" of the time you feel hurt/belittled - this is the space where "escaping the situation" in all of its various, self-defeating forms, could seed and grow, esp. in the aggregate.

also -- she is NOT probably right about whatever she's annoyed/ chewing you out about - it's just her opinion.
posted by mrmarley at 11:28 AM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

5-10 times a month. I don't care what you're fighting about. That's just too goddamn much.

You say you are both "working on this" but how? With who, where and when is this work done?

For me the answer would have to be "Together, in therapy and often" or i'd be out of there.
posted by French Fry at 11:35 AM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

just so you're aware before you wade in, "no more mr. nice guy" is found on many pua reading lists and loved by the likes of o'reilly and limbaugh. there are better, less harmful viewpoints.
posted by nadawi at 11:53 AM on September 28, 2014 [8 favorites]

Being angry and treating your partner poorly are not the same thing. Claiming one as an excuse for the other is irresponsible and childish. Conflating the two as an excuse is just gaslighting by another name.

Anger isn't the problem, per se - it's what you do with it. By the same token, I can't see that disallowing your partner anger as a legitimate reaction (reaction to what is another issue) because of your history is much better.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 12:13 PM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

My long reply just got lost, so I'll distill it to:

I have lived this dynamic and worked mightily to change it.

Your history of emotional abuse is central to your responses and those responses are feeding the fire. Your checking out is NOT the same as being grounded and present in the face of a loves one's upset; it's abandonment and neglect. Also, you are misconstruing complaint as criticism and thereby demonizing your girlfriend. Both the checking out and the demonizing are sending her the message that her hurt and fear--those vulnerable feelings underneath the protective, energizing shield of anger--are invalid. She responds by applying more protective anger because YOU are not emotionally safe to HER, either.

It's possible to get out of this catch 22, but will require YOU to acknowledge your responsibility in perpetuating the dynamic as well.

The single best book that helped us wasLove Without Hurt. I strongly encourage you to read up on emotional neglect and reflect on it as it pertains to your childhood and to your current relationship.

Either one of you is welcome to MeMail me. Good luck to you both.
posted by Sublimity at 1:39 PM on September 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

My husband has two habits that absolutely drive me up the wall. It doesn't matter what they are specifically, except that they are akin to your trivial examples of things you do that irritate your girlfriend.

I've had maybe two or three conversations with my husband about each of these habits. They were gentle, not in the moment, here's-why-this-bugs-me requests that he stop doing these things. He's gotten better but still forgets and does these things on a somewhat frequent basis. It gets a rise out of me every time, but here is how I react:

I bite my tongue. I remind myself that this is the price of admission for living with someone whom I otherwise adore. I would never speak to him the way your girlfriend describes speaking to you - I don't think I have ever asked him "WTH are you doing?!" in a raised voice.

There are a lot of excuses for your girlfriend's behavior in your post, both from you and from her. Hormones, being "extravagant, cutting and sarcastic", and believing that "anger will bring you closer together" - these things are excuses for her not controlling her anger in the moment of irritation. She's totally allowed to be annoyed with you for trivial things - but she is blowing up at you in a way and frequency that I would find to be completely unacceptable.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 1:42 PM on September 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

looking at maps on my phone as we walk, getting distracted by conversation while cooking, asking her where to put her stuff away instead of figuring it out myself

Is she angry and stressed about something else (demanding job?) and taking it out by lashing out at you and being controlling? That's not okay. Does she need to recognize what's going on and reduce her stress elsewhere in life in order to stop taking it out on her partner? I've got immediate family members who behave this way and have worked with some folks who do the same and in retrospect after I got away from them it was obvious that they felt helpless and unable to cope with other things going on in their lives, perhaps afraid to stand up for themselves, so they'd react to the anxiety by micromanaging those who they believed had no choice but to take it.
posted by citron at 6:36 PM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Anger is not an appropriate part of any relationship. Nor is cutting.

Exasperation happens.

I can't tell which is happening here, but I think the former. Shit can be annoying, but you have to control your reactions.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:51 PM on September 28, 2014

I am a fairly controlling person. I used to be much, much worse. The line between healthy levels of control and unhealthy levels of control is the line of respect. When you snap at your partner for looking at map wrong (!) or for asking an innocent question, that is not coming from a place of respect. That's coming from a place of "I'm right and my ways are superior and you're wrong and your ways are inferior".

