What should I do after I deliberately hurt my partner?
February 9, 2021 1:40 PM   Subscribe

I keep hurting my partner, and then when she's upset, I do things that hurt her more and more. I'm looking for techniques for helping her relax and feel safer and repair our relationship. I am a very toxic, abusive, manipulative person and I am looking to set aside everything I know about relating to people and learn something that is actually helpful instead.

An example, last night I was grumpy and ignored her when she asked me to help her get to bed (she's unwell), and she told me 'don't bother, you obviously don't want to'. I got angry at her for saying that, even though it was true, then she stormed off to her room. I let her go, then messaged her on her phone, then followed her and frantically called out to her through the door which just ended up scaring her and making her feel worse. In the morning I tried to act like nothing had happened, and then when she gave me a look indicating she was not willing to pretend, I acted all anxious and desperate at her and started compulsively apologizing in a way that was really just me seeking reassurance and that just made her feel annoyed and unseen and scared again. This is the latest round in a pattern that has been going on for 9 years; I've done this to her literally thousands of times. I eventually backed down from the manipulation and started behaving more respectfully. In the ensuing conversation I agreed to seek outside advice which is why I'm here now.

For the record, I do know that what I am doing is wrong and abusive. I'm suffering from some kind of severe OCD and am behaving compulsively in these moments and so far knowing I am in the wrong has not been enough to get me to stop. I also have a very disordered perosnality and am highly narcissistic which means my default ways of relating to people are actually about my own ego. I keep hitting a wall in that I can tell I'm hurting people and making things worse but I'm not willing to throw away my entire playbook because I'm too prideful to admit I am so deeply and fundamentally wrong, and I don't know what else to do instead.

This might be really obvious, but I would like to know what sort of things people do to help others when they are hurt, and especially when you are the one who hurt them. For example, I understand it was not appropriate to follow her to her room and demand reassurance. I should have respected her space after she didn't return my messages. But then how and when to approach her again? It is surely my responsibility to "clean up the mess" and repair the relationship -- how does one do that?

Like do I apologize? Ask her questions? Validate her emotions? Offer to make her tea? Tell her I love her? Give her a hug? Try to distract her from whta she's feeling? Say nothing? I try all of these things in various ways but I usually make her more upset, and I can understand why, because it's obvious that I'm flailing, I feel like I'm just not understanding the basic model of relating, so it feels like I'm 'cargo culting', like I'm going through the motions without really getting it. Help me get it?

Maybe a more fundamental question is how do you relate to someone without making it about your ego? That's how I cause the harm in the first place. I feel these overwhelming urges to "do something" and whatever I do is going to be harmful, because these urges are about my ego. But if I do nothing, that's harmful too. How do you do something without making it about yourself? Like what are the basic basic fundamentals of healthy interpersonal relationships?

Other info that may be relevant, she is autistic, so if you know anything specific to autistic people that would be particularly helpful. She is an abuse survivor. She understands abuse very well and knows exactly what I'm doing, we have talked this through for years and years, and she is making a very deeply considered decision to continue being in a relationship with me for the time being. Thank you.
posted by PercussivePaul to Human Relations (50 answers total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Sorry for the late delete on this, but is seems that this is well outside the scope of what AskMe can help with, and you need to see a professional -- taz

In the ensuing conversation I agreed to seek outside advice which is why I'm here now.

I feel like she probably meant "talk to a licensed professional therapist" and not "go ask your internet pals."
posted by phunniemee at 1:45 PM on February 9, 2021 [124 favorites]

I agreed to seek outside advice which is why I'm here now.

Are you absolutely sure your partner intended outside advice to mean AskMetafilter instead of a mental health professional? Because it really sounds like this situation requires the second one, not the first one. You don't need ways to "clean up the mess" because the real problem is that you keep making it - you need ways to stop hurting her in the first place, which a therapist or other mental health professional can definitely help you with.
posted by randomnity at 1:46 PM on February 9, 2021 [22 favorites]

This is not the first time you've posted a question about issues with your partner. The advice in that post seems timeless. Since this appears to be a recurring pattern both by your own admission and posting history: Therapist, now.
posted by mostly vowels at 1:50 PM on February 9, 2021 [15 favorites]

I too struggle with how to fix things that I did wrong to hurt my partner, but I think that focus is on the wrong spot. The question shouldn't be "How can I make it up better" or "what could I have done after making them upset", the question should be "how can I avoid making them upset in the future".

Unfortunately, I've run into problems with this myself. But it's important to not give up. You SHOULD have carried your partner to the bed when they were feeling unwell. I've learned little rules that apply to my relationships in the past. Sometimes I feel like "They asked if I wanted to, and I don't, so I'll say no". It turns out that little self-righteous voice in my head is almost always, entirely wrong.
posted by bbqturtle at 1:51 PM on February 9, 2021 [7 favorites]

I've reread this question three times now and truly the best answer I have for you for what to do now to clean up the mess is to break up with her, completely and kindly.

