What to do when the one you love turns momentarily nasty?
March 3, 2006 12:04 PM   Subscribe

Red flag filter: how seriously should I take an out-of-character outburst from a romantic partner?

I have been seeing a man for a couple of years, and the relationship is extremely good. He is a kind, thoughtful person, easy to communicate with, and as a partner his MO is to be exceptionally giving.

I have never been with another person who seemed so sincerely to want to help me with my life and work. Since I'm also pretty generous by nature, this has proved a sweet experience for us both. We both have had relationships where our partners enjoyed our good natures, but didn't give much back.

However, there is problem, and in light of how good things are between us otherwise, I am wondering how much weight to give it. In the time I have known him, my partner has had two outbursts where he vehemently announced that he hated me, appropos of nothing that I had done. In each case, external stresses built up--one time quite severely, the most recent time really out of nowhere--and suddenly the person who tells me he loves me several times an hour was gone, and this hate gremlin in his place. The anger blows over fairly quickly, perhaps because I turn cold and analytical in the face of such things, and don't fan the flames, but in the aftermath I find I'm quite nervous about moving forward with plans to formalize our relationship through marriage.

He says it's not really how he feels, but I wonder. He's a high functioning person, but with some child abuse issues that haven't been fully worked through.

Conversely, when he's actually upset about something I have done or not done, he's good at expressing that openly. I truly don't think the "hating" is directed at me.

If anyone has any experience with such Jeckyll & Hyde behavior, or ideas about how to handle it, I would be grateful for your insights. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Perhaps you should ask him about it instead of tiptoeing around it.
posted by cellphone at 12:09 PM on March 3, 2006

Therapy. For him alone, and for the both of you. It's almost certainly not an insurmountable problem, but it's not something you can deal with alone.
posted by S.C. at 12:14 PM on March 3, 2006

I got a beaut of an temporary insanity ability inherited from my dad, but I find that I can keep being a Nice Dude if I just realize what's going on and chill the fuck out. I know you said he talks when he's upset with you and you can work it out, but what does he feel about external stresses makes him explode instead of talking? He needs to learn to see the warning signs and be able to turn himself off before these situations escalate like this. If it's out of his hands or deep-rooted, therapy can't hurt! It sounds like outside of this you've got a good relationship, so Working It Out is clearly the right thing to do.

I doubt mefi is positive enough to tell you "just live with it if it's great the rest of the time and it's so isolated" but hey, that's a surefire way to get built-up resentment that'll destroy ya over the long term. have talks, plans, maybe therapy!
posted by soma lkzx at 12:20 PM on March 3, 2006

I'd have trouble trusting him after something like that. That's just me.
posted by salvia at 12:22 PM on March 3, 2006

I have dear friend who is always calm, cool and professional, especially in front of his business partners. However, he had an uncharacteristic outburst in front of a client and numerous co-workers where he did a film-worthy armsweep, knocking papers, computer and cups of coffee off of a desk in a moment of rage.

He confessed to me that he had no idea what came over him... he had never done anything like that before. Turns out he was having blood sugar issues, and has been diagnosed as pre-diabetic. his doctor said that those kinds of uncharacteristic outbursts can be caused by blood sugar fluctuations.

Just one possibility.
posted by kimdog at 12:28 PM on March 3, 2006

Um. Is there anything physical about these outbursts? Like grabbing, hitting, throwing objects or moving close to you and getting in your face when he yells?

Speaking as somebody who used to teach Self Defense to At Risk women there is a pattern yyou can spot a mile away.

If there is any hint of violence he has GOT to get his ass to anger managment, pronto. And you need to vacate until he does. Or there is an even chance of you ending up in an emergency room and him in jail.

Yelling and fighting - saying things you regret - is fairly normal and even productive. But huge outbursts of anger where you feel afraid? If that is the case: He needs help. And you need to get away.
posted by tkchrist at 12:31 PM on March 3, 2006

He says it's not really how he feels, but I wonder.

It's probably how he really feels for the few minutes that he's in that spot. It's definitely not how he feels 99% of the time from your description of your relationship.

From your description of the stress level, it seems obvious that he's having difficulty dealing with high stress situations. If that's going to be an issue for you, tell him that he needs to figure out how to manage his stress better. If therapy is part of his world view, that's a good start.