This is also me. I am often an irritable snapper and it is not a personality trait about myself that I like very much at all. I have, I the past, dated defensive "Okay you want to fight, let's fight" people. I am not dating a person like that now. My feelings on the interactions you have outlined

- You're recreating your parent/family/home dynamic. That enough should help you see the "Man I don't want to do this" part. Congratulations on seeing it as a recurring cycle that needs to be snapped out of. The two of you need to retool to stop this from happening.
- There is a difference, to me, between feeling angry and acting angrily. I can't really control whether I get angry but I can certainly control how I act towards one of the people I care about most in the world. Barring some sort of extreme issues, I should strive to do that. Put another way, if I'm so good at this control stuff, why can't I do it to myself? So I worked on it. I snap a LOT less now. Not never, but almost never. I have said "I'm really angry I think I just need to go read for a bit" to try to get my head straight, but I don't just sit and pout and take it out on my partner. Not ok.
- Figuring out for the two of you what is against the rules. For me and my partner, raised voice arguing is basically against the rules. If someone starts shouting the argument/discussion is over and we calm down, and it's phrased that way "We need to calm down" This is because we have mutually agreed that this is not okay in our relationship. I think one of the challenges you have is that your gf seems to think that this sort of snapping/sparring is good for ... intimacy? something? And you very much do not. She is going to have to bend on this a little bit and as you see her bending it may be easier for you to work on your own responses somewhat.
- A lot of times when I am feeling snappish I can sit and think a little more and try to figure out what my real issue is. Now, it's annoying as hell when your partner is like "what's the real issue here?" because fuck you the real issue is that you are drying the dishes wrong!! (see, it's irrational) but ultimately maybe there's a larger thing that if you (the snapper) feel that you have a judgment free place to explore this, you can have other ways of helping soothe your mind other than snapping. I agree with others, snapping feels like it's going to make you feel better but it basically doesn't. Me realizing that it was basically ineffective (for me, for my partner, for anyone else) was what got me interested in trying to do things a different way.

My partner, for his part, has mostly tried to talk with me through this stuff, to help me see my own weaknesses not as "gotcha!" stuff but as challenges to us being comfortable and trusting with each other and that helped me really want to change and make things different. In my asshole growing-up family, you just bitched someone into submission or clammed up and "won" through passive aggression. There are much better ways to work out disputes but it seems so unnatural when you are used to the heavy drama ways. Good luck in finding a better path.
posted by jessamyn at 7:29 PM on September 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Then, the typical argument is about me being abnormally sensitive against her being too hair-triggered

Ugh. So the really shitty thing about this behavior on her part is that it doesn't allow you to have emotions of your own. It makes her hair-triggered-ness an intrinsic part of her personality that you just have to accept, and the fact that it causes you to feel upset and hurt is both not something she cares about, and even worse, a character flaw of your own.

The script could just as easily be flipped and you could be an intrinsically sensitive person, and could force her to accept that you would be upset at any raised voice, and you could paint her raised voice as a character flaw of hers. I am sure it's obvious that she wouldn't go for this -- nor should she, it is hardly reasonable to expect people to bottle up their emotions -- but in that case, why should you be the one who has to bend and suppress your emotions in order to accommodate her quirks?

You're allowed to be sensitive. Your allowed to be hurt when someone snaps "what the hell are you doing?!" at you, and you're allowed to feel confused and bewildered when you have done nothing significant except living your ordinary human life. In particular, when you do something totally reasonable and considerate -- "asking her where to put her stuff away instead of figuring it out myself", as in, asking because you wanted to do things right the way she wanted them and you weren't sure -- you are very much allowed to feel hurt and confused when that action is met with abuse. And, when you attempt to bring up the fact that you are spending a lot of time feeling wounded and are beginning to withdraw, and instead of being heard you are told that these emotions of yours have no value to your partner -- you are allowed to feel hurt at that too, and even to push back and state that if this was a loving relationship, maybe they should have some value.

I was once very much like you, but in my world these days, nobody says "what the hell are you doing?!" to me and is met with "sorry" as my response, unless I have done something terrible like pour coffee on their lap. If I am doing an ordinary human thing, even making ordinary human mistakes, and I get abuse like this, I respond with "excuse me?", and our next conversation is about my need to be treated with respect and kindness, and my intention to walk if that is not taken seriously.