Find an apartment and move yourself out so she doesn't have to deal with finding a new place. If you have combined finances, disentangle them and take nothing that doesn't belong to you. Remove yourself from the equation, delete her from your contacts so you're not tempted to call or text her. Stop hurting her forever. Let her find a fulfilling life by herself.
posted by phunniemee at 1:52 PM on February 9, 2021 [35 favorites]

Response by poster: She knows my history with metafilterr and specifically told me to ask here snce it is a place I used to post a lot.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:53 PM on February 9, 2021

You need to break out of some complicated patterns, which requires ongoing, deep-thinking, questions-and-answers, homework required kinds of help. One question and one answer won't help you detect what thought patterns lead you to act this way, or what histories you have that trained you into those patterns so you can understand them.

This is why professional therapy would be a better fit. It would also show your girlfriend that you are serious. In addition, you would probably both feel better if you had someone else to share your life frustrations with other than your girlfriend.

There may be something your girlfriend _can_ help you with. Therapy could also help you figure out how and what to ask.
posted by amtho at 1:58 PM on February 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

Ok, good to know but I still think this is beyond metafilter's paygrade. If you have severe OCD, that needs to be addressed by someone with expertise in that disorder (ideally a psychiatrist so you have the possibility of exploring medication as one treatment option). You can't reason yourself out of OCD. If you're narcissistic, that also needs outside (in-person) help since by definition you aren't able to see what's going wrong in your mental patterns.
posted by randomnity at 1:59 PM on February 9, 2021 [11 favorites]

Therapy is really going to help you; it changed my life. If you PM me I will do the legwork to get you an appointment.
posted by Kwine at 2:10 PM on February 9, 2021 [20 favorites]

Given your post history, I gotta agree, please separate from your partner immediately. It can be temporary, if she prefers it that way, but you both need time on your own to come to terms with how abusive you have been towards her over such a long time too.

Whatever issues you have which are causing you to be abusive towards her must be cured before you can safely be in contact with her again. Why would you continue to stay in this relationship when you know you have no way to stop yourself from abusing her? Think of it like you have a contagious disease and you must quarantine yourself for her safety. It's the least you can do if you claim to love her.

Then get therapy.
posted by MiraK at 2:10 PM on February 9, 2021 [21 favorites]

Yeah you need to break up with her. She's in this relationship now not because she loves you (although she think she may), but because she has trauma-bonded to you as a result of the abuse you put her through. She's scared to leave you because she's scared of what you'll do to her and so you should break up with her and go fully no-contact for a long time.
There is nothing to save in your relationship and you won't be fit to be in one for a long, long time, after getting a lot of professional help. Find a personality disorder specialist and see them until indefinitely nd a psychiatrist as well for the intrusive OCD traits.

Nobody deserves what you're put your girlfriend through and you do not deserve her.
posted by erattacorrige at 2:23 PM on February 9, 2021 [6 favorites]

If you really love her, you need to break up and let her recover from the damage alone. Then get therapy to figure out why you do this and how you stop.
posted by Jubey at 2:30 PM on February 9, 2021 [6 favorites]

Changing behaviour is complex

You need to first observe when you are starting to do the bad thing and have a plan to do something different. This is like when someone in the AA program begins to crave a drink. They have to notice what they are doing when they are telling themself on their way out to the grocery store when they are really on their way to the liquor store, and they have to have a substitute activity planned, like pulling over and calling their sponsor. You need to notice when you are being unkind.

You also need to be aware of your triggers for being cruel. For example when you partner asks you for help, you may suddenly feel deeply insecure and unloved because you want her to be strong and look after you. This feeling of fear comes out as hostility.

Come up with a physical action you can do when the situation hits, when you are sitting there silently ignoring her, but aware you are ignoring her, do the physical action. For example, touch your forehead with your fingers. This is to give you a cue: I am starting to be gratuitiously mean to my partner. Don't do anything but sit with that thought until you accept it. I am starting to be gratuitously mean to my partner.

Figure out something you can say to let her know you love her, but you are struggling: "Give me a moment. I want to help, but I am getting upset."

Figure out what you need to do to help her AND what you need to do to control yourself and address the panic or rage or whatever emotion is tempting you to be cruel. An example would be to promise yourself that you will help her into the bedroom and then immediately go straight to the kitchen and grab a cookie.

Tell yourself that you are strong enough to have self control and not be cruel, just for long enough to help her. If the urge to be cruel is still rising up, do something else. For example if you are still upset enough that you are tempted to get rough or tempted to say something cruel, do deep breaths, or chant "I love her, I love her, I do love, I do want to be with her..." or something like that.

Do not stay with her long enough to stress your self control to the breaking point. Remove yourself to the kitchen, get that cookie, self soothe.

Have a planned speech to repeat when you are tempted to say cruel things. It should be a short simple statement like a mantra. "Partner is valuable to me." Don't say a thing except that mantra. "Partner if valuable to me, partner is valuable to me, partner is valuable to me, partner isvaluable tomeeee, partneris valuable..." just repeat that out loud, over and over. You can't say anything cruel while you are saying that.

Keep touching your forehead and saying the positive mantra for as long as you are feeling the out of control emotions. Do the self nurturing things to sooth yourself, cookie, glass of water, cozy jacket, the music that calms and makes you chill, rocking. Actively do that until it feels silly and boring and you are not feeling an urge to be mean.

Do something deliberately kind to your partner. Bring her a cookie. Draw a heart on a piece of paper and hand it to her. Don't stay with her. Bring it and go. You are reassuring her. Reassure yourself in another room.