For what it's worth, I married a woman who was absolutely wonderful when she wasn't stressed out, but was an incredibly nasty bitch when she was. My life eventually turned into one long sisyphean struggle to keep her stress levels low -- it wasn't a good experience for me.

On the other hand, she was a stress puppy. Your S.O. sounds a lot more together than that.
posted by tkolar at 12:31 PM on March 3, 2006


That these are such isolated incidents, the peculiar nature of the outbursts ("I hate you!" is a uniquely childlike way of lashing out), the way you characterize him—twice—as normally a good communicator, the way these episodes quickly arise during times of stress and quickly dissipate, and your mention of child abuse issues are what led me to my therapy suggestion. This isn't because he hates you; it probably isn't even because of you, full stop.

Float the idea of him seeing a professional about his unresolved issues. You seem to be taking this fairly well, but if you start to feel that this is putting a strain on your relationship, couples counselling might be able to help you work past that.

I've been where he is. I've been where you are, too. Best of luck to both of in getting through this.
posted by S.C. at 12:39 PM on March 3, 2006

I think that sometimes people say awful things to the people who love them because those are the hardest people to drive away. Your SO maybe wants to be shouting "I hate you" at someone who wouldn't let him take it back.

I've actually done this once to an ex, now that I think about it. That relationship ended because we were teenagers with more passion than compatibility, and my outburst didn't substantially contribute.

I'd recommend he get some therapy, and you support him through it however he needs. He sounds like a keeper.
posted by chudmonkey at 12:44 PM on March 3, 2006

I work with abused kids, and I have personal experience of adults with a history. Therapy, couples therapy, medication if necessary. Not because he's crazy or out of control, but because there's probably more going on underneath the surface and they can work wonders.

This is not something he will be able to "manage" on his own or you can fix for him. And it will affect your relationship. Probably more and more the longer you are together. Start addressing the problem sooner than later.
posted by Marnie at 12:51 PM on March 3, 2006

You're a careful observer; you've noticed that high stress tends to provoke these outbursts, and you've further accurately described a pattern of regression and acting out that they tend to follow.

Anyone will behave badly under too much stress; every person's stress tolerance is different. Regression and acting out are neurotic defense mechanisms, which is to say that they are so immature that they get people into trouble.

It's not realistic to expect every person to be perfect. If this kind of thing happens once or twice a year and it is the only mar in an otherwise good relationship, accept his apologies after it happens and quietly count your blessings.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:52 PM on March 3, 2006

One person's consistent, predictable, never-out-of-character is the next person's dull, boring, and suffocating. Few people are "nice" or even "proportional" every single moment of their lives. But if your love is conditional on a robot like level of behavioral consistency from your partner, your SO should know that from you, soon.

Just let your guy know that your interest in him is entirely conditional on his always being a perfect gentleman in your eyes, and, because of his previous outbursts which give you pause enough to post here, on his getting immediate therapy to achieve that guaranteed Zen like calm. Go ahead and make an appointment for him with a counselor of your choosing. And make it clear that you are constantly looking for any sign of behavior that could possibly be viewed as atypical, and that you consider such as personally threatening.

If he truly loves you, he'll keep the appointment, take whatever meds and therapy are suggested, and hand you his gonads in a box for safe keeping. If he objects to any item of this plan, or if he doesn't go to the appointments you've made, you can be sure that he would have been the dangerous psycho you tried to save him from becoming. Cut off all contact with him immediately, preferably in some dramatic way involving calls to 911 and restraining orders.

Otherwise, on the chance you are truly looking for some saner, less modern suggestions, which might involve acceptance of the man as a whole, then get thee out of The Green and harken unto what cellphone and ikkyu2 said above.
posted by paulsc at 1:09 PM on March 3, 2006

Paulsc, that's unfair. She doesn't say she expects him to never be upset, or never argue -- she explicitly says they work through their problems, which would indicate that they *have* problems and she expects those to crop up.
posted by occhiblu at 1:23 PM on March 3, 2006

If you had only known this guy for a few months, I would be very worried. But knowing this has happened twice in two years (is that correct?) makes me think it's not a make-or-break thing. Unless, as stated above, you are afraid of him or feel you can't deal with the behavior at all.

(If it starts to happen more frequently, however, get thee away! Agression can escalate in some people, and you don't want to be there for that.)

