No, why are YOU reacting that way?
October 23, 2019 12:24 PM   Subscribe

My very-soon-to-be husband and I fight in nearly the exact same way: I say something that I believe to be innocuous. He responds in (imo) an emotionally disproportionate way. I get upset that he responded so aggressively. He gets upset that I'm upset with him. Help me understand this and make it better.

For context, my fiance and I have been together for over three years and are getting married next Spring. During this time we have navigated moving in together, buying a house (thanks MeFites!), parents' health scares, an abortion, job changes, and other typical life experiences that often are beset with conflict. None of these major life experiences have actually caused us to fight -- we are able to be collaborative/compromising when we have a difference of opinions or during these emotional times.

However, we get into actual spats follow the exact same pattern: I say something that I believe to be innocuous. He responds in an emotionally-disproportionate way. I get upset that he reacted emotionally-disproportionately and ask him why he reacted that way. And he asks me why I'm getting upset for the way that he is sharing his opinion.

Here is an example:
Me: "First Avenue had a ton of traffic on my drive home today."
Him: "Ugh. I hate First Avenue!! Why do you even take it?! It's always backed up!"
Me: "Why are you getting on to me about my commute?!"
Him: "Why can't I express how much I hate that street?!"
Me: "Why do you have to express it like I'm doing the wrong thing?"
Him: "That's not what I'm saying, I just hate that street!"
Me: "But why do you have to say it like THAT?!"
Him: "Why do can't I express myself how I want to express myself?"

Usually these fights turn into some revelation that First Avenue was where he had a childhood accident or a place where he knew a crime took place or something else that he felt sensitive about and my bringing it up triggered his emotions. But I am equally sensitive to his emotional outbursts and will get sad that he even let himself get upset toward me about something so small.

I've been thinking a lot about why these type of fights happen and what are the ways that both of us can modify our behavior and get through them better. But I'd love some other ideas. Do you have fights like this? How can we do this better?
posted by orangesky4 to Human Relations (36 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
My husband and I used to have a not-dissimilar pattern where he'd get mad at me for getting annoyed with him, then I'd get mad at HIM for being mad at ME and so on and so forth.
If he has *that* many trigger points from childhood trauma I'd suggest he probably would benefit from individual counselling because it sounds like it's quite common and impossible to predict when one of these triggers will flare?
If he can't tell you, "Oh gosh that sounds terrible. I have a hard time even thinking about First Ave because that's where XYZ happened," that's a major problem.
To make it sound less accuse-y and to own the fact that you could take the time to learn his typical "triggered" reaction and choose to react differently yourself, I'd also strongly suggest couples counselling.
It doesn't have to be a forever thing, but it's massively helpful to unpack a couple of recent arguments or underlying issues and work through how you'd like to address them together.
Thanks to help from couples counselling, I now preface any annoyance or irritation venting with "I love you so much and you're a fantastic husband, but it's making me mildly crazy that XYZ." It's way, way better. And if he's ready to blow his top, I can say "I can hear you're really angry. Do you want to take some time to get through the ragey part and then we can talk when you're ready?" It works, and it's magical.
posted by dotparker at 12:33 PM on October 23, 2019 [8 favorites]

Try not saying “you” to each other. “I hate X Avenue. I never take it”. It makes the statement simply about how each person feels.
posted by gt2 at 12:34 PM on October 23, 2019 [26 favorites]

Me: "First Avenue had a ton of traffic on my drive home today."
Him: "Ugh. I hate First Avenue!! Why do you even take it?! It's always backed up!"

My family has a pattern like this. My spouse calls it "the ritual assignment of blame." The (dysfunctional) idea is, I guess, to make it clear that it's not your fault that the other party is having a problem. It doesn't really matter if his reason is trauma related (how are you supposed to know?), he needs to step off on rushing to find a reason to tell you you're at fault for whatever frustration you're experiencing. Of course, that's on him. Perhaps your kvetching is a trigger point to him. It might help to frame complaints along the lines of, "Just venting about this. Not looking to assign blame or problem solve . . ." and then reminding him of those parameters during the conversation. But generally a conversation about the pattern of assigning blame might help.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:34 PM on October 23, 2019 [20 favorites]

Question 1: No, I don't have fights like that.

Question2: Assume positive vs. negative. You're both making negative assumptions about the other person. In your example, "why do you even take it?" as phrased does sound like a negative judgment (adding the word "even") but it doesn't have to be.

Meanwhile, with him saying that, he's challenging that you're smart enough to have thought of other ways. Also negative.

Then you're both feeding it into each other. It's not great, but at any point, one partner would've defused it by not feeling challenged. That doesn't mean the other partner has a right to be a jerk, but if my partner said something like that, I would think about it and respond with why I take it. Or if I was annoyed by the comment, I'd say hey, that's not cool, what's up? are you okay?