Keep running out of the room and then back in. In the room with her, be kind. Out of the room, accept that you are feeling rage and dislike and disgust and comfort yourself, tend yourself, observe your thoughts. In the room with her you will be soft voiced, helpful. Out of the room you can grumble, writhe, stamp, sob. Don't go back in to her until you can be kind. If you start to be unkind run away to the other room again. But don't hide from the bad feelings by immersing yourself in something like a video game, or getting drunk. Soothe yourself with self talk and comforting actions.

Say out loud what you are doing and feeling. "I'm now upset and scared that I've destroyed our relationship because I was mean and I want to pester her." Say it out loud but not to her. Keep doing substitute behaviours and saying substitute things. Listen for the truthful thoughts coming up that make you look bad, "I don't want to look after you, I want you to look after meeee." If you get those thoughts hang onto them. Stay with them, don't push them away. You need to listen to your inner child/selfish thoughts and observe them and know what you are feeling so that you can distance yourself. It is okay to feel those things, but it's not okay to act on them. When you act on them you hate yourself and feel even worse.

If you succeed in controlling yourself you are going to feel really good. Promise yourself that. If you succeed in not being mean, then you don't deserve to lose her, then you are making yourself safer, making it possible that you won't end up alone. Say to yourself, "I can be a good person."
posted by Jane the Brown at 3:04 PM on February 9, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Here are a few things that jump out at me:

I'm suffering from some kind of severe OCD and am behaving compulsively in these moments and so far knowing I am in the wrong has not been enough to get me to stop.

I feel these overwhelming urges to "do something" and whatever I do is going to be harmful, because these urges are about my ego. But if I do nothing, that's harmful too.

I had some vaguely similar issues, coming from a dysfunctional home, being a victim of abuse, and having some other issues that impacted on my ability to relate to human beings correctly. And there is actually one true path through this.

You stop.

Like, I realize that isn't simple, because I had to change my behaviours too. You can name your feeling, you can leave, you can write angry emails that you don't send.

But at the same time, I had a conversation with my spouse, the person I love, and I saw that I was destroying our relationship and hurting him...and although it hasn't been like, zero moments of stress since, I also just. fucking. stopped.

If you were in the path of a train, would you keep texting? At work, do you get fired for going off on your boss? Do you scream at strangers that annoy you? There are, somewhere in your life, brakes that you apply.

You have chosen on some level at some time not to apply them in your closest relationships.

I mean yes: I think it might be good to move out, it might be good to seek therapy, you could take an anger management class, you could read The Dance of Anger and The Dance of Connection. All of those things will give you tools.

Not a single one of them can make you use them.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:06 PM on February 9, 2021 [25 favorites]

Response by poster: I have offered to separate or break up with her, we discussed it many times and tried it a few times, however she's dependent on me, I am her primary and only caregiver, and she does not have the capacity to be independent. If I were to leave I would still have to support her which means we would still be in contact, there is not a 'no contact' option here that doesn't leave her homeless. She feels she has the most agency when I'm with her, compared me separating and sending her money.. I appreciate your advice so far, I'm listening.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:12 PM on February 9, 2021

Best answer: The breakup is your responsibility and your decision. It's not something you need her approval or her permission for, because you're not trying to give her a gift or take over some task that she is responsible for as a favor to her.

This is 100% your responsibility and therefore 100% your business. Since you cannot stop yourself from abusing her , you and you alone have a moral imperative to remove yourself from this relationship in order to stop hurting her.

This is not something she needs to decide for you. Stop offloading your moral responsibilities onto her. If you stay, you are choosing to continue abusing her. Therefore you must leave. That's all there is to it.

You can talk to her about arranging alternative caregivers for her after you leave. You can work out a plan to recover from your abusive tendencies after you leave so that you can come back to be her caregiver again. You can negotiate various ways to make sure her needs are met while you are staying safely away from her. But don't use her need for a caregiver as your excuse to continue abusing her.
posted by MiraK at 3:18 PM on February 9, 2021 [14 favorites]

Have you tried therapy at all?
posted by Anonymous at 3:27 PM on February 9, 2021

I agree you should break up/get therapy, but since you sound resistant to both of these options, here is what stood out to me:

I'm too prideful to admit I am so deeply and fundamentally wrong, and I don't know what else to do instead.

Your going to have to manage to admit when you're wrong in order for you to get anywhere with this. I was a really stubborn kid, and my adulthood has been a slow process of being less stubborn, and working on getting to the point where I stop and say "Ugh, sorry, I'm in the wrong here" quicker. If you can recognize your habit, you can nudge yourself into saying "Sorry, I was wrong."

This might be really obvious, but I would like to know what sort of things people do to help others when they are hurt, and especially when you are the one who hurt them.

Like someone else said, your problem isn't so much that you don't know what to do after you hurt your partner, it's that you're hurting your partner so much in the first place. I presume you can recognize the tone in her voice that indicates she's feeling hurt, yes? That should be like a giant blinking stop light for you. In the example you gave, as soon as she said 'don't bother, you obviously don't want to' your response should have been to pause, and recognize you had upset her. Then what should you do? Well, if you understand why you've upset her, apologize in a way that indicates that you are self-aware of what you did wrong, and ask her to tell you how to make it up to her. If you have no idea why you've upset her, then ask her and listen to her.

