Accepting flaws in long-term relationships
September 17, 2016 3:46 PM   Subscribe

My partner is incredibly kind and loving to me, and I'm very happy with her, but she can lash out at others. How can I put my anxiety about this to rest?

My partner is the most loving, affectionate, and supportive person to have ever been in my life. She always tells me how grateful she is for our relationship and that she loves me for everything that I am, (many) flaws and all. I always hope to be as good to her as she is to me.

She also has difficulty with social interaction. Due to childhood trauma, which our other mutual friends are not privy to, it is very easy for her to feel threatened and react with withdrawal or defensive anger. On occasion, I'll find myself feeling very uncomfortable and worried because I can see both sides very clearly, and feel like she's been too angry or aggressive or reacted too harshly. (fwiw, disagreements between us are rare, calm, and loving.)

There's this kind of relationship-anxiety perfectionist impulse that makes me think there's a problem if I don't totally agree with the way she handles conflicts with others. My thought process is "...what if she's... a mean person?"

What I'm describing is the sort of flaw that all people have - right? I guess I just need validation that it's all okay. I don't want to end my relationship, I'm incredibly happy in it, but thinking about these kinds of flaws makes me really anxious.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
My question for you is: does your partner see this as a flaw, something to work on? It's totally fine to not be 100% on board with the way your partner reacts with others, but you should at least be able to support your partner generally speaking and if you see her being aggressive or harsh do you talk with her? What's her response? And what is your concern?

A lot of us have shit that happened to us when we were younger that maybe sucked. Some of our emotions may not be things we can control. However, most of the time, our physical responses to things and especially people are things that we have some conscious control over. So, would your partner like to work on being less aggressive with people? Or does she not see the way she is reacting as aggressive in the first place? There's no right answer here, but it may be worth exploring your anxiety over this somewhat in terms of what you're maybe looking for.

So yeah I wouldn't worry so much about whether she's a mean person or not, but shift it somewhat to "Does she think treating other people like this is okay? What if she treated me that way, would that be okay?" and maybe exploring this a bit.
posted by jessamyn at 3:51 PM on September 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

My opinion is that there are two types of flaws - small mundane flaws and deeper flaws. The mundane flaws are just that, mundane. That is to say the type of flaw where that leave the toilet seat up, they leave bread crumbs on the counter, or they don't send thank you cards on time. Everybody has those flaws. Everybody also has some amount of the deeper type of flaws. The deep flaws are the maladaptive flaws such as like lashing out of anger, withdrawing when upset, prone to bouts of depression and so on.

Since everybody has some of the deeper flaws, when you pick a partner you basically say to yourself can I live with this person's particular mix of deeper flaws.

For me the difference is how aware the person is of their deeper flaws. They may be somewhat aware and try to change but it's a habit that's very difficult. That's something I could accept and live with. If it was a deeper flaw that they had that they were completely oblivious to and were unwilling to discuss then that would be harder to live with.

In the end the choice is yours.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:58 PM on September 17, 2016 [9 favorites]

My other concern of course, would be that if your partner becomes more comfortable with you would she even start to lash out at you. It depends on how early you are in your relationship. If it's still in the honeymoon phase then it may be easier for her to hold back on lashing out. But after many many years was she stistihold back? That's the one thing I would consider when facing this type of flaw.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:02 PM on September 17, 2016 [6 favorites]

Would she consider taking a nonviolent communication class?
posted by splitpeasoup at 4:08 PM on September 17, 2016 [4 favorites]

My husband is like this. I don't know your girlfriends story, but my husband had a horrific childhood where he was orphaned at age 4 and raised in an incredibly poor, abusive family on an isolated island. As a result he had absolutely no one to depend on except for himself and never could remember unconditional love as a child. Consequently, as an adult he went into every social interaction expecting to be screwed over.

He is loving to and respectful of the people he loves, but his behavior towards strangers was a deal breaker when things started to get serious between us. I didn't want to spend a lifetime worrying about him being rude to the bank teller, or flipping out at our future kids t-ball ref, etc.

He would get defensive when I would bring up his behavior and change the subject. Then he would bring it up again (hours later, maybe the next day) and tell me that he wanted to change and be better.

And he did change! He's no pushover and he is gruff as they come but I'm no longer worried that he is going to be rude to the checkout clerk.

Good luck. To be honest I don't think I would have put up with this from my husband if I didn't know the extent of his childhood trauma. It doesn't excuse his behavior but it certainly gives it some context. Still, dealing with that aspect of his personality has been hands-down the most challenging aspect of our relationship.
posted by pintapicasso at 4:17 PM on September 17, 2016 [14 favorites]

I personally would not be okay with a partner who could not be relied upon to be well-behaved with others. I like to invite people over to my house. I like to be invited over to other people's houses. I like to have Xmas parties. Being mean to others would be a dealbreaker. I would find it isolating and embarrassing.