This book Eight Dates by the Gottmans has practical sit downs that legitimately have changed me as a person and my partner. How we interact (we had just started dating when we did most of them) is so off the charts wonderful and healthy (so it seems to me, her and my therapist at least). Date 2 is about conflict and I learned something incredibly vital about my partner from her growing up with her mom. I understand how one time I had accidentally upset and scared her when I was in so distraught over some death in my family and I raised my voice. She had no idea that's what had happened but now we both understand unique triggers and how our upbringing shaped us.

I really can't stress enough how good I find this book for couples. You both have so many life experiences before you met that shape how you interpret life, how you feel about things, etc. And now you have a shared world too. This isn't a woo book, they're extremely lauded scientists and psychologists. It sets up 8 conversations between you and your partner.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:35 PM on October 23, 2019 [28 favorites]

He needs to be aware of the difference between judging a THING (First Avenue, strawberry ice cream, yellow moccasins, whatever) and judging YOU for partaking in it. "I hate First Avenue" was perfectly acceptable. "Why do you even take it?" is where he crossed the line and criticized you. If he's not aware that he's doing this, maybe ding training would help.
posted by yawper at 12:36 PM on October 23, 2019 [6 favorites]

"Why can't I express myself how I want to express myself?"

It's called manners. Some people feel that they don't have to have them (or a lowered version of them) within relationships in the same way you'd fart around your partner or kiss them with morning breath. Other people feel that you should care for your partner's emotional state even more than you might a stranger's.

There's really no right way to untangle these things except to commit to untangling them together. I can be snappish sometimes and it's usually when I am exhausted or tired. My partner can sometimes be very sensitive to this and it makes him feel terrible. I think he should be chill about the way I express myself when I am exhausted but he is not. This is true about him and I love him. So! We have to find another way to get out of these situations. This usually happens well in a few ways.

Me: snappish
Partner: Stop being mean to me.
Me: Wow sorry, I am just in a bad mood and I shouldn't have expressed it like that, let's move on and I am sorry.


Me: snappish
Partner: Hey I get that you are tired but you are sounding snappish and that makes me feel bad and I'm pretty sure you're not mad at me, so can we redo that last sentence?
Me: Gosh, yes, whoops, thanks.

Other ways this could go

Me: [feels snappish but doesn't say anything]
Partner: Hey how's your day going?
Me: not great...

Me: snappish
Partner [feels aggrieved but decided to let it go because I'm clearly tired/exhausted]
Me: I've had a bad day
Partner Aww honey, sorry

But basically the cycle needs to stop with one of you and it would probably be helpful for you both if it stopped earlier. So try having a conversation, in the moment, about how to better deal with this sort of issue. With us, the big deal/agreement is sort of the primacy of whoever said "Hey, that hurts" gets their issue dealt with first and the second "Hey how you said that hurt my feelings" gets dealt with later (either next or at some entirely other time depending). If you're in the relationship for the long haul a small delay in getting an issue dealt with should be okay. If it's not, that's sort of its own issue.

And yes to what other people are talking about above (assignment of blame is a thing some people do) and it sounds like you're both stuck in a thing like that. Like to me, he's just being a weird fusser and not really blaming you but to you obviously it sounds different. So talking to him about that might be a good first step.
posted by jessamyn at 12:37 PM on October 23, 2019 [41 favorites]

Brooke Castillo has some good stuff about how to interact with significant others. It has really made a difference in how I communicate with my husband when we have conversations similar to this. He's not any different, but I respond differently now.
posted by allison00 at 12:37 PM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

Disclaimer: I am not in a relationship, I am not a therapist, take my advice with however many grains of salt you like.

it strikes me that one way to defuse things is for one of you to bear in mind that this is a habit of his, where his reactions may be about something else other than your actual comments. And then maybe respond accordingly, by waiting to speak to him about how he overrreacted until he's calmed down.

So instead of the script above, you could get:

You: "First Avenue had a ton of traffic on my drive home today."
Him: "Ugh. I hate First Avenue!! Why do you even take it?! It's always backed up!"
You: "Why are you getting on to me about my commute?!"
Him: "Why can't I express how much I hate that street?!"


You could get:

You: "First Avenue had a ton of traffic on my drive home today."
Him: "Ugh. I hate First Avenue!! Why do you even take it?! It's always backed up!"
You: (calmly) "It's the most direct route for me, that's all."

And then you drop it, or just calmly respond to his questions if he has any, until he's calmed down, and then say that "Listen, I was just trying to vent, but I felt a little like you were attacking me then. It felt like you were blaming me for my own problems, and that didn't feel fair."

You know? You already know that he's got some weird irrational thought patterns, but you're responding to them as if they ARE rational, and that isn't helping. So going all Neutral Janet on him until he comes out of that state, and THEN talking to him about "hey, so this is how I was feeling when you did that..." may help.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:37 PM on October 23, 2019 [14 favorites]

Ideally (if he were asking the question), he would commit to working on identifying his emotions and how to manage appropriate responses that don't lash out.