But again, really seems like you should break up and go to therapy.
posted by coffeecat at 3:27 PM on February 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

This has been going on for many years now, and despite getting clear advice years ago that included the suggestion that you get individual therapy, you seem unwilling to take that one step that could possibly help with this very complex constellation of very damaging issues you have. Your awareness of the longstanding problem and DIY approaches have not been nearly enough as you've, yet again, launched into the exact same pattern of abusive behavior that you seem unable or unwilling to stop or modify in the moment. Your own attempts to resolve this have failed over and over, why are you so resistant to holding yourself accountable and making real changes with professional therapeutic assistance? There's nothing magical that Mefites can tell you now that they didn't tell you in 2016.

In the short term, move out and separate and make sure you support your partner financially as much as possible as they transition to living without you. The amount this will cost is not insignificant and you'll likely have to impact your own lifestyle in order to achieve this. Understand the dynamics here - your partner was a victim of abuse before you and she is trauma bonded to another abuser now (you). She may have decided to stand by you now, but that decision is informed by how much she's been damaged by you and others and how vulnerable she is. It's not healthy or appropriate for her to be with you. Also, immediately, seek out therapy and be honest with your therapist. Do the work. It'll be difficult and it's a long road (expect to be in therapy consistently for years), but it's really the only way out of damaging and abusing the people in your life. You're way past mending things by making tea or asking questions. The way that you're seeking ideas here seems to indicate that you still refuse to confront the reality that you're the type of abuser who needs long-term, intensive therapy to change. Please do not try to take a shortcut by starting couples counseling with her. The first rule of couples counseling is that you never attempt it with an abuser, so ethically, your history as an active abuser makes that a non-option for you. I realize that this must be incredibly difficult to read and you do seem to have some self-awareness, but please do the right thing here and work on this yourself while supporting your partner's transition to not being in relationship with you. Good luck.
posted by quince at 3:32 PM on February 9, 2021 [12 favorites]

I'm thinking that "Get Therapy" isn't one step. That could be what's holding you back.

Here's one step. Make sure you have a few minutes to focus, then load this page:

> https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/therapists/bc/vancouver

Scroll down to the section "Therapists with a video in Vancouver". Click on 5-10 and watch the videos.

Maybe get a piece of paper and write down the names of the people whose videos you watch, and note whether you think they might be able to help you.

That's it. When you're ready for step 2 -- which might take some doing -- that step is "Decide what step 3 should be."
posted by amtho at 4:00 PM on February 9, 2021 [4 favorites]

N'thing therapist, psychiatrist; start with your primary care doctor. Despite you knowing a number of your issues, for years now, however it is you're internally framing professional health assistance is preventing you from seeking that assistance. Think about whatever is making you so resistant, and make a list; accept that you'll be uncomfortable for at least a half an hour to an hour, initially, sorting through your thoughts. (Don't allow yourself to ruminate for days, though. OCD can spur a kind of self-obsession, and that's not something you can fix out of guilt, through sheer force of will, or by querying the hive mind. Trained professionals can help you.)

In the meantime, since you are determined to stay together, and are looking for steps to take: you know she's not well, and last night went off the rails in a big, dramatic way? Today, set an alarm for 30 minutes (or whatever) before her usual bedtime. When it goes off, ASK if you can help. Feed a currently insatiable ego by being a good, nurturing partner. Unprompted. If she says yes, help get her settled, then go take a shower. If she says no, nod, and go take a shower. However your offer is received, don't prey on her for additional ego-stroking. Remove yourself from her presence, take a shower to clear your head, and tonight ends better than last night. Tomorrow, make the calls you've needed to make for years.
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:03 PM on February 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Some additional info I should have provided earlier.

I first entered therapy 9 months into our relationship when it became clear there was something off with my behavior and stayed for 3.5 years. This was a severely negative experience for my partner, because my therapist focused on my trauma and my emotions instead of my relationship patterns which only reinforced the idea that my emotions were of primary importance; he also taught me that my partner was manipulative and crazy. It took her years to convince me that therapy had made me worse, but I see it now. I entered theapy a second time a year later and again this therapist focused on my trauma and we went in circles. I recognize this is because I was leading the therapists in this direction, so I considered therapy again and emailed many therapists and asked them some questions to see if they would be open to the type of work I think I would need, and I was not satisfied with the responses. I have also looked for programs for perpetrators of domestic violence -- there was one in Brussels where I was living recently, but it was also focused on men's emotions and trauma, so again, just like my first therapist. At the moment I'm doubtful that me being in therapy would help my partner at all.

As for breaking up... I mean I'm listening to you all, it's just... it's a fantasy of mine that I would leave and she finds some great guy who's like me but not abusive and things work out for her. She has been telling me with extreme clarity and conviction that this it is a delusion of mine that things will work out better for her if I leave, and that she has run the numbers many times and concluded I am her best option at life, so I'm inclined to believe her.

Those are the reasons I'm resistant to the main two suggestions here. Thanks again, I am listening.
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:06 PM on February 9, 2021

Um, it does sound like you both have issues - is therapy for both of you an option? And/or couples therapy?

Also, get recommendations, etc.
posted by amtho at 4:09 PM on February 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Wow so you guys are both bad for each other it sounds like.