Glancing at your previous questions I want to say: slow down. When you have a messy break-up, stay single for a while. This relationship doesn't seem to be very old and you've already spent time fretting that she needs therapy for this. Just because a person is good to you does not mean they are a good person overall, or that you should stay with them. Several people recommended there that you go to a therapist, and that seems not unreasonable; it's useful to see somebody to bounce your thoughts off of over things like this. She's mean to people and you have anxiety over it; you're seeking validation from internet strangers instead of yourself that you should be comfortable with somebody who makes a habit of lashing all sounds rather unhappy. And it shouldn't be.
posted by kmennie at 4:25 PM on September 17, 2016 [12 favorites]

Depression is not a "maladaptive flaw," btw.
posted by listen, lady at 4:33 PM on September 17, 2016 [9 favorites]

Also, wait wait wait. I see you finished a first year of college? How old are you? How old is SHE? If she's 19 and not over an abusive childhood yet (I mean...) she has time to decide how she wants to deal with her own life, and you're both very young. If you're worrying about the rest of your life, maybe that isn't necessary and/or think about it terms of YOUR anxiety and/or maybe she just isn't right for you.

It took me YEARS to recover from abuse and trauma.
posted by listen, lady at 4:38 PM on September 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

Is the issue that when you are with her, the possibility that she will lash out at someone makes YOU anxious? That is a problem and it is one you can talk to her about! She may not do anything to change, and/or you both may need to recalibrate. but if she doesn't know that you feel like you're on tenterhooks when you're out together, that's a problem--not that she might be "mean."
posted by listen, lady at 4:44 PM on September 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

It might help if you make sure that you're not getting triggered because you're conflict-avoidant -- it's hard to know from one person's account whether your partner is out of control or setting appropriate boundaries, or whether you're being reasonable or being avoidant.
posted by lazuli at 4:48 PM on September 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

The idea is yours to work on and I'm not sure her "flaw" is the issue. Talk to your therapist about this. And if you think she's mean, break up.
posted by listen, lady at 5:04 PM on September 17, 2016

What do your friends think about this? How do these conflicts typically get resolved? Do your friends who don't know her well think she's an asshole and not want to hang around with her? Is this impacting your social life in a specific way beyond just not liking it when people argue?

To me, if she's not ruffling any feathers or creating real problems for you in your social circle, you should just accept that not everyone is 100% extroverted and sweetness and light all the time*. Maybe offer some solutions if she wants them, for example she doesn't have to come out if she's not in the mood, or maybe you have some kind of safe word to communicate that she wants to leave or is struggling with something or someone in particular.

If she is creating actual problems in your social group or between you and your friends, or if she's universally hated because of this behavior, I think it's completely 100% fine for you to lay down some boundaries. You need to tell her that it's not acceptable for her to treat people that way, and if it happens again you will do X action as a result (leave the party, not defend her to people, stop inviting her to things, break up with her, whatever feels appropriate to you). And then actually stick to that.

*It's especially important to recognize that our society dictates that women should be this way all the time, and if they can't be, they're "bitches" or "crazy". Which can make it hard for women to find a place to channel antisocial feelings, and also can make it seem like behavior that is perfectly normal for men is problematic in women.
posted by Sara C. at 5:13 PM on September 17, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm sorry to answer this twice, but in thinking about this issue a little more, I realize that there's someone in my own social circle who is a little like this. (It should be stated that we are way beyond teenage/college age.) It occurs to me that her default behavior with other people is to be angry and aggressive because she's afraid to get close to people. If she can control the situation by pushing people away, it's much easier for her than being vulnerable or letting the other person control the interaction. Coming to this realization about her has helped me to be more accepting of her and to not react as much when she behaves aggressively.

Note that my friend is just garden variety prickly, she's never actually transgressed any social mores besides "be polite". I think it's a totally different story if she's really hurting people or causing lasting social rifts.
posted by Sara C. at 5:22 PM on September 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Someone upthread mentioned glancing at your previous questions so I also had a quick glance.

You've previously gotten a LOT of suggestions that you should talk to someone because you are drawn to very unhealthy, drama-filled relationships.