What's being described here sounds mostly like little flare-ups, rather than what you might call 'real anger' which could come from a legitimate place and need to be felt and validated; real anger directed at a partner is a warning sign, something to be sat down and worked out, and hopefully rare. Flare-ups I can imagine being common and possible to work with, but only if both parties acknowledge what they are -- one person temporarily losing control and acting in a way that might be hurtful to the other -- and agree that they are not legitimate and do not need to be validated, the way you might with real anger. I would allow a partner the leeway to flare up as they need to, but I would just refuse to engage with it -- literally not respond -- so as not to legitimize this form of communication. I would say I was doing this, too, like, "I'm going to ignore that". This I think would be the key to letting it roll off my back. The real key is not to bend and say sorry and act as if your actions in any way make you deserving of the abuse -- which they don't.

I am concerned for you because it sounds to me like what's being called "anger" and which you are being told to unequivocally accept is actually disguised control. Because it is directed at you, and it results in fights, and you've described them as reprimands, and your attempts to assert your emotions have been forcefully counterattacked. And especially because, it seems, the way to resolve the flare-up is for you to change your behavior so that it is in line with the somewhat arbitrary expectations of your partner. This is how controlling relationships happen; there has been a lot said about this pattern and where it comes from, but it is a punishing, obliterating regime to live under, and it is not normal or acceptable in a functional loving relationship. I would suggest you consider acknowledging the flare-ups without legitimizing them or changing your behavior. If indeed the incidents are so trivial, then whether you change your behavior or not shouldn't really matter, right? And if she is indeed by her own description "hair-triggered", then she should be willing to acknowledge that she probably does fire off a lot of false positives and it's not really fair to ask you to accommodate her all the time, right? So, next time when you are doing something that is totally normal and she gets upset, don't change or apologize; refuse to legitimize it. See what happens. If this really is just about heat, it will flare-up and then pass. If she doubles down on getting you to bend, if she really expects that her 'hair trigger' flare-ups should result in you changing your behavior, then this is about control, and then you have a real problem and you should seriously think about walking.

One final thing. I strongly recommend therapy for yourself. It will help you gain a recognition of what sort of things are totally normal and not deserving of reprimands, since your sense of this has likely been warped. It will also help you to believe that your needs have value and give you the tools you need to assert them, both internally and in your relationships.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:28 PM on September 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

I think the comments calling your girlfriend abusive are sort of over the top. I mean, that's POSSIBLE from what you've written, but I don't consider snapping at people sometimes to be abuse. My parents very much have this type of dynamic with each other where they will tend to make annoyed remarks in the moment about relatively small things, and there is no doubt that they love each other deeply and are overall very happy in the relationship.

That said, behavior doesn't have to be abusive to be unacceptable TO YOU. For whatever reason, I CANNOT STAND the sort of snippy comments my parents make to each other about the most minor shit. I mean, I don't mind so much if they do it, but when people do it to me, like you I am pretty sensitive and tend to get hurt.

And here's the thing. While it is possible to have a loving and happy relationship with snippy comments, IT IS ALSO POSSIBLE TO HAVE ONE WITHOUT THEM! I have been with my fiance for about 4 years now, and I honestly don't think he has ever, once, made that sort of comment to me. He will get annoyed AT SITUATIONS and get generally grumpy/grouchy/in a bad mood sometimes, but he is really good about not taking it out ON ME. Even though I'm sure I (like everyone in the world) do annoying shit sometimes. I cannot tell you what a relief it was to finally find a relationship where I don't feel like I'm walking on pins and needles constantly. Where I don't know when the next blowup/drama/etc. is going to be. (Like many people, I think, many of my younger relationships were of the high drama variety!)

Point being, if this is something you want and need from a relationship, then you DESERVE to have it. It's not some pie in the sky "I can really only be happy if I can marry a perfect super model with a 140 IQ who is fabulously rich" fantasy. It is a real thing that people find in relationships, and it is a reasonable thing to expect from a partner if that is a thing you need -- especially given your past, but it could be a reasonable thing to need even if you didn't have that history (I don't).
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:54 AM on September 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

Paul, your post is insightful and kind.