Split. Up.
posted by phunniemee at 4:20 PM on February 9, 2021 [9 favorites]

^Couples therapy is not recommended in abusive relationships.

Respectfully, two therapists is a terribly small a sample size, and you don't mention if either of them were psychiatrists/able to prescribe medication. And you still have the same problems.
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:24 PM on February 9, 2021 [6 favorites]

You aren't responsible for your girlfriend, who is an adult and responsible for herself.

She needs to find resources for support, she should reach out to a "battered" women's shelter and ask for resources for housing and support and such. This is not your problem at all, it's just bizarre that you're acknowledging she's codependent. But she's an adult, an adult, an adult. Tell her to reach out for help from women's shelters, nonprofit or government organizations that support abuse survivors, people with autism / disabilities, and people with low/no incomes.
posted by erattacorrige at 4:25 PM on February 9, 2021 [8 favorites]

Honestly, she sounds as toxic for you as you are for her... You are clearly too entangled in this situation to see it, her, or yourself clearly.

I agree with everyone saying 1. Break up and disentangle from her 2. Go to therapy and see a psychiatrist (in case you need medication in order to stabilize).

In a perfect world, you would have been happy to help her to bed. But your relationship is super tense, so you weren’t. And then she stormed off and stonewalled you because she didn’t like your attitude. I agree that it would have been better if you hadn’t freaked out in response, but there’s not a “good” response to someone giving you the silent treatment. If you had let it go, what do you bet she would have come after you for not caring about her? This is the definition of toxic.

I don’t think there’s any salvaging this relationship, the dynamic is genuinely that bad.

To be really frank, I would have stood up for myself and said goodbye to this bullshit long ago. So count yourself as more empathetic than I am, I guess. But it genuinely sounds to me like she’s gaslighting you, so please at the very least take what she has to say with a grain of salt.

I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but I hope that you listen anyway.
posted by rue72 at 4:58 PM on February 9, 2021 [8 favorites]

there’s not a “good” response to someone giving you the silent treatment.

There is–you leave them alone.
posted by marimeko at 5:04 PM on February 9, 2021 [8 favorites]

Also, the fact that she thinks that "you're the best she can do in life" just speaks to her horrible self esteem, which I'm sure has something to do with you actively and regularly (you've said yourself, thousands of times) abusing her. You're not the arbiter on her path, her future, or who she might end up with. It's not your problem. She needs serious help, as do you, and who she "ends up with" is absolutely none of your business. I think you enjoy the control you get out of abusing her.

Break up with her now. Get a doctor. A therapist. A counselor. A whole team of people, maybe people skilled at working with someone who has a personality as highly "disordered" as you self describe. This situation is not sustainable and there is no rescuing or improving this relationship.

Why are you so afraid to let to? It can only improve things for you, and for her.
posted by erattacorrige at 5:13 PM on February 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

she has run the numbers many times and concluded I am her best option at life, so I'm inclined to believe her. she has run the numbers many times and concluded I am her best option at life, so I'm inclined to believe her.

This is what I meant when I said you are offloading the responsibility for your decisions onto her. Just like her finding someone new is her responsibility and hers alone, staying away from her so that you do not continue to abuse her is your responsibility and yours alone. It's also your decision to make, not hers. Nobody is making you stay. Like, is she keeping you chained up in there? You are fully capable of leaving. You do not need her permission.
posted by MiraK at 5:20 PM on February 9, 2021 [14 favorites]

If you are experiencing severe OCD, then you need to see a therapist or psychiatrist who is specifically trained in exposure and response prevention (ERP). ACT, DBT, and other cognitive therapies can also be helpful, but ERP absolutely needs to be the cornerstone. Other types of talk therapy are often actively counterproductive in OCD. In particular, talking about your own trauma is not usually the focus of ERP, which makes me wonder if you were really getting the right type of help.

More generally, though, your last update really concerns me. I want to be delicate about how I'm phrasing this but if reassurance-seeking through apologizing is emotionally manipulative, then putting someone in the double bind of "if you stay you will constantly be hurting me, which is unacceptable, but if you leave you will hurt me even more, which is unacceptable" surely also has to qualify. Without excusing any of your behavior, I want to point out that this is at best a really unhealthy dynamic. Further, your partner is not clairvoyant, and cannot possibly know ahead of time that you are the best possible partner for her. The facts that you seem to have just accepted that distorted framing at face value, that you seem to have rejected the guidance of numerous therapists (two plus the ones you e-mailed), that OCD comes with very strong distortions of its own and yours has not been adequately treated -- taken together, they make me wonder how accurate your descriptions of this relationship have been. That said, it kind of doesn't matter at this point, because regardless, I would strongly advise you to leave the relationship as soon as practically possible for both your sakes -- and then, after you have been through ERP, to explore this in therapy, perhaps printing out these questions to give to the therapist.
posted by en forme de poire at 5:43 PM on February 9, 2021 [13 favorites]

The best apologies center the other person and their needs. So the best person to answer this question would be her. How would she like you to apologize after a small fight? More broadly, what would she like you to do to repair the relationship?

