Rage at Being Tickled/Poked. Did I overreact?
June 7, 2020 12:57 PM   Subscribe

My fiance startled me terribly with a hard doubled-sided poke from behind and I went full Rottweiler on him.

This happened this morning and I'm having trouble shaking it off. I need other perspectives on whether my reaction was over-the-top, justified or maybe something in between.

My fiance and I were having a pleasant morning, drinking coffee and planning an upcoming hike. I was standing in the kitchen when he approached me from behind and poked me hard in each side with his index fingers. You've likely seen kids do this to each other. The effect is to make the person being poked jump uncomfortably. This is not what happened in my case. That is a wild understatement.

I lost my ever-loving shit on him. I jerked as though I'd been electrically shocked and immediately started raging at him. I have a super high startle mechanism. So much so that it's a joke in the family that no one can approach me when I'm vacuuming or running the hair dryer. Like ever. He's well aware of this. When startled, I typically get pissed even though I know it was unintentional. For the entirety of my life, I have been unable to temper the pissed reaction. It's literally automatic.

The physical sensation of being poked like that, while not exactly painful, is deeply unpleasant to me. It was compounded by being surprised. I'm getting mad again just typing this.

I raged at him so intensely for a minute that I shocked both of us. He looked stunned. After I calmed down, I was battling between anger and shame. I'm still battling those two feelings hours later. Why was I so over-the-top in my reaction? He said he was sorry but I could tell he was hurt. He meant to be playful - he says - but I find that kind of physical interaction alarming, assaultive, and fucking immature. He's never done that kind of thing before. He's not a tickler or a practical joker (fuck those people). I'm not worried about it happening again. But I do want to process what the hell happened.

Has anyone had a reaction of this intensity to this type of interaction? If so, how did you handle the subsequent interaction with the offender? We left it with him apologizing for misjudging how I would react and me apologizing for excoriating him. But....I'm still disturbed. I'm disturbed that he would imagine I'd find that physical interaction playful or amusing. And I'm disturbed by how intense my reaction to it was.
posted by MissPitts to Human Relations (40 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You're looking at this from the perspective of thought -- whether it was "over-the-top, justified, or maybe something in-between" -- and that whole part of your system was completely bypassed. We have a "fight, flight, freeze or fawn" reaction system that responds way before that, and that's what got activated when your fiance poked you like that, specifically with the reaction of fight.

I'm in no way qualified to make this statement other than being a survivor of trauma myself, but there is a saying with trauma survivors about the "smoke detector" being in overdrive -- that fight-or-flight reaction ready to go off at a moment's notice. That may or may not relate to your past, or may be something to look into your past about.

You asked how to deal with your fiance about this. Hopefully there's a base of love there, so explain to him that that sort of playful thing will pretty much bypass any thought reaction and create the reaction he saw. Explain to him it's automatic. Depending on if you want to (and if this matches what you want to do), explain to him that the reaction is something you're looking into personally, and you'll share with him when you're ready, but for now, to please just never, ever do that again.

You say you want to process what happens -- you may want to consider talking with someone, as I suspect the reaction is from something from your past (and maybe specifically look for a therapist who is qualified in trauma).

There is also a highly-recommended book (you'll see it in a lot of Ask Mefi questions' answers) called The Body Knows the Score, about how we carry past trauma in our bodies. Given that your reaction to the concept of tickling was a very strong 'fuck those people', which seems overly strong but also very much in line with your reaction to the poke, it's possible this might be of value to you.

I'm not claiming, by the way, that I know anything about you. These are just my reactions to what you've written above. And definitely be kind to yourself about your reaction. Reacting that way may feel like it's a product of thought, sometimes, but it's really a reaction of a deeper nervous system.
posted by WCityMike at 1:07 PM on June 7, 2020 [33 favorites]

You're feeling shame because your brain knows that you were never in danger, but your body has been flooded with cortisol, and it's going to take a while to catch up. You've both apologized, and unless he's a raging asshole, your fiance will *never* do this again. Be gentle with yourself, and you'll feel better soon. Said as someone who also has an intense dislike for that particular manouevre.
posted by kate4914 at 1:10 PM on June 7, 2020 [26 favorites]

Best answer: I react exactly the same way you do to that type of thing. Your post could have been written word for word by me.