I think you're right, that the girlfriend's "flare ups" are about control. However, just as the OP is carrying demons into the relationship that aren't there, because he's human (his gf is, presumably, not full-on raging all the time, as was the case in his abusive home environment as a child), so too is his girlfriend. We haven't heard about her background, but we do have a sense that the OP is not a totally irresponsible fuck up... Bet your bottom dollar there is something in her background that pushes that button really hard for her, that she needs to be the one to be responsible and make sure shit gets taken care of, in those situations where she flares up.

When you two are at an impasse, neither one of you is totally right and the other totally wrong. You are both hurt human beings. You are both entitled to your personalities and temperaments. The reason why you get stuck in this place is because it is where you BOTH fall down, are hamstrung by your own wounds.

The Stosny book is fantastic for laying out a way to get from that place of feeling lost, hurt, overwhelmed to a place of seeing your partner (and yourself) as good people who are hurting, and solving problems from there--rather than by getting mired in blame.

Again, having lived this from the strong-emotions perspective, one of the things that stalled us for a very long time (and resulted in vastly more pain and damage) was my shut-down husband being unwilling to acknowledge/deal with HIS OWN upset. As in, he was so convinced that upset==crazy==bad, so convinced that his coping method of just blanking out til the storm had passed was what was right and healthy, that we were stuck and stalled for a very long time. Interestingly when he began to really be able to feel, recognize, and cope with upset emotions, he finally started to realize how vastly different the experience was. Both were reactions of remaing calm when things got heated, but the internal process was totally different. Please, for your sake and hers, OP, check yourself carefully to see whether this is what's going on with you.
posted by Sublimity at 7:01 AM on September 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also, not to totally threadsit, but try this on for size. You write,

I come from an emotionally abusive childhood wherein my mother solved all parenting issues through constant nagging, berating, and shouty hysterical rage while my dad tuned out.

There are probably a few different ways to parse this sentence, but in context I'm going to assume that it means, "my mother was responsible for all parenting issues, which she solved though constant nagging, berating, and shouty hysterical rage. Meanwhile, my dad tuned out."

When I read this statement, what comes up for me is:

--Childrearing presents many issues that absolutely NEED to be dealt with, and can be enormously stressful even in a good relationship/co-parenting balance.
--Opting out of dealing with challenging parenting issues entirely (including being physically present but "tuned out") is shitty parenting and shitty partnership. In fact, it's a pretty bald control move in and of itself--effectively a sit-down strike, a unilateral decision that the other person is on his/her own.
--Your mother may have handled parenting challenges poorly, but she did in fact engage when that needed to happen.
--Your mother was coping with the profoundly stressful situation of, effectively, having to single parent while still living with a husband who was both abdicating his parenting duties AND leaving her to flail while she was clearly overwhelmed with that job.

I would definitely agree that what you describe of your childhood was emotionally abusive--but I encourage you to appreciate that BOTH parents were exercising controlling behavior, and BOTH of them served you (and each other) poorly. It was not just the shouty parts that were the problem...
posted by Sublimity at 11:19 AM on September 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Just wanted to chime in and say that I don't believe your g.f. is being abusive. I think that's going a bit far - but I wonder about your description of her behavior.

I ask this because your situation sounds a lot like my primary relationship - my partner had some abuse in his very early background which he's never dealt with openly, but to this day he believes that anger is ALWAYS a Very Bad Thing, and he tends to exaggerate what is actually happening. For example, I've been accused of "yelling" at him when I've never raised my voice, and "scowling" when I was in the middle of something else and looked at him quizzically. I've learned that he is just very sensitive to potentially negative emotions and try to keep an even keel.

For what it's worth I do believe in a "better out than in" policy when it comes to strong emotions - but there is a respectful way to do this, and it's called talking about it after you've cooled down. Often the best solution is for me to take a bit of time to myself when I'm feeling potentially outbursty. I think there's a bit too much melodrama in a "How DARE you speak to me that way" type of response to your g.f.'s outbursts that is only going to put distance between you. It does sound as though you are both aware of your roles in this, which is great. Perhaps a little counseling for you would be helpful, even if your g.f. doesn't want to participate. Sometimes a little perspective and compassion for yourself is all that's needed.
posted by Otter_Handler at 3:54 PM on September 29, 2014

Look, your relationship cannot survive unless you learn to be kind to each other. I have your girlfriend's instincts, and there are trivial things that make me FURIOUS and I am super intolerant to stupidity (only, by stupidity I mean everything that does not agree with me - in my head, it feels like people are stupid when they don't read my mind and totally agree). After years of living mad at everyone else I have realized that I am the irrational one and the actually stupid one by expecting everyone to conform to my whims.