But ditto on all the suggestions for counseling, or at least actively working on it together. It's not a great way to handle stress, though it's pretty human.
posted by shifafa at 1:45 PM on March 3, 2006

Hey, paulsc: I'm a man, and "as a whole" I don't want to suddenly shout at my loved ones that I hate them. Perhaps anonymous's fella is the same way and might want to stop that kind of unprovoked, offensive behaviour. Maybe anonymous is worried about unexplained extreme behaviour on the part of her SO, and wants to help him as possible.

Some control-freak woman screw you over in the past, or what? Get a grip.
posted by chudmonkey at 1:52 PM on March 3, 2006

i find it funny that you'll always hear 'get counseling' for everything these days.

two outbursts in a couple of years? non-violent outbursts? just angry shouting?

um, no one is perfect.

if it is bothering you, address it with him and move on. life and relationships are stressful, no matter how good they are.

i think this is a little issue to be honest. everyone has stress and all healthy couples argue or have outburst. if you love them, understand they're not perfect and will have issues.
posted by eatdonuts at 2:01 PM on March 3, 2006

besides, maybe you're having other issues if this seems large enough to break off what is described as a wonderful relationship.
posted by eatdonuts at 2:02 PM on March 3, 2006

The issue here is not so much the shouting - anger should be a part of every healthy relationship I think. It's the use of the term "I hate you." It sounds quite juvenile in this context or sinister. I reckon, talk to the bloke about it when he's relaxed. Maybe put in rules about what's okay in a fight.

My partner used to offer to leave every time we had a tiff. I finally told him that I felt vulnerable and that I needed to give in to him so that he would stay whenever he did that, and now it's not an optional part of an argument. It's taken us 15 years, but I think we fight pretty good now.
posted by b33j at 2:16 PM on March 3, 2006

"Paulsc, that's unfair. ..."
posted by occhiblu at 4:23 PM EST on March 3 [!]

Yes, occhiblu, what I wrote was unfair, in the way hyperbole is always "unfair" for the purpose of drawing attention to a point through exaggeration. However, anonymous posts something self-titled as "Red flag filter" that is all about 2 outbursts in 2 years, and says s/he (the marriage reference leaving me to think anonymous is probably female, but who knows these days) is "quite nervous about moving forward with plans to formalize our relationship through marriage. "

I think it's pretty clear that anonymous is looking for a higher standard of behavior than what s/he has been shown. Quantitatively, would 1 such outburst in 2 years have been tolerable to anonymous? Because the whole point of this posting, it seems to me, is that for this guy, 2 strikes, and he might already be out, if anonymous gets the sense from the Ask.Me hive mind that "2 strikes and you're out" is a reasonable stance.

I drop into the thread, and a number of people have already suggested therapy for the guy, based only on the scenario related by anonymous and so I made a apagogical argument as counterpoint. I intended to raise some hackles, so that, in doing so, anonymous might question the precepts others were offering.

How can making one's course of action entirely conditional on the control another person has of a particular behavior be a foundation for a loving, adaptable relationship? If anonymous truly wants to find a way of making this work, s/he is going to have to begin by examining not only the objectionable behavior of the partner in question, but her/his own ability to tolerate such outbursts, work together with her/his partner to better understand them, and remain able to love unconditionally while doing so.

That's what the traditional marriage vows are talking about in that dratted "for better or worse" clause...

On preview:
"...Some control-freak woman screw you over in the past, or what? Get a grip."
posted by chudmonkey at 1:52 PM PST on March 3

Once a situation is down to score keeping, in my limited experience, getting a grip means getting lawyers. My point to anonymous is meant for considerations that would, I hope, bring into question whether the wisest course is to keep score at all...
posted by paulsc at 2:28 PM on March 3, 2006

A guy who tells you he loves you "several times an hour" probably has some issues that need working on. That's not normal behaviour.
posted by essexjan at 2:31 PM on March 3, 2006

If this were me, outbursts like this would undermine my trust in the person. I would begin to feel like I was walking on eggshells, trying not to set them off. And walking on eggshells is never a good place to be.
posted by jennyjenny at 2:46 PM on March 3, 2006

If anonymous truly wants to find a way of making this work, s/he is going to have to begin by examining not only the objectionable behavior of the partner in question, but her/his own ability to tolerate such outbursts, work together with her/his partner to better understand them, and remain able to love unconditionally while doing so.