If it were me who'd stormed off to my room, I might appreciate a conversation or a note the next day that went sort of like this:

1. DIRECT NAMING OF THE THING YOU DID: I'm sorry I [didn't respond to your request for help, got mad when you called me out, and then yelled through your door]

2. POSSIBLE DISCUSSION OF WHAT THIS MIGHT FEEL LIKE FOR THE OTHER PERSON: I can imagine that might have felt [like a let down, and also scary]

3. SECOND APOLOGY AND DISCUSSION OF DIRECT REPAIR/IMPROVEMENTS: I'm really sorry I did that to you, and I want you to know I'm [going to talk to my doctor about mood medication // taking this meditation class so I might get more mindful control of my actions // etc // whatever]

The first two things make me feel named and seen, and the last one makes me feel like the other person cares about making sure it doesn't keep happening.
posted by hungrytiger at 6:09 PM on February 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

That said, to my eyes, you're describing yourself in very black-and-white terms as a villain. Some of the behaviors you describe, like the yelling at the door and the anxious overapologizing, definitely harm your partner but can also probably be described as patterns of disrupted attachment -- which might be part of what some of your therapists were trying to get at, even if it was ineffective. And if you have blind panic responses when someone's mad at you, I doubt that self-harshness ("I'm toxic") is going to help much.

It's like if you had a really anxious dog that kept peeing on the carpet. Beating the dog isn't going to help.

If you don't want to try talk therapy, what about therapeutic workbook type stuff? DBT is a kind of skills-based therapy which involves meditation and is supposed to help increase both your awareness, and your ability to tolerate big feelings without acting on them. It's more of a skills learning thing than a psychodynamic therapy thing, and it's often learned in a group therapy type situation, which might be nice for you if you're concerned about navel-gazing. And you can try a workbook first to see if the vibe is right before you commit to a live group.
posted by hungrytiger at 6:30 PM on February 9, 2021 [8 favorites]

“Like do I apologize? Ask her questions? Validate her emotions? Offer to make her tea? Tell her I love her? Give her a hug? Try to distract her from whta she's feeling? Say nothing? I try all of these things in various ways but I usually make her more upset, and I can understand why, because it's obvious that I'm flailing, I feel like I'm just not understanding the basic model of relating, so it feels like I'm 'cargo culting', like I'm going through the motions without really getting it. Help me get it?”

I would just ask her what she wants you to do; she’s the best guide here.

OCD, anxiety, and catastrophizing often all go together - you’re in a negative feedback loop.

The reason that the therapists have been focused on trauma is that that’s probably responsible for the OCD/anxiety/catastrophizing/overcompensating - you need to work out a way of calming yourself down in the moment where you don’t try to push/provoke and then try to ‘fix’ things, but instead focus on what she’s asking you to do and/or asking what she wants you to do - and also on how you’re feeling - like, why were you grumpy (hungry, tired, work drama, etc.) and fix your own feelings first.

The brain can get addicted to stirring up shit - you know that what you’re doing is going to provoke something and then you have to ‘fix it’ and then you ruminate on it - you need to replace this with something else: mindfulness or yoga or boxing or heavy metal or whatever.
posted by heyjude at 8:03 PM on February 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

I appreciate your advice so far, I'm listening.
Those are the reasons I'm resistant to the main two suggestions here. Thanks again, I am listening.

Well, no, you're not listening. And if you don't want to listen, that's fine.

Still, you post comments in reply to answers, justifying why you won't/can't listen while claiming to be listening - this does give a sense of how you might relate to others, and it is, to put it gently, ambivalent - there is the sense that you both genuinely want help, while only willing to take advice only if it is on terms that are already comfortable to you (I do notice the one answer you did favorite, which is a fine answer generically, and one I suspect is not going to actually help you that much). If that's how you've been approaching all these conversations/problem-solving attempts with your girlfriend, well, how's that been working out for you?

Step one is to break up with her (FWIW it does sound like she needs professional help on her end too), step two is to return to therapy. Since you list yourself as being in France, consider looking for a Lacanian psychoanalyst to work with. Since your past therapists have either focused too much on emotions and/or been easily lead around by you, you might find a Lacanian analyst a uh, refreshing change from that.
posted by obliterati at 8:24 PM on February 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

OP, I don't think anyone here could possibly have enough information to say whether you should or should not break up with your partner. You both need to talk to someone else and/or make the decision for yourselves based on the myriad things you know about your relationship that we don't and can't.
posted by amtho at 8:29 PM on February 9, 2021

Best answer: I haven't read any of the thread since your last update, but a slightly different take on the therapy. Your partner is in an abusive relationship. Are they in (individual) therapy, completely irregardless of what else you do? Can you help them in that way?
posted by cgg at 8:38 PM on February 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

If you want to start with a total kick to the nuts reboot, go with psychedelic therapy first (or MDMA if you want to start more gently) before finding a weekly therapist. It can really start to rewrite your operating system. But do it with a therapist, not just on your own. Confronting a problem this big is admirable, good for you. (And PM me if you want to talk about this)
posted by namesarehard at 9:42 PM on February 9, 2021

I’ve read and re-read this question multiple times, and I keep coming back to it... so here’s my take. There’s not enough information for anyone to say you should break up or stay, etc. You’ve received a lot of responses focused on your role as the abuser, based on your framing of the original question... and yet. I looked over your posting history and was surprised to see a number of comments that were thoughtful and understanding, particularly on questions of an interpersonal nature. Of course, that doesn’t preclude someone from being an abuser. But your description of yourself as “toxic” and a “narcissistic personality” seemed out of whack. That, plus your follow up about prior therapy and your girlfriend convincing you that therapy made you worse.