You must forgive yourself when this happens. This is in no way you doing something wrong. The other person involved will never know exactly what it feels like to be triggered in this way, so their reaction is to be hurt. The fact that they are hurt makes you feel guilty. Despite the fact that people close to you and you yourself are involved in this incident, it is better to look on this as something impersonal that occured, that nobody could control or forsee happening, like a headache or a sprained ankle. This is just a physical reaction to a stressor. It's not your fault and it's not your fiance's fault. When you feel more settled and have stopped feeling guilty, go give your fiance a snuggle. Tell them you love them and know that they didn't mean to hurt you, but emphasize that this kind of thing is beyond your control. If your fiance is a good person (and I'm sure they are) they too are feeling guilty for doing something that caused the person they love such distress. They may need some time to come down from their reaction to your reaction, but once they do I'm certain they will be trying very hard not to have a repeat of the incident (on the off chance they just blow this off, I would consider that a potential trouble spot that needs to be worked through before vows are exchanged). I'm married 13 years now. My husband mostly knows what will set me off but sometimes he still does something accidentally that triggers me. Both of us treating this like what it is, an accident/mistake not like a purposeful act of malice, helps us regain our composure quickly and comfort and reassure eachother that everything is ok.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 1:41 PM on June 7, 2020 [11 favorites]

I also have a highly reactive startle mechanism and once reacted to my husband grabbing me from behind in what he intended to be a playful way by hitting him in the face. It was an involuntary reaction on my part, and I was horrified that I had hit him, but I also explained that I do not like to be grabbed or startled, and that if he did that again, I would likely react in the same way and asked him not to do it again. A caring partner should respect your boundaries, and yes, as the previous poster mentioned, The Body Keeps the Score is a great resource about how trauma can impact things like this.
posted by odayoday at 1:41 PM on June 7, 2020 [10 favorites]

I'm going to share an anecdote I think is relevant: I also have a suuuuuuuper high startle reflex, mostly for sounds; more than once, my co-workers have had to come in and peel me off the ceiling after they said "Good morning" too loudly. (And yes, it's from trauma, which I discussed at length with my therapist some time ago.) My first husband knew about my startle reflex, of course, and one day decided to demonstrate (I no longer remember why), without warning, the "evil laugh" he had sometimes entertained his college buddies with. It was extremely loud and high pitched and scared the living shit out of me. I clapped my hands over my ears (too late) and similarly lost my shit on him. He told me I was "overreacting." That was the beginning and the end of the marriage for me; I never felt the same about him after that. We separated maybe a year later.

The way our bodies react to fight or flight triggers isn't something we can control. You reacted how you reacted, and no, I can't see how anyone could properly characterize it as an "overreaction." You apologized and he apologized, and if this incident is what it takes for him not to startle you like that again, well, I don't see any problem with that.
posted by holborne at 1:46 PM on June 7, 2020 [15 favorites]

Best answer: You've likely seen kids do this to each other

Little kids do that, yeah. Little kids also punch each other in the face and scream and cry and say sorry later and it's fine, it's a learning experience, they've only got so much strength in those little arms. I would hope if a guy hauled off and punched you as hard as he could because you were using a toy he wanted to use, you wouldn't consider how similar that is to kid stuff, when assessing your own "over"reaction.

now: a poke is not a punch. a technical assault is not always an assault you want to report and prosecute. but.

but you don't do this shit to any adult who isn't either your sparring partner, your same-age sibling who's been doing it back to you as an understood joke for 30 years, or who's asked for it as some kind of weird role-play.