In addition to that, the advice for a successful marriage from the very wise Ruth Bader Ginsburg is: it helps to be a little deaf. Which is to say, let those unkind and probably unmeant comments slide. Instead, you could respond to his comments about the street or commuting in general.

This works best if both parties approach the relationship and conversations from a kind, loving, and assuming-the-best attitude.
posted by carrioncomfort at 12:38 PM on October 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

It seems to me like both of you have the option to de-escalate at basically any point in this conversation, but you are both choosing to ratchet up the argument for some reason. Like, obviously he doesn't have to respond with "Why do you even take it?" but then you don't have to take that as a personal attack on your commuting skills (or whatever). Also I know "I statements" are cliché, but this is exactly the kind of conversion that would benefit from them.

You: "First Avenue had a ton of traffic on my drive home today."
Him: "Ugh. I hate First Avenue!! Why do you even take it?! It's always backed up!" Alternate: "Ugh. I hate First Avenue!! I wish neither of us ever had to take it again!"
Me: "Why are you getting on to me about my commute?!" Alternate: "I know, I guess the traffic there doesn't bother me as much as it bothers you."
Him: "Why can't I express how much I hate that street?!" Alternate: "Sorry, it's not about you, I was letting my intense hatred of First Avenue get away from me!"
Me: "Why do you have to express it like I'm doing the wrong thing?" Alternate: "I felt like you were criticizing my ability to navigate the city."
Him: "That's not what I'm saying, I just hate that street!" Alternate: "I didn't mean to say that you were doing anything wrong."
Me: "But why do you have to say it like THAT?!" Alternate: "OK - I would appreciate it if you "
Him: "Why do can't I express myself how I want to express myself?" Alternate: "I guess I don't have to say it that way."

Basically just think before you speak, and be nice!
posted by mskyle at 12:40 PM on October 23, 2019 [15 favorites]

I'm not sure what others' take will be, but my read is that you are the primary one escalating the interaction. You're taking offense to his "why do you even take it?" when it seems like his primary point is that he is agreeing with your (implicit) "it sucks that traffic is backed up", not your behavior, although he could probably express that better using "I" language rather than "you" language.

Your response to his initial comment could be something like "Ugh, I know, I wish I didn't have to" or "Usually it's not that bad but it was awful today" or whatever and that could have been the end of it. In other words, let the "you" part go and realize he's trying to find common ground and react to the rest of the substance and it should soothe over pretty quickly.

That said, if he actually expects you to change your driving patterns based on his comment, that is controlling behavior and a Totally Different Thing, but as presented it seems just like a poorly worded attempt to take part in your frustration with you.
posted by zug at 12:50 PM on October 23, 2019 [30 favorites]

Start every conversation for a while with a statement of what you want.


"I am so tired and frustrated! Can you just listen to me while I vent.?"
- tell the traffic story
- he starts to comment, and you say "hey I just need to vent, remember? Can I get a hug?"


"I am so tired and frustrated with my commute! Can you help me work out where the route is going wrong?"
- tell the traffic story
- he comments on why-do-you and you say, right, that's why I need help!

The advantages to this method are:

1. You have to take a moment to consider what you want from the conversation - connection? Empathy? Hugs? Solutions?
2. As a person with trauma in his past, setting the expectation will give him a way to hang on to any flight/fight like oh no, she's upset, mustfixmustfixmustfix or mustshutdownmustshutdown. He can remind himself that you said you wanted X and provide X,
3. If you are like my husband and I, in short order you will end up with a shorthand that goes more like this:

"Wow, traffic was awful on LoveLane today!"
"Hugs or brains?"
posted by warriorqueen at 12:55 PM on October 23, 2019 [13 favorites]

I've been with my husband for 25 years. We used to have the same fight all the time - not this one exactly, but similar - and now we don't. The main reason for the change is because we don't want to. It's exhausting. At a certain point, brought about after many years of self-inflicted exhaustion, we got tired of it, and we made a choice to stop engaging in pointless bickering.

You're choosing to spend your life together, right? So it follows that you like each other best and you don't think the other person is stupid or bad - which means you should assume good intentions. Assume, in your example, that your fiance is trying to express solidarity with your opinion, not criticizing your choices. And even if he is criticizing your choices, who cares? You're a grownup and you can take First Avenue if you want. It doesn't mean you're wrong, and it also doesn't mean he thinks you're a bad person. In general, it helps to not assume your life partner is trying to hurt you. (If your life partner IS trying to hurt you, that's a different story and I would have a different answer.)