I may be way off base, but is it possible that you’ve spent such a long time in a relationship that’s mutually toxic, and you’ve internalized your partner’s criticism and viewpoint about yourself? Yes, your behaviors in the example scenario aren’t healthy. But viewed through the lens of a partner with an anxious attachment style, they read very differently. Your partner acted passive aggressively with her initial comment, then gave you the silent treatment, causing you to become anxious and act out in response. So, certainly not healthy, but I just wonder if it would be helpful to reconsider the role you’ve cast yourself in here. Either way, I concur with the chorus of calls for therapy. Ideally, you’d both get individual therapy, and couples counseling if you decided to stay in the relationship. (One more thought: all of your responses about staying in the relationship were centered on what she wants and says is best. Do you want to stay? Do you think this is healthy? Is it possible that you need to work on whatever negative behaviors you have outside of this relationship?)
posted by bluloo at 11:42 PM on February 9, 2021 [7 favorites]

I will say this: reading this question blurb, my reaction was "this person needs to GET OUT." Your description is consistent with someone who's being abused and self-describing as toxic and horrible as a result. You may at the same time be abusive, that happens too. It's very hard to tell from here. But get out. GET OUT. Then evaluate from there.
posted by away for regrooving at 1:14 AM on February 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

I agree with bluloo. There is indeed something deeply dysfunctional here but I don't get all the focus on you as an abuser, you both just sound trapped to me.

We've heard why she wants you to stay, but nothing about what you want. What are you getting from this relationship? Is it that you value being her primary caretaker and 'best chance', or is there something that we're not hearing about, eg a deep intellectual connection, or a community that you've built and shared? Or a family or home that you've created? What positive thing is keeping you together?

If there is nothing positive then the relationship has run its course and therapy for both of you might be best focused on how to manage decoupling.
posted by freya_lamb at 1:19 AM on February 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: It's just so easy to pin the blame on the woman and not believe her, especially when she starts to assert herself and fight back. My first therapist did as well. Maybe I distorted the picture here, maybe I didn't say enough about what I do. if so I apologize for misleading you. To be clear, I persistently attack her to try to break her spirit so that I can control her. I control every aspect of her life and I use complex psychological manipulation tactics along with emotional and physical violence to maintain this system of control. The reasons behind it are complex, but it's a texbook pattern of male abuse of women, so textbook it's utterly boring, it's the same thing my dad did my mom, and their dads to their moms, and all the way back. This always happens when I try to seek help and talk about how I'm abusive. People don't believe me and blame her. Especially when I talk about how she resists my control and tries to assert herself. Then she becomes "toxic" and "manipulative". But she isn't those things, she is the most fair, respectful, kind person I have ever met by fair. She is autistic, remember? She's like Greta Thunberg, she has justice and rightness running in her blood. She gets angry when she is mistreated,and when she is loved she blooms with happiness. I guess I want you to see that this is what a male abuser looks like. I seem distressingly normal from the outside.

I want to thank these two posters:

You stop

Stop offloading your moral responsibilities onto her

These two things landed and are really sticking with me. I do have a responsibility here which is to do what I know to be right, which is to stop abusing her and to stay with her and love her and support her in rebuilding her life. I am choosing to do this because I care about her. I am no longer going to think that I am somehow forced to stay with her "because she needs me" and use that to duck responsibility for my decisions to be abusive. I appreciate everyone's advice, it has really helped crystallize my thinking. I especially appreciate those of you who stood up for her.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:24 AM on February 10, 2021

Response by poster: To answer some other questions,we share a very deep bond when I am not being abusive, which is unfortunately rare.. I don't think it makes sense to say "the relationship is toxic", there is just two people's behavior, my behavior is not healthy and hers is, and if I stopped being abusive we would have a functional partnership. This has been proved over and over again during the moments of calm in which I am not abusive. She is by any standard a great partner to me.

I suspect that those of you who are picking up a "this person is being abused" vibe are catching the residual effects of my parents abuse of me when I was a kid, which was vicious and totalitarian, and which defines the way I see myself. This isn't coming from her. I often project that onto her though, maybe I inadvertently created that impression.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:41 AM on February 10, 2021

we share a very deep bond when I am not being abusive

I am a very toxic, abusive, manipulative person

Does it help to further crystallise your thinking if you ponder the distinction between "being abusive" and "doing abuse"? Abuse is an activity, not an identity-defining trait.

You've had enough experience with abuse to know how it works, you have enough insight to know when you're perpetrating it yourself, and you have enough non-intimate relationships to know that perpetrating it is something you can choose not to do in the moment.

So yeah, just stop. Won't kill you.
posted by flabdablet at 3:22 AM on February 10, 2021

In other words: you don't need to change who you are. You just need to change what you do.
posted by flabdablet at 3:28 AM on February 10, 2021

I read this question and also couldn't get it out of my mind. I thought about it a bit and blueloo meanwhile came to leave a comment that echoes what was bothering me here.