Your reflexes are in good working order. people who sneak up and grab you generally mean you harm. whether you want to make an exception for this guy or not is your call, but don't blame your reflexes. they want to keep you safe and they know their job. withdrawing an apology is not really a thing that works, but if I were you, I still would withdraw mine.

being able to calm down once you know you're safe is a separate issue and if it's a problem for you, sure, maybe there are therapeutic techniques that would help with that.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:00 PM on June 7, 2020 [15 favorites]

I came a hair from stabbing a friend who came up behind and hugged me while I was chopping with a big ole' chef's knife. I had warned him, but whirling around (automatically) with the knife finally got the message through his thick huggy head.

There are a lot us of DO NOT FUCKING STARTLE ME people. Your fiance now knows to warn others of this. Forgive him, forgive yourself. And stab him if he ever does it again. (j/m/k)
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 2:01 PM on June 7, 2020 [8 favorites]

I’m in the same boat you are, startlewise. I once broke up with a girlfriend over her inappropriate poking (it was sooooo funny).

Which is a problem. My life hasn’t been particularly ruined by an extreme startle reflex, but it has been a grating annoyance. I keep my back to a wall in restaurants, I can’t watch anything with jump-scares, and in general I’m hyper-aware of my surroundings. For years I thought I must be paranoid, but it turns out I just really really hate having my nervous system jolted and my adrenaline set flowing like a waterfall for the next eight hours.

What I’m saying is that I’m a little testy to begin with. If someone I trusted and who knew better suddenly decided to breach that trust I would give them quite the tongue lashing too.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:01 PM on June 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

Adding to the anecdata: a partner once playfully (in intent) slapped me on the ass as I walked past. I stood frozen for a second, then spun around, shoved him in the chest with both hands, and said "NO. You do NOT get to hit me." There was no thought involved, just reflex, and both of us were shocked by it.

Later, if this or something similar happens again, consider if this is a person you can trust and be in a relationship with. For now, be kind to yourself.
posted by Flannery Culp at 2:08 PM on June 7, 2020 [10 favorites]

I once lost it on a friend who did this to me, in public, on the street. I'm still embarrassed about how crazy my reaction was, and this was probably nine years ago now, but I'm not a person who likes being touched in general and did not have my guard up at all, and having her poke me scared the living shit out of me.

In short, you aren't alone and I'm here to tell you that you may feel really weird about this for some time to come.
posted by potrzebie at 2:14 PM on June 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

In my extended family, a lot of us have this same type of startle reaction to sudden loud noises. It is 100% a physical reaction, it's not really controllable, and it is very uncomfortable to experience. You should probably just sit down with your bf and explain all this.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:22 PM on June 7, 2020

It's a childish thing to do, like sucker punching someone, and you've been clear with people that it's not a minor thing to you. Losing your shit was understandable and predictable; it just feels lousy losing your shit at someone you care about. I think you'll both feel fine about it tomorrow and he won't do it again anytime soon. Apologize some for the size of the reaction if you feel like it but honestly, why did he think that was fine? God, I just hate it when people do that particular thing, but luckily it is generally not part of adult life.
posted by less of course at 2:24 PM on June 7, 2020 [4 favorites]

There are a lot us of DO NOT FUCKING STARTLE ME people.

Yep, me too. I am a mild-mannered person but once yelled at a woman in a grocery store who grabbed my arm to get my attention "Don't fucking TOUCH me."

I basically feel like this was a wake-up call for both of you. He needs to put this on the list of "Things to never do" and you get to say "Hey my reaction was disproportionate to what was happening to me. At the same time, I can not control my reactions beyond a certain point, so I think we have both learned something about why this is important" If you feel like it's something to work on (as many have said there may be something to unpack here, or maybe not) you can do this. So then forgive, but keep one eye open to whether he's doing other sort of low-level negging. My longtime partner will sometimes get into a negative space because of other things in his life and not realize he's bringing it into our relationship until I point it out and then we re-calibrate.