This has serious potential to be another drama-filled relationship. You should work on finding out ways to stop engaging in this type of thing.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 5:31 PM on September 17, 2016 [6 favorites]

I had a similar defensive mean streak in my teens and twenties, and for the most part I was oblivious to it. I wasn't a jerk and couldn't be a jerk, the people I didn't like were the jerks. (And, okay, sometimes they were jerks, but that didn't make me not a jerk.) I think it's a fairly common habit, especially in younger people who are insecure about themselves and where they fit in, or who are used to cliquish social environments.

It's not permanent; it can be unlearned. It takes a long time, though. She might not unlearn it in the near future. It takes a combination of getting in a place where you feel better about yourself (this might be a mental-health-professional thing, or it might be a change in environment or habits) and being around people who model positive social attitudes. If she's around people who don't start drama or talk shit or pick fights, she won't be inclined to do the same. So probably the best thing you can do is be an example of the kind of person you'd like to be around.

Based on the tone of your question and follow-ups, it seems like you're uneasy about having a problem with her. Which is understandable; relationship troubles can gnaw at you. But if you have a problem with someone, it's not necessarily a "you" problem, and forcing yourself to put up with it often isn't a good solution. It's okay to be bothered by the way she lashes out at people. It's okay to find it unacceptable, even. I think it's worth talking with her and mentioning that it bothers you and working together on a solution that might help both of you.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:44 PM on September 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you felt she was being unfair towards someone, could have a rational conversation about it afterwards? I mean, would she be receptive if you tried to express the other person's point of view, or would she feel you were taking sides with others against her?

If you're not comfortable doing this and she winds up pissed off at your friends and family, you'll see your social circle/support network dwindle to her alone....and you'll be in a very bad situation.

Trust your gut and don't simply dismiss your uncomfortable feelings as weakness or cowardice.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:51 PM on September 17, 2016

Why do you have that many toxic people in your social circle?
posted by lazuli at 6:18 PM on September 17, 2016 [8 favorites]

To answer your question, no I couldn't date someone long term who I felt was unfairly mean or abusive to other people. A partner should be someone who enhances your life and who you're proud of. So I'd do some thinking about whether you agree with her when she fights other people. Is she refusing to be quiet in the face of assholes and racists, or is she taking her moods out on wait staff at a restaurant? Both could be examples of someone who is "argumentative," but I'd probably like the first person while disliking the second.
posted by MsMolly at 6:20 PM on September 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

What I'm describing is the sort of flaw that all people have - right?

Does everyone react with defensiveness in uncomfortable social situations? No. Do all people have "flaws"? Sure. But this is larger than "she leaves wet towels on the floor." You can't expect her to compartmentalize her reaction to difficult situations. I expect that she will react similarly to you at some point. Again, being sensitive is one thing, but taking that and lashing out is another.

I don't think she's any more of an unhappy or depressed person than me at all, and my reaction was disproportionate and panicky.

What you described in your last question were serious problems. If you also think of yourself this way then I think you both may need to talk to someone. And I get it. I've also struggled with anxiety and depression.

But it would be like comparing your temperature with a flu to someone who also has a fever. It's not a good baseline.

And I'll go ahead and agree you're young. But guess what - I met my husband when I was 19. (Though he was 21.) And we've been together for nearly 7 years now. That said, most people around my age were not emotionally mature to have a sustained relationship at that time. That's not just conjecture. Most of those relationships ended long ago and only a few have stuck around.

I've had to grow a bunch too - as has he - and we've grown in our relationship. But it takes the emotional maturity to decide to work on yourself and perhaps leave toxic friends and workplaces all together. Not to create more drama in the situation. Though neither myself nor my husband are ever drama-starters in the first place.

So yes, I think these are red flags. Yes, I think she may lash out at you. I think she COULD change but YOU cannot make her change. She has to decide for herself. And YOU have to decide for yourself if you want to stay if nothing ever changes because that's the more likely option.

Often, the relationships where you brush off red flags because things are "the most loving thing ever!" are actually the most screwed up. If she's reminding you that she loves you "including your flaws!" that's not how real love is. Everytime I tell my husband I love him I don't also put in a dig about his "flaws." My relationship with my ex surely SEEMED like the most loving and caring thing but in reality it was very manipulative and messed up. It was only when I met my husband that I realized that when you're with the right person things feel much more comfortable and less anxious even from the start.
posted by Crystalinne at 8:16 PM on September 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Can I be brutal? I think that, given your past and recent history, you are not in a mental or emotional position to be in a relationship. You can't be in a relationship for a couple of months and already be looking for ways to salvage or fix it.

There's far too much 'psychologising', too early, for this to go anywhere.

Let this relationship run its course, then stay single for a while and address the anxiety and depression issues you mentioned in previous threads. I don't see you there yet.
posted by Kwadeng at 12:29 AM on September 18, 2016 [11 favorites]

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