You sound like you might be a bit of a jerk, selfish sometimes, unable to meet your partner's needs, and bad at communicating about your own emotions, but nothing you say here rises to the level of "DANGEROUS TOXIC MANIPULATIVE ABUSER." I have a healthy relationship and adore my partner and we also have spats from time to time where one of us shuts down, or the other becomes anxious, or one doesn't have time for the other.

Now, maybe in your relationship this happens so often that your dynamic is just shot, frayed through, and there's not enough holding you together, and the relationship is over. Usually, that's okay. It sucks to break up, but a lot of people do it all over the world every day. Eventually, both parties will heal and find new partners who are better suited to them.

So, sounds to me like you need to break up. It's time. But your framing of the question -- your insistence that you're a disgusting and terrible person who is definitely abusing your girlfriend but can never ever leave her -- is so black-and-white, and so biased in your girlfriend's favor to ensure that she gets the outcome she wants, that I'm immediately curious who created this lens that you both seem to see the relationship through.

The fact that you've followed up by saying that your girlfriend feels she cannot survive without you, so breaking up is off the table EVEN THOUGH she considers you a horrific abuser, is concerning. If she's at the point where she thinks you're abusing her, she needs to leave you. Instead, she's essentially guilting you into staying because -- she says -- you've abused her so much that you owe it to her.

Your black-and-white comment that "my behavior is abusive, hers is not" is concerning.

The fact that you said multiple previous therapists suggested that you need to focus more heavily on the dynamic within your relationship, and your girlfriend's manipulation of you, but that she shot this down, is concerning.

Your framing of the relationship and its issues sounds like it's your girlfriend's. Your framing of the failure of therapy sounds like it's your girlfriend's. Your framing of why you can't break up sounds like it's your girlfriend's.

Like anyone in a relationship, you need to start by working on yourself and developing your own way of seeing this situation. This isn't selfishness -- it's doing the work to get the clarity you need to be a good partner. What do you want? What do you hope your life will look like in the future? Do you see a future life with this woman, in this relationship, that would make you happy? Do you dream of other things?

And what if your selfishness and carelessness in this relationship, the fact that sometimes you don't want to stop what you're doing and help your girlfriend, the fact that sometimes you're snappish with her, the fact that you feel like your reactions to her are sometimes out of control -- what if all these things are due not to the fact that you are an abuser, but the fact that you're not 100% invested in the partnership emotionally and are ready to move on?

And what if that's okay?
posted by artisthatithaca at 3:33 AM on February 10, 2021 [10 favorites]

Well reading your updates - I was the person who gave you the advice to stop.

And that is still my advice.

But you may need to leave in order to stop. In a healthy relationship, both people are choosing to be there, each day. I can see why you are able to stay and allow things to be so bad...if there’s no alternative in your mind, and you’ve eliminated all forms of help in your mind, then it’s easy to set up a justification for allowing this to continue.

You really can’t have any rationale, because there isn’t one. If you can’t stop while you’re there, you stop by leaving and sorting out the rest.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:35 AM on February 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

OK - here's the thing.

In an ideal world you choose to stop being abusive and that's it - you stop. But if it were as simple as that then you would've stopped years ago, right? Because this isn't something you like about yourself. It's great that you're finding the responses to this question useful, but they are unlikely to stop a pattern of behaviour that is as entrenched as abuse.

People are recommending therapy because you really do need to spend time working on this. It's likely that the reason the therapists you saw were focused on your emotions and trauma is because they were trying to identify where triggers for the abuse came from (and of course they may have approached this poorly). If you have a family history and were abused as a child it's likely that you will need to spend time working through these things to be able to change your behaviour completely. But you can't really spend the time doing that while you're in the relationship, because you need to stop acting in the way you are as quickly as possible. I do think you need to leave in order to be able to fully do the work on yourself, and give yourself the time to be able to work on your past, your behaviour and your mental health.

If you aren't ready to leave now then give yourself a point at which you will leave and focus on yourself. If I'm wrong and after you've read this advice you will never abuse her again, then great. But what if you do? How many times will you do that before you leave. I think it might be important to establish that otherwise you could get caught in a situation where nothing ever changes except that both your lives get a bit worse everyday.

I've been in the situation that your partner was in, and him leaving broke the cycle so I am a bit biased in this. But I'm not sure that you can stay and stop.
posted by Laura_J at 3:36 AM on February 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Therapy, meditation, Buddhist philosophy.

Therapy because you need suggestions now.

Meditation because it teaches you to be present and to see what you're doing in the moment and in seeing it gives you the option to make changes. There is a lot to learn here and it takes time to build the skill.

Buddhist philosophy (not religion) because it dovetails with the skills you gain from meditation to teach you about yourself and the world and why you're a grumpy asshole and how to fix it by simply looking at things differently.
posted by Awfki at 4:54 AM on February 10, 2021

One of my favourite novels is Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot. Daniel rescues Mirah, when she tries to drown herself after escaping her abusive father. Mirah's mother is dead, her brother is lost, her father tried to sell her into prostitution. She's a stranger in the country and also Jewish, so she has to deal with anti-semitism on top of it. She has no one to turn turn to. Daniel immediately feels responsible for her. He's independently wealthy and has no other social obligations otherwise; he can pretty much do as he pleases and it would