That said, my now-ex husband did this to me once, in a public setting (where I lost my shit and was also embarrassed) and looking back it was an early sign that he was not respecting my boundaries appropriately in a way that got worse (not terrible, just worse).
posted by jessamyn at 2:24 PM on June 7, 2020 [15 favorites]

I am here to tell every single one of you in this thread who's expressed shame or embarrassment about having a reaction like this that YOU ARE FINE, what you did was fine, and expressing your displeasure forcefully was EXACTLY THE RIGHT THING TO DO.

The folks who touched you in these ways were wrong to do so. It's totally inappropriate behavior, disrespectful, unkind, and nasty. Maybe just thoughtless; maybe just "fooling around." (Let's assume that's all it was; although I have my doubts tbh; I think that disrespecting boundaries is a big tell.) But let's assume you're right, I'm wrong, these people didn't mean to hurt you.

But you were STILL RIGHT to drill once and for all into them that they must NEVER do that shit again. Did it make them uncomfortable to hear it screamed in their face? Yeah? Well good, because they shouldn't have done it in the first place, and now they won't do it again, now will they.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:42 PM on June 7, 2020 [16 favorites]

I wanted to amend my answer briefly – there's stuff in there about self-exploration, therapy, etc. That is only because I was reacting towards wording present in your question about wanting to know why. As the other responses thus far have made clear, though, that isn' an obligation on your part. I too want to know why and how I tick, so that's why I suggested the resources I did. But if your wanting-to-know-why is only stemming from a sense of shame, i.e., "ohmigod this can't happen again", then I would add my voice to those who say that your reaction is not something to be ashamed of.
posted by WCityMike at 2:54 PM on June 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

Well, I guess I'll go against the grain.

It sounds like this is the first time this has happened with your fiance, a person you care enough about to be engaged to. But honestly, if my partner raged at me for playfully poking them, I would be very distressed, and I would question whether my future mistakes would provoke a similar reaction. I can take a "whoa, don't do that again, it really bothers" but "raging" at someone for over a minute- that's not cool. I'll probably get shit for saying this, but I think you are being cut a lot of slack because you are female (based on your username) and your partner is male.

There's no need to feel shame over this- as someone said above forgive yourself, forgive him, and then work on this overreaction. I say this because it sounds like being startled negatively impacts your life, and I wouldn't want to feel this kind of strong fight-or-flight response when I was startled.
posted by Mouse Army at 2:58 PM on June 7, 2020 [23 favorites]

But honestly, if my partner raged at me for playfully poking them, I would be very distressed, and I would question whether my future mistakes would provoke a similar reaction

well, thank god. the "mistake" of jabbing someone hard in the sides with two rigid fingers to make them jump is not one that can be made by accident. having it never repeated again is the ideal outcome.

one of the worst things about being shocked this way by someone you trust is finding out that physically induced panic for you was playtime for them. so yes, it is very good when you come to understand that what was play for you was distress for them. if this, in turn, distresses you, that's very good. that's communication happening.
posted by queenofbithynia at 3:08 PM on June 7, 2020 [47 favorites]

I don't see anyone has address this as boundary crossing, which it 100% is. Many people, myself included, regard touching our bodies (and touching others' bodies) as something that must be consented to. Very special and carefully negotiated exceptions to this exist for me, among long-term lovers only, where a unannounced gentle caress is permitted if the recipient is simply at rest, standing or otherwise -- NOT holding or doing anything dangerous.

If my partner of 17 years were to come up behind me and poke me with the intent to startle, I would absolutely lose my shit on them, because they've crossed a very important boundary: they've touched me without my consent.

You are not wrong, and now you can explain why you got so mad: your physical boundaries were suddenly and unexpectedly violated! You have every right to be angry and to defend yourself, no matter who is doing this, because boundaries are important and consent is important and someone who doesn't understand or respect this is going to get the wraith of God thrust upon them, especially if they do it more than once.
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:08 PM on June 7, 2020 [14 favorites]

Your fiancé is well aware of your startle reaction. He did it anyway. He wanted a reaction, and boy did he get one! I bet he won’t do it again. Lesson learnt. As far as I’m concerned any apology here should be coming from him as both of you know you can’t control your own response (that was the whole point of him doing it, after all, to see the fireworks). Then you move on.
posted by Jubey at 3:10 PM on June 7, 2020 [12 favorites]

I wouldn't want to feel this kind of strong fight-or-flight response when I was startled.