The point is, you can choose how you perceive his reactions, and you can also choose to engage or not engage. If my husband is in a snippy mood, it's so much better for my relationship to not get into it. Or if I do get angry or irritated, to just go do something else for a while and not try to force a pointless argumentative conversation. I remember the first time I consciously made a choice not to get into it - he did almost a comical double take. Yeah, maybe I missed out on that moment of triumph when I would have finally gotten him to admit he was wrong after thirty minutes of arguing, but man, it was a lot better to go into the living room and read my book.
posted by something something at 12:59 PM on October 23, 2019 [14 favorites]

That's very similar to the dynamic that my husband and I have (together almost 6 years), and I hate it. It's exhausting. We agree on all the important shit. I'm sick of fighting!

The thing that I see similar in my relationship is that my husband is a LOUD person when he gets the slightest bit emotional. So his first response will SOUND emotional/angry, and I'll feel targeted. We've discussed this after the fact, and the fact is he's not trying to attack me, but that's how I feel. So I have to remember that no, he's not attacking me (and thus not respond/escalate). And for his part, he tries to temper his temper, essentially. Like, respond less emotionally without refraining from saying what he wants to say. Because the problem for us is the emotion and tone of voice, not the words.
posted by DoubleLune at 1:11 PM on October 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

What is striking to me about this interaction is how dishonest your fiance is being. Granted, maybe the example you chose isn’t an accurate representation—it’s just an example, I get that. But going by your example, it’s very clear what you’re objecting to—not that he has feelings about the street, or wants to join in bitching about it, or that he’s expressing feelings—but that he’s blaming you for a problem you’re complaining about. When you state that, he says he’s not doing that. That’s not true. Then:

these fights turn into some revelation that First Avenue was where he had a childhood accident or a place where he knew a crime took place or something else that he felt sensitive about and my bringing it up triggered his emotions.

This smells like bullshit. Again, your objection is not that he joined with you in complaining about the street. It’s that his gut response was to blame you for taking the street. You would have no problem if he said “Damn I HATE that street!!!!” Would it bother you if he said “I hate even thinking about that street, I wish you hadn’t brought it up.” (A little less reasonable, but still different from blaming you for taking the street.)

Further, this is not tough to comprehend. If your example is accurate, this is a fight you should only need to have one time. The fact that he refuses to acknowledge what he’s doing is kind of a red flag to me. It makes it seem like he doesn’t want to think through his gut reaction in any way to be more sensitive to you, like he’s not willing to put effort into changing just that little bit.
posted by sallybrown at 1:12 PM on October 23, 2019 [11 favorites]

Usually these fights turn into some revelation that First Avenue was where he had a childhood accident or a place where he knew a crime took place or something else that he felt sensitive about and my bringing it up triggered his emotions.

I also had this problem with a prior SO - you and you soon-to-be are communicating your feelings indirectly, which, for most of the time and for most of the people, that works! Instead, try the many different suggestions MeFi has on mindfulness, and communicate you emotions before you communicate your response. Using this tip, your previous conversation would go something like this:

you: there was so much traffic on First avenue today
him pt1 (what he's missing): first ave makes me anxoius just thinking about it.
him pt 2 (a neutral way to say what he was trying to say but without having his feelings attached): Do you want help coming up with a different route?
you: no I just needed to vent, I love you
posted by FirstMateKate at 1:13 PM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

From the readout above it's clear that the problem is not that his reactions are emotionally disproportionate, it's that he brings those big emotions up via a kind of accusation or interrogation of you. He needs to work on that and together y'all need a language for identifying those moments.

His style of reaction is a cousin of the style that tries to fix everything — the problem in his mind is that you're having this problem, NOT the underlying issue (bad traffic!). This often comes imo from poorly regulated and understood emotions. In my experience this is endemic to a lot of men: his feelings are facts and whoever made the feelings turn bad is at fault.

In the end his redirection makes the interaction about him and your initial feelings aren't part of the discussion anymore.

You can definitely work to improve these interactions on your own if you wish, but the costs can be high. Many partners of people like this end up doing that by minimizing their own needs and taking these as opportunities to soothe and calm the other. I think that's a bad choice. I think you both need a frank discussion when you're not in the middle of it: about why he reacts this way and how it makes you feel. Ultimately you need to be able to call it out in a way that he can receive, and he needs to start being aware of these reactions within himself so he can improve.
posted by wemayfreeze at 1:32 PM on October 23, 2019 [16 favorites]

If you both recognize this pattern and would like to try not doing it anymore, it can help to have a little in-joke or codeword that either of you can use to interrupt it once it starts. It's just a way to pause the knee-jerk responses and create a little space for you both to decide if you want to continue. Just a tiny pause between stimulus and response can be enough to choose a different path. You can call the code-word on each other or on yourselves -- either way, it creates that little pause. It's very, very helpful if the code-word is lighthearted or funny -- after all, it's not an accusation either of you is making, it's just a recognition of a a pattern you get into together, and that you can help each other get out of.