So I had to use logic, kindness and the ability to bite my tongue. Here are some pointers that have helped me treat my husband the way he deserves:

-Sarcasm is funny when you are twelve. After that it's immature, hurtful and not even witty. Childish, hurtful humor can (maybe?) be funny but use it very infrequently or not at all.

-You are supposed to treat the people in your life better than strangers. "What the hell are you doing?" is the sort of thing you say when you are caught up in a road rage incident and lose control of your temper. It should not be a regular feature in your conversations with people you love.

-Choose to believe the best of your SO and give them the benefit of the doubt. Most of the times you will be right about them.

- If your SO does not know something you think they should know, then it's probably because they are different people with different brains and different experiences.

- Your SO has no duty to act they way you want them to act. You are not their boss/parent. They are their own person, and the very least you can do as their partner is respect their sovereignty. You don't get to dictate the things they say or the opinions they have. You can have healthy debates, respectful disagreements and even break up due to differences, but you cannot make them do or say things with your shitty temper. That is abuse. If you don't want them to look at their phone, tell them respectfully, if they continue, you deal with it in an adult manner or end the relationship if it's a huge deal breaker to you. Don't bully them into stopping.

- If something comes up that is significant to you and insignificant to them, talk. I for example have a horrible reaction to getting home after work and finding the bed unmade. With perspective I understand my husband has different standards, so I acknowledged that objectively it wasn't a huge deal but it is a huge thing for me, so please could he take care of that after he got up. And he does it as a favor and because he wants me to be happy.

- You get to use the "please this is a huge deal for me even though it's inexplicably trivial to you" argument very sparingly.

You could use some relationship counseling and your girlfriend needs to be a more empathetic. It is easy to say some anger is healthy in a relationship when you are the person who is on the giving end of the anger. But how much controlling behavior are you willing to tolerate? Your standards could be off because of your childhood, but it is not okay for a partner to get mad at you for not obeying them. Obedience is not part of a healthy relationship.

Of course this is all advice to your girlfriend. I really think she is the one who needs to work on managing her temper better, but it seems like she thinks it's perfectly fine. I will leave you to figure out if you deserve sarcasm and verbal aggression or if you deserve kindness and respect from your SO. More than a valid reason to break up in my opinion.
posted by Tarumba at 7:00 AM on September 30, 2014 [10 favorites]

my insistence/expectation (that despite myself I'm not quite willing to let go of) that real anger and exasperation have no place in a loving relationship

I came back to see if you replied, and caught that sentence. I wanted to say you have the right to have any expectation you like, and you also have the right to look for a relationship that satisfies that expectation.

I think you may be conflating the feeling of anger with the response to feeling angry, though. Although a trivial thing maybe should not warrant ANGER, what matters is how we deal with that emotion. All emotions are valid and we can to a point try to modify them or figure them out, but what one can really control is how we respond to our emotions.

In a bad relationship, anger leads to aggressive behavior, and exasperation leads to contemptuous attitudes, and these are perfectly rational things to NOT want in your life. From your loving partner. In your own home. Really, you don't get a prize for putting up with that shit. The only thing you get is the status of surviving a bad relationship.

If you need any anecdotes that confirm your expectations are realistic, my SO and I have had hardcore disagreements (children, money, career plans) and in 5 years since I stopped being a controlling dick we have had zero aggression or contemptuousness between us (and before that, it was all from me, I am ashamed to say). You are not irrational for wanting your girlfriend to be respectful and considerate at least 99% of the time, as in you can look back ten years and remember the one time your girlfriend lost her temper.

I have known my husband since 2003 and I have NEVER had a hurtful word from him. He tells me everything he needs to tell me respectfully and kindly, even when the issue is something serious like the time I lost a wallet with 2 thousand dollars in it. Yes, this happened. And I am sure he was super frustrated but he was never mean to me about it.

You deserve to have a little temple of peace in your own home! We all do!
posted by Tarumba at 4:45 PM on September 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


I just wanted to say that I'm touched and astounded by the quality and quantity of the response. So much in fact that I now have this shiny new sock-puppet account.

I'll make a few specific responses that I feel are important when I have time to write, so for now it's just thank you mefi!
posted by temporarystocking at 2:07 AM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

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