I wouldn’t either, which is why after two psychologists and a psychiatrist assured me that it was inextricably built into my nervous system I went and got a fourth opinion from the best neurologist I could find.

She informed me that
  1. Although often associated with PTSD, most people with super responsive nervous system are born with them.
  2. The startle reaction (jump) is a myoclonic seizure. This is the same mechanism as an epileptic seizure, but on a lighter note is also that sudden jerk that wakes you up when you are going to sleep.
  3. Everything happens long before cognition. The body reacts, fight or flight kicks in, your adrenal glands go into overdrive — all of this literally before you know anything has happened.
  4. There are drugs that you can take to tamp this down, but they’re basically epilepsy drugs and you’re not allowed to drive when taking them.
So realistically we all have to work with what we’re given. That doesn’t mean you can’t work on your response to a fight-or-flight event, but it’s going to happen in its full glory no matter what you do.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:35 PM on June 7, 2020 [30 favorites]

To clarify, I'm reacting to when the OP says this:

When startled, I typically get pissed even though I know it was unintentional. For the entirety of my life, I have been unable to temper the pissed reaction. It's literally automatic.

I think it's normal to get startled. I sometimes get so startled that I feel like I am actually having a heart problem. I should have been clearer that, from my perspective, the "pissed" or "raging" fight-or-flight response is one I wouldn't want to live with long-term. If I got that angry whenever someone startled me, especially if they didn't mean to, I wouldn't want to feel that way. It is important for the OP to set clear boundaries with their fiance about appropriate touch for them. Seanmpuckett's example "a unannounced gentle caress is permitted if the recipient is simply at rest, standing or otherwise -- NOT holding or doing anything dangerous" may be what the OP needs to state clearly.

No more threadsitting from me (hope this is okay, mods). OP, my apologies for not being clearer in my first response.
posted by Mouse Army at 3:46 PM on June 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

I also have a very strong startle reaction, though instead of raging, I fall to the floor in hysterics and tears. People who startle me once never do it again (though it doesn't happen anymore. I'm past 60 now - fortunately for me, nobody thinks it funny to startle you when you're old).

It could easily take me a minute or longer to stop crying if someone startles me - I think your rage is probably like that. If this isn't part of a pattern, I'd not hold it against your fiance either though. It doesn't sound like something that he planned out in advance. It seems more like a thoughtless impulse. People do thoughtless things sometimes, and that can be forgiven. If it happens again, you have a bigger problem.
posted by FencingGal at 3:55 PM on June 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

I just wanted to add that many people been socialized to tolerate violations of personal boundaries. This gap between how your nervous system actually functions and how you think you should have responded could also account for some of the complex feelings you are having.

For me, being startled can trigger a deep feeling of being unsafe, and it can take a few minutes to a few hours to feel safe again.
posted by frau_grubach at 4:10 PM on June 7, 2020 [12 favorites]

To your question, yes, I have also really been startled and super angry at the person who startled me. I hope that you can practice kindness to yourself. Your feelings are valid, and may be signaling something important. To examine something in a hypothetical way (as I am not you, nor am I your therapist):

For instance, it sounds like your fiance *knows* not to do this -- "He's well aware of this" -- but yet, he still did this, and why would someone who loves you and respects your boundaries do this? Shouldn't he be the one to feel ashamed vs. you?

Although he apologized for "misjudging" your reaction, should he have apologized for thoughtlessly trying to startle you when he *knew* not to do this? Was he curious to see if your reactions were truly as terrible as you've told him in the past? And curiosity or not, shouldn't your potential verbally stated discomfort dissuade him originally for doing such a thing? And, what does it say of the nature of a person -- "the offender" who behaves as a "practical joker" -- signal about the whole person and what it might be like to build a life together with this person?