EXAMPLE 1: You call code-word on fiance
Me: "First Avenue had a ton of traffic on my drive home today."
Him: "Ugh. I hate First Avenue!! Why do you even take it?! It's always backed up!"
Me: "Hang on, hang on, giraffe, giraffe."
Him: "Why can't I express how much I hate that street?!"
Me: "So many giraffes! Spots for days!"
Him: "...Yeah, I guess you're right."

EXAMPLE 2: You call code-word on yourself
Me: "First Avenue had a ton of traffic on my drive home today."
Him: "Ugh. I hate First Avenue!! Why do you even take it?! It's always backed up!"
Me: "Why are you getting on to me about my commute -- oh wait a second we are totally giraffing right now."
Him: "Right you are." *giraffe noises*

The crucial prerequisite is that you and your husband are able to talk this out, recognize and agree on what is happening, and agree that you both would rather not fall into this pattern anymore. Many of the suggestions upthread will be helpful with that.
posted by ourobouros at 1:35 PM on October 23, 2019 [10 favorites]

Interestingly, my husband and I often have conversations that begin exactly like yours:

Me: "First Avenue had a ton of traffic on my drive home today."
Him: "Ugh. I hate First Avenue!! Why do you even take it?! It's always backed up!"
Me: Because it's the only practical way to stop at the grocery store, which I had to do today. Did you want to start handling that chore?
OR Me: Because that's the way I want to go. (True story, once the answer was "There's sometimes horses if you go that way.")
OR Me: I used to take Second and then cut over just after the elementary school, but half the time there's some event at the school and it's a nightmare.
Him: If you take Second but go around the back of the mall it dumps you out on Pine St and then there's no speed bumps between there and the house.
Me: Oh shit, I had no idea, I'll try that!

And I think a lot of the difference there is that we have a good faith expectation that the other person is seeking to acquire information/understanding instead of going straight to How Dare You Sir. Sometimes I am the one asking in a very cranky way "why do you need to do it like X" because I can very much be that sort of My Way Is The Best Way about stuff, but for the most part he'll then reply "because if I do it that other way this undesirable outcome happens." Which is either an "oh okay" situation or I counter with a suggestion that we troubleshoot to reduce undesirable outcome and then we are generally in agreement.

The trick, of course, is that both parties have to be making some kind of effort. But, even just on one side you could diffuse some of this reaction loop by just answering the question asked, forcing the other person to try harder if it's that important to them to be shitty about it.

It sounds like some communication training would help you both, but again both parties have to be interested in improving the situation. You can't make him if he doesn't, and/or it won't do any good if you don't want to.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:40 PM on October 23, 2019 [12 favorites]

I agree SO FREAKING HARD with the "Ritual Assignment of Blame" coinage by PhoBWanKenobi's SO.

This thing was #3 on the list of, like, 4 major things that broke up my marriage. The fervent, religious commitment to seeing every interaction in terms of "Who bears the blame for this?" is beyond toxic. People who see interactions in this way aren't even aware they're doing it, usually, and my ex seemed incapable of stopping even after therapy and couples' therapy.

I suspect, OP, that your daily life is also full of efforts to avoid and assign blame. Even when you're not arguing about it, you're likely worrying about what you will be blamed for next. Am I projecting? Very well, then. I am scarred and I contain much bitterness.
posted by MiraK at 2:46 PM on October 23, 2019 [15 favorites]

Has either of you spent much time in therapy and do you regard yourself and your partner as emotionally intelligent? I think it would be great if you both spent some time in therapy, individually and with each other.

Right now I'm reading Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, by Sue Johnson. I read about it here on AskMe. She talks about the "demon dialogues" that couples get trapped in -- the same fights we have over and over that are often about something else or are a rut they can't quite escape from. My partner and I are currently trying to recognize and work through a few of our own. I've also been chatting with my therapist about some of this. Sue Johnson has tips and ideas of how to work through this stuff. It may be that there's some deeper hurt that hasn't been repaired.

My therapist gave me the advice that I shouldn't have needed her to tell me: instead of telling your partner what they are doing, say how you feel. There's so much blame and criticism from both of you, and you each feel hurt and you are lashing out at each other.

You both need to work a lot harder to stop and be more aware of this dynamic, that you are starting down this path. So, for example, "I'm feeling attacked" might be an improvement over "Why are you getting on to me about my commute?!" You could even start with, "Oh, wow, this is escalating. Can we take a deep breath and step back?"

It sounds like the adrenaline kicks in right away, and you react to his reaction, and you both gear up to fight. That sounds pretty miserable. Sometimes my partner or I will recognize that we are in a conflict like this, and we try to interrupt the dynamic. He might reach out to hug me, and I've learned that I need to hug him back even if I'm all worked up and not wanting to hug. I am also learning that reaching out to him physically can interrupt his bad feelings, too.