Yes, and presumably that's what she's doing by posting here. Many of us begin questioning our ablity to tolerate previously unknown behavior by asking around to see how usual/common/benign it is so that we can can make informed decisions. Calling her a control freak for gathering information, phrased in a way that seems intended to put her down rather than make her see other options, seems, as I said, unfair.
posted by occhiblu at 2:52 PM on March 3, 2006

Therapy worked wonders on my husband's outbursts, which stemmed from previously unacknowledged, completely unresolved childhood issues. Two "I hate you" outbursts in two years may seem trivial, but

1. Jekyll-and-Hyde behaviour means getting emotionally ambushed, and while compared to, say, physical abusive partners, Anon's guy is a sweetheart, that doesn't mean Anon is morally obligated to suck it up. Her/his relationship is pretty good. It could be better. If the guy really is good for Anon, he'll be enthusiastic about working to make the relationship as functional as it can be.

2. Anon doesn't say if they're living together, but if they aren't yet (s/he says s/he's "seeing" him, which suggests not) it's a sure bet that the frequency of outbursts will skyrocket when they do. Talk about stress, that transition period.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 3:50 PM on March 3, 2006

As much as I hate to admit it, I've done this a couple of times. My wife and I worked through it, and she did an amazing job of helping me work through the real sources of my anger and frustration.

That doesn't mean you'll have the same results; there's no guarantee the anger isn't really at you, and no matter what the intention, outbursts like that are often deal-breakers, and you shouldn't feel guilty if it is for you. Make a genuine effort to help him talk about what happened and work through the issues he has -- but if he shown no progress, or expresses no desire to improve or talk about it, you'd best move on, because he'll probably deal with all difficult emotional issues in similar fashion.

In fact, hey, use this as a great way to find out how he deals with difficult emotional issues! If he's a good guy, he'll be mortified as his behavior, and will acknowledge he needs to fix things and will ask for your help. If he's a let-go, he'll refuse to talk about it, or blame you* for causing it, or say there's no problem.

*doesn't count if he blames you -during- the outburst; I'm talking about a few hours later, when you go up to him and say "so, I want to talk about what was making you angry earlier.
posted by davejay at 4:21 PM on March 3, 2006

By "you shouldn't feel guilty if it is for you" I meant "you shouldn't feel guilty if this is a dealbreaker for you", not "you shouldn't feel guilty if his anger is really at you" -- although that is also a true statement.
posted by davejay at 4:23 PM on March 3, 2006

If he's to have a happy, long-term relationship with someone else, he's really going to need to learn a better way to deal with that "hate gremlin" than to repress it until it occasionally takes control.

So, yeah, I'm with the recommending therapy faction here.

Being attacked on a recurring basis by your loved one, even if only verbally, even if only once a year, isn't acceptable. I find it ridiculous even by the standards of straw men to characterize that stance as demanding perfection all the time. There is some middle ground between perfection and outbursts of hatred.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:44 AM on March 4, 2006

Don't be an apagogue.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:06 PM on March 4, 2006

> i find it funny that you'll always hear 'get counseling' for everything these days.

I think it's an appropriate response here (and in most cases). None of us really know what happened exactly. We don't know her history, his history, etc. etc. On top of that, we're all just lay people, who can offer some wisdom, but a trained, educated, experienced professional (who also has their own wisdom) can probably guide you through the process of it better. Or at least just the act of talking to someone is probably better than posting a couple paragraphs, because that person can gather as much detail as they need to give you the most tailored advice.

To anon: Maybe you can look into pre-marital counseling. When I first read your question and saw it was anon I thought "OMG! Is that my b/f!?!?" because I am in such a similar situation as you. I think my b/f and I will get married one day, but I plan to seek pre-marital counseling, where we can go over our individual expectations, and things like that, to help make the whole process smoother. Expectations can pose a big problem when they're not discussed....
posted by mojabunni at 1:42 PM on March 4, 2006

That bit was in response to paulsc, ikkyu2, and didn't need any reductio -- he'd gone straight to absurdum all on his own. (Not that I don't still disagree with you on this one.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 4:23 PM on March 4, 2006

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