I am *not* trying to argue that your finance is in the wrong (or that any of the above are your feelings or your fiance's feelings/thoughts), but your feelings (as you've articulated in your question) seem to indicate that there could be a severe betrayal of trust and that it has potentially colored your view on him as a person and how he relates to you on an ongoing basis. If this is how you *feel*, then no wonder, you're still feeling these feels!

Something else to examine, is if you do feel these feels (or related feels), why do you feel disturbed by these feelings? Sometimes a partner does screw up and you feel bad, but why are you feeling bad about the fact that you feel bad?
posted by ellerhodes at 5:00 PM on June 7, 2020 [5 favorites]

I think poking someone who you know has a high startle reflex as a joke is incredibly shitty.

Nobody, absolutely nobody, wants to experience life like this. I also have a strong startle reflex and despite many years of medication and therapy, it has never gone away. I am that person who is gasping and clutching imaginary pearls because someone is unexpectedly walking out of the restroom when I'm walking in. While I know rationally that most people are not intentionally trying to provoke that response, if my husband who is very aware of my startle reflex did that to me I would not react well at all.

A couple of considerations:

1) I feel much more emotional about it when it's someone I know and trust or am in a place I consider "safe," which may be why you reacted so strongly.

2) If your fiance has never seen you react that way before or to this type of stimulus, this may be a lesson learned. The fact that it doesn't seem he tried to undermine your reaction is a sign, to me, that he may have been thoughtless here but that he isn't necessarily being insensitive.

If OP was describing raging regularly over innocuous behaviors, I might comment a bit differently... but saying "I get pissed" isn't descriptive enough to suggest how it impacts her day to day life.
posted by sm1tten at 5:05 PM on June 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you so much, Hivemind! Your responses were so helpful, every single one of them. I marked several as favorites but really, could have marked most of them that way. I especially appreciate the validation from my fellow high startlers.

Mouse Army, you raise a valid point about how folks would have reacted had the roles been reversed in gender. I can't answer that but I do appreciate your pointing out how harmful it is to be on the receiving end of anyone's rage, regardless of whether they feel justified or not. That's part of what was troubling me so much. I don't want to vent on anyone ever like that.

FencingGal, bless you! That startle reaction is epic, if exhausting.

MrPitts and I had a long chat this evening. He was really sorry. I was really sorry. We've established that when he wants to be playful, a neck nuzzle is just the ticket.
posted by MissPitts at 5:16 PM on June 7, 2020 [22 favorites]

I would find his action aggressive. A lot of tickling and 'playful' gestures, as well as many 'jokes,' have a strong element of aggression/ domination. I think your reaction was atavistic. It's better to be able to manage anger and rage; you can do some reflection to see if you would benefit from anger/ behavior management. I would consider discussing the intensity of your response, but also being very clear that similar behavior from him is not acceptable. It sounds like you've reached a resolution with good boundaries, well done!
posted by theora55 at 5:19 PM on June 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

When I was 11, a classmate crept up behind me in the playground and did one of those "playful" double-handed chops to both sides of my neck. All I remember was looking detachedly at him on the ground as he made faint bubbling/retching noises. He was much larger than me. I was absolutely not one of the playground scrappers. In fact, I was considered "soft" and not even worth the bother of engaging.

I, apparently, had wheeled round instantly and kneed him in the groin so hard that my knee was bruised for days afterwards. I remember starting to panic just after I saw him on the ground, and I started screaming/crying “i'm sorry i'm sorry i'm sorry i'm sorry …” probably because if I hadn't hurt him so badly he could have beaten the living shit out of me.