But I am equally sensitive to his emotional outbursts and will get sad that he even let himself get upset toward me about something so small.
So, are you familiar with cognitive distortions? I think you are personalizing some of his reactions. He is getting upset. You know that he sometimes gets upset about things because of his sensitivities and not because of you. He is getting upset in your direction. He's not really mad at you for driving down that street (even though it feels like it at the time).

I don't want to say this burden should all be on you. Your partner should be in therapy working through his trauma, too. This is work that will benefit you both a great deal.

You mentioned that most of your relationship is pretty conflict-free. This isn't necessarily a good thing. Are you both pretty conflict-avoidant? I was in a long-term relationship that was mostly conflict-free, not because we didn't ever disagree, but because we would both shove down these issues because we were so desperate to avoid conflict. You all need to learn how to have conflict and come back together. I used to think not fighting was a sign of a good, strong relationship. I now realize that being able to disagree and move past that is so much more important. Maybe you are doing that and I am misunderstanding, but I suspect there might be some bigger hurts that are coming up in this small spats. Get yourselves into couples counseling and figure out what that stuff is so you can work through this now.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:53 PM on October 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

Me: "Why are you getting on to me about my commute?!"
Him: "Why can't I express how much I hate that street?!"
Me: "Why do you have to express it like I'm doing the wrong thing?"
Him: "That's not what I'm saying, I just hate that street!"
Me: "But why do you have to say it like THAT?!"
Him: "Why do can't I express myself how I want to express myself?"

Okay, I'm just an internet stranger, so this could be way off, but based on this one example, it seems like 1) both of you escalate the situation when there are chances to de-escalate, and 2) both of you seem (to me) like you don't see the value in changing your own arguing style, because you think the other person should be the one to change *their* arguing style. It gets very meta because the thing you're arguing about (fundamentally) is how you should be arguing. Like, to me, your arguments basically boil down to:

You: Statement
Him: Response that could be interpreted as an emotionally-disproportionate
You: "Well, I don't like how you're talking to me."
Him: "Well, *I* don't like you *you're* talking to *me*.
Both of You: repeat this same line, over and over

Both of you should resist the urge to, in the moment, make a statement that could be interpreted as "Well I don't like how you're talking to me", even if the other person has already said something like that. It pulls you into a loop where you keep spinning in circles, and it makes it hard to get the argument out of that loop once both of you are saying it.
posted by 23skidoo at 2:58 PM on October 23, 2019 [9 favorites]

The spot where things seem to me to be getting the most emotionally disproportionate is here:

Him: "Ugh. I hate First Avenue!! Why do you even take it?! It's always backed up!"
Me: "Why are you getting on to me about my commute?!"

It's your response that seems disproportionate. Maybe it seemed different in real life, but reading it here in writing, it seems like kind of a jump to conclude that he was getting onto you. "Why do you even take it?" could mean, "Why did you make such a stupid decision?" but I would be more likely to interpret it as, "Why don't you hate First Avenue as much as I do?" It sounds like his strong feelings are more about First Avenue than about your choices.

Why did you immediately assume he was criticizing you? You keep having conversations like this and he always explains that he wasn't attacking you. Do you not believe him? Maybe he should have learned by now not to express himself in a way that could be interpreted as an attack. But maybe you should have learned enough about him by now that you don't jump right to an assumption that you're being attacked every time he sounds emotional.
posted by Redstart at 5:08 PM on October 23, 2019 [8 favorites]

”Why do you even take it?" could mean, "Why did you make such a stupid decision?" but I would be more likely to interpret it as, "Why don't you hate First Avenue as much as I do?"

In both of these interpretations, the fiance is criticizing the OP.
posted by sallybrown at 5:15 PM on October 23, 2019 [9 favorites]

"Why do you feel differently from me?" or "Why do you do this thing I don't do?" doesn't have to be a criticism of the other person. I would tend not to feel criticized if I were on the receiving end.
posted by Redstart at 5:41 PM on October 23, 2019

We just had our 13th wedding anniversary, and we still sometimes get into spats like this. Then we forget about it the next day.

Usually, it's a symptom of one of us being tired or cranky, or maybe we're feeling broke that week, or the moon is full, who knows?

It can be really difficult sometimes, living full-time with another human being, who is the love of your life, but also a roommate who farts and leaves poop on the toilet by mistake and sometimes forgets to clean it up. Like, I love this person, but I don't know if I want to live with them forever, yanno?

Then everything they say that irritates us somehow becomes magnified into this HUGE thing, and then you want to bludgeon them for their stupid parking habits, but you can't because that would land you in jail.