Some of us have startle reflexes you don't want to test, is what I'm trying to say here. I've never done anything like that again in the nearly 40 years since. I had no conscious control over the action. I'm not proud of it, and I don't want to be capable of ever doing that again. In terms of managing outcomes, though, a lesson was learned that day.
posted by scruss at 6:01 PM on June 7, 2020 [5 favorites]

I also have a very heightened startle response (think freezing and screaming NO NO NO repeatedly) and have had many people in my life, thankfully not anymore, who found it hilarious to startle me. I have full bore screamed and couldn't stop, thrown things at people, hit them, run away, frozen, burst into hysterical sobs and hidden in the bathtub, and more. This is a reaction of the nervous system and the best thing for other people in my life to do is understand on a deep level never, never to startle me because it is a horrifying experience for us both. You did the best you could with an automatic response. Now your fiance knows that when you said, don't do that, you meant it.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 7:03 PM on June 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

If he
1. knows you react badly to being startled!
2. did it anyway!
3. in a way that he knows is annoying and uncomfortable!
There is no question that the only overreaction would be to physically hurt him, anything short of that well what did he expect? And I guarantee he would never pull that on someone who he thought could physically hurt him. It was an incredibly stupid thing for him to do and he deserved to be told that. This is *why* our brains react quickly and powerfully to crossed boundaries like this, so the other person doesn't do it again.
posted by bleep at 7:18 PM on June 7, 2020 [12 favorites]

It's a really sick entitlement to do anything they want to partners bodies that some men just sleepwalk through life believing they were given by god, and the same things that would get them punched in the face anywhere else are things you're required to laugh off because of that entitlement, because we all agreed on that back before we were born or something. I'm glad you set him straight.
posted by bleep at 7:25 PM on June 7, 2020 [13 favorites]

Has anyone had a reaction of this intensity to this type of interaction?

Not that specific type of interaction, but I had a much more extreme reaction than I would have expected after I bumped into a loop of electrical cord dangling down in dark place in a way where it ended up first making contact with my neck. Basically sticking my face into a loop. It wasn't any more pressure on my neck than a heavy necklace but I had a sensation of extreme panic and activation of a fight or flight reflex, like I would if I needed to fight for my life. If it had been a person who was joking with me, instead of an inanimate object, it's likely I would have hurt them badly in attempts to escape before they could explain it was a joke.

In making sense of this, I believe that certain types of physical contact can activate evolutionary ingrained survival responses. Your brain interpreted what he did as a physical attack. Way back in human evolution, we are more likely to have descended from people who fought for their lives when attacked, rather than people who thought "har har that's funny".

If so, how did you handle the subsequent interaction with the offender?

In this case it was my own fault, I had not secured the cord well and it fell down. I'm just glad no one else was the one to find it, which could have very easily happened.

Not quite the same thing, when a friend who spotted me in a crowded public place at night in a not particularly safe area was trying to get my attention, grabbed my backpack and tugged. I spun and nearly punched her -- but I think that was quite a reasonable reaction! How was I to know it was my friend, instead of someone trying to either drag me off or steal my backpack?

You've likely seen kids do this to each other.

People tend to acquire stronger responses to startle, to reminders of trauma and assault, as they get older. Adults tend not to do this to each other because even the sort of immature person who wants to continue such childish behavior eventually picks the wrong person and gets punched. Oddly they think it should be funny when they assault someone else, but if someone fights back they don't find it humorous any more.
posted by yohko at 7:34 PM on June 7, 2020 [8 favorites]

I grew up with a parent who did the sneak-up-and-jab thing. Apparently it was just absolutely orgasmic to cause me to jolt and burst into tears from the shock and pain. Guess who I haven't spoken to in decades?

There is a certain percentage of people who just enjoy hurting others, and in my adult life, I've occasionally had people do the jab. Most will stop when the first incident results in a lecture. With a few, I've had to go as far as advising them that the next incident will result in formal assault charges. I guess I'm convincing, because I've never had to actually follow through with this. I would, though.

My partner, who evidently doesn't share those tastes, came up with a nice description of a way to avoid inadvertently startling me from behind: "I shouldn't touch you if you haven't seen me coming."

It sounds like the two of you are on your way to a better understanding. I hope that continues. If he does it again....you know what to do.
posted by Weftage at 6:15 AM on June 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

Once in a while I'll say to my spouse, "I'm so glad you're not one of those people who thinks it's hilarious to scare me from behind or, like, push me off a dock with all of my clothes on." His absent-minded response is always "fuck those people!"

I'm extremely tickling and jumpy and people thought it was hilarious to trigger me when I was a kid. Those people were abusive. Nobody in my life does anything like that now, THANK goodness. Hopefully now that your boyfriend understands, you can say the same. If it keeps happening, there's a problem.
posted by bonheur at 7:45 AM on June 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

More generally, during the first year or so of marriage, my wife and I found several behaviors that needed to be understood as off limits without exception. Building for the long term requires cooperation.
posted by SemiSalt at 8:54 AM on June 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

I disagree with Mouse Army's criticism that you were angry. Anger is a protective response, the spiny shell that protects your vulnerabilities. The physical fear arising from the startle provoked a protective response. Seems totally reasonable to me.

I concur with those who think it was really shitty for your fiancé to think it was "playful" to fuck with you when he knew full well that you were not a person who'd enjoy this. It's a great big red flag for him to do something that he knew would be provocative and badly received, and then be "hurt" when you gave pushback. The "it was playful" gambit sounds like the "it's just a joke" excuse that assholes everywhere use to try to avoid accountability for acting like assholes. Seems perfectly reasonable that it's unsettling to you even beyond the act itself, and your response.

If you thought he might be someone who could learn from this: A suggestion that might be useful for thinking about this as a couple, with your fiance. David Schnarch wrote an excellent book called Intimacy and Desire which is mostly about the sexual/interpersonal dynamics of long-married couples. There's an entire chapter devoted to tickling. Turns out that there is a *lot* going on with tickling that has to do with boundaries, control, loss of control, trust, and of course sensation. Not so dissimilar, I think, from what you are examining in this episode with being jabbed.

Good luck.
posted by Sublimity at 8:49 AM on June 9, 2020 [6 favorites]

I just reread OP's post and nowhere does it say the fiance was aware of OPs dislike of tickling/poking/etc. I read it as the fiance being unaware until that moment that this was a thing.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 10:14 AM on June 9, 2020

That's what I thought too, but on rereading (bold added):

I have a super high startle mechanism. So much so that it's a joke in the family that no one can approach me when I'm vacuuming or running the hair dryer. Like ever. He's well aware of this.

It's still a jump (ahem) from "hits the ceiling when startled" to "lashes out in rage" though. I had the sense that both of them were surprised by the violent intensity of OP's response.
posted by Flannery Culp at 10:24 AM on June 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

"He's never done that kind of thing before. He's not a tickler or a practical joker "

This seems like the largest part - he did a thing people do and that thing was the wrong thing to do with you.

Something else is going to happen and you're going to have to talk it out, again. If a neck nuzzle is okay, then what else is or isn't?

If someone gave me a neck nuzzle when I was washing dishes, there's a good chance they would get an elbow in the jaw because that's really really close. Someone has to be on top of you to do that. You, apparently, are okay with this.

That said, I agree very much with Mouse Army. Having very strong reactions that you cannot control is not good. You should do what you can to mitigate this, not so that people can poke you but for your own autonomy.

As an analogy, if you were prone to panic attacks, you would would try to control this for your own mental health. A completely separate issue from teaching thick people not to call you at bedtime and say things like, "Hey, you know how you look like Aunt Carole? Well, it turns out she was born with some defective brain arteries and that's why she had that unexpected aneurysm. Wonder if you have that too? Good night!"
posted by Lesser Shrew at 1:24 PM on June 9, 2020

Since a couple of people have mentioned The Body Keeps the Score, here are a few links, in case they're helpful to the original poster or anyone else reading:

The Body Keeps the Score (publisher's site)
excerpt from The Body Keeps the Score (psychotherapy.net)
posted by kristi at 2:44 PM on June 9, 2020

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