In my case, that's what visiting with my girlfriends are for, she'll say, "oh yeah, my husband, blah-blah-blah," or, "I understand," but not in a way that eggs me on, just that she gets it. I get it, people can be irritating to live with on a daily basis, and you're now contemplating a lifetime with this person. It's normal to question it, and to examine these sorts of spats.

I know, deep down, that my husband is a good person, and he's there for me. He's my Snuggle Bunny at night, and he will always have my back, no matter what. He's a good guy, even if he does irritate me sometimes, and I'm sure I do the same to him, many times over. I can't imagine life without him, and it scares me, thinking of him dying and leaving me alone, and he said he's feels the same way, and that we both will never die, but live forever, because we just love each other that much.

Whenever I find myself overreacting to a comment, I later say, Self, be better. What's missing in your life, Self? And it's really never anything my husband said, it's me reacting to to something he said, because he is not an asshole, and he never intends to say or do anything in a mean manner, ever. What do I need in my life, to make my Self feel better? Because no one can give that to you, even a life partner. I've been with guys who are clueless and true assholes, and this guy isn't one of them. So it's on me how I choose to react.

I think love is the great capacity to forgive each other for being human. We both do that every day, and on our best days, we egg each other on to be better, to be there for each other, to have hope for the future and our own personal goals, and to encourage each other in those, and at the end of the night, to be each other's Snuggle Bunnies, to comfort and care for each other, the two of us against the world, in our own little fortress of love. That's what marriage is all about, to me.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:42 PM on October 23, 2019 [7 favorites]

I would tend not to feel criticized if I were on the receiving end.

the OP does though and that's why they are asking this question on how to manage this kind of interaction, not to be told that they're wrong again for feeling how they feel.
posted by poffin boffin at 6:25 PM on October 23, 2019 [17 favorites]

Yeah, it seems like you may be jumping the gun and perceiving his comments as a personal attack when they're not. Calling someone out on their tone, especially in an accusatory way, is seldom going to go well. In those moments, you need to focus on statements that deescalate the situation instead of putting him on the defense. So, instead of "why are going getting on me about my commute?!" just.... answer the question. "I go that way because it's not normally that backed up".

Then, later, you can talk to him about how his more emotional reactions bother you. "When you react that way, I feel __________. I would like if it you would ___________ instead. Can you do that?"

It's a work in process and it's going to take time. But it starts with you being able to respond calmly in the moment instead of in a way that's accusatory, and then each of you need to be able to talk about it later, once you've calmed down, and commit to working on your reactions.

Good luck.
posted by Amy93 at 6:28 PM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

his responses are totally innocuous when written down -- though I don't think transcription can capture the essence of an explosive fight -- and tortured parsing of how his method of vehemently agreeing with you is really "dishonest" or whatever is silly. the thing that makes this a fight is all in the tone and the volume, which we are not privy to -- if his "?!"s indicate shouting or even screaming, that's a problem right there. but the problem is not in the pure words he is using. or even the words you're using, which read to me as non sequiturs digging to find offense, but still, not in and of themselves serious fight-starters.

some people hate vehement, expansive agreement when they're complaining because they hear this enthusiastic mirroring as an attempt on the part of the other person to steal their thunder, appropriate the big outrage that was supposed to be yours. and sometimes that's what the other person is doing, on purpose or not. but being "YES, AND"-ed is many people's idea of straightforward emotional support, it isn't necessarily something a reasonable person would instinctively take to be bad behavior.

doesn't mean you can't hate it and get him to stop! especially if the result is to, as I say, steal your thunder and shift the emotional balance so that he is the more expressive & emotive person even as you are trying to be heard telling your own story. but it's no surprise why it escalates and he seems bewildered as to why.

When you explain why you hate his response, and he says "That's not what I'm saying," why does it not end there, once you establish that he is not implying you were in the wrong, as you first thought? that is: why do you not believe him?

the answer could be a lot of different things, and it could be something about him, not you. but you have to ask it of yourself.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:33 PM on October 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

No question should start with "why." It just inherently makes people feel defensive. I'm reading a book on diplomatic communication by a former hostage negotiator, and he says that the only why question you should ask is one like "given all that you just explained, why would you even consider releasing the hostages?" i.e., getting them to defend why they'd do what you want. Because again, why questions just make people feel defensive.
posted by slidell at 8:30 PM on October 23, 2019

+1 on the Gottmann comment above. You two are triggering physiological changes in each other - someone has to break the cycle.

When someone is triggered (i.e. the fight comes "out of nowhere," not due to an actual difference of opinion), there has to be some ground rules set and followed for any fight to take a productive turn. Both partners have to agree. The big one is a safe phrase to say "we have to defer this fight, I'm physiologically overwhelmed." You both have to leave each other's proximal space, and stay away until you feel calmer. We say "I'm flooded". If this feels hard to do in the moment, then that's it - that's the exact thing you have to work on. It won't come on the first attempt - someone will break the rule. Straight up lizard brain. Be gentle with yourselves.

Second, Gottman describes counteraction techniques that are super-useful for building resiliency against those "circling the drain" kinds of fights. It's helped keep us from escalating. To see where things are headed and to break the cycle.

Given what you mentioned, sounds like this comes up when you're simply trying talk about your day. That's an opportunity for him to listen. We have "vent sessions" in our house. When my wife asks to vent about her day, I listen and provide only supportive responses - "that sucks", "oh that must've have been hard to hear", etc. Create structure around the rituals that you need in your life. It should go without saying that your SO has to buy into this. Speaking as a cis-het male, I found the Gottman work really relate-able because the winning/losing points of the argument were less important than getting through the emotional upheaval without feeling exhausted.

Good luck!
posted by SoundInhabitant at 9:20 PM on October 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

Usually these fights turn into some revelation that First Avenue was where he had a childhood accident or a place where he knew a crime took place or something else that he felt sensitive about and my bringing it up triggered his emotions.

Part of being a functional adult is the ability to manage your own shit. I would think long and hard about if you want to marry and/or potentially parent someone still acting from childhood impulses. It's not great.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:24 AM on October 24, 2019 [9 favorites]

I read this almost like he's trying to emphatically agree with you and overshooting the mark. Like, "ugh, first avenue" "I know oof first avenue should just be murdered" "wait, what? Why do you want to make my commute even worse by taking away a road??"

Basically, he's going all hyperbole and intensity and you're having a more calm, literal approach.

Or, maybe he's getting really in your face and making you feel dumb for breathing. Could be either, depending on tone.

What happens if, instead of complaining about something concrete that's part of your started experiences, you start with the emotion? Or if he starts by asking about the emotion? E.g., "oh man I am so stressed out from my commute today" - can he show empathy then, or does he still just jump into telling you why your feelings are wrong?

That's one trick that helped me and my partner, we started dating at 17 so some of those emotional growth circuits were not all in yet and we had to figure out a lot together. The other big help was revisiting the tone argument later when blood is cooler, to point out that you were trying to connect with him by sharing something about your day, and him getting loud/accusatory shut you down instead. But if he says he was just trying to agree with you, you will need to work together to help him realize how he could say things emphatically but not accusingly.

"Hey, you don't get to talk to me like this" and stopping the discussion mid-sentence was also an important phrase a few times for making him realize when he was getting overly emphatic or letting his tone get out of control. Criticism, yes, yelling and whining no.

Also... after he realizes he was overreacting due to a past experience he should be *apologizing* not using it as some "get out of being decent free card".
posted by Lady Li at 1:13 AM on October 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

Humor is the way we diffuse fights like this where someone is just having a triggered emotional response. Laughing is the best way to reset that vagal nerve response and point out to the other person that we’re doing That Thing again. It goes something like this:

“Why would you even take First?”
“OMG you’re right, I did hear about the hippos rampaging! Do you think I led them here?”

Hippos are the most dangerous land animal, so they’re our go-to when someone is being unreasonable. Sometimes this next goes to being playful and making up a whole scenario and sometimes it just makes the conversation stop, depending on how tired everyone is. Both are fine.

I’m often the person who is having an outsize response. I’ve learned to stop myself with hippos, too. So, if I were your fiancé I end up saying a sentence like “why would you take first?! ....... There are rampaging hippos!”

Like in the giraffe example above, this works because we’ve talked about it and both of us want to lean in to getting to be playful and taking responsibility for our emotional response. If your fiancée hasn’t worked on at least recognizing how much things taint his outlook, he needs to start there.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:45 AM on October 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think you should try out assuming good intentions, maybe even in an exaggeratedly playful way.

you: "First Avenue had a ton of traffic on my drive home today."
Him: "Ugh. I hate First Avenue!! Why do you even take it?! It's always backed up!"
you: Yeah, First Avenue sucks, thank you for understanding!
Him: But really, why do you take it? You shouldn't take it!
you: Thank you for trying to help me improve my commute, I will consider your suggestions! Let's have dinner now!

I also think you should both try to walk away completely from all tone-policing. Not everything that sounds like a criticism or even a suggestion is really a criticism or suggestion. Even criticisms and suggestions sometimes come from a good place even if they are annoying in the moment. Sometimes just being playful and goofy about stuff can change the mood or can highlight when something sounds kind of overwrought.

I also find it's sometimes helpful to say, You seem upset about this, are you upset? And then if the answer is no, then maybe take that at face value?
posted by vunder at 11:28 AM on October 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

So I just got this really helpful thing via email today.

"How To Ask For Responsiveness"
"Part of creating supportive relationships in your life is taking responsibility for asking for the kind of responsiveness you want. This means being conscious of what you want back when you express something...."

It has lots of great ideas on how to do this.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:53 PM on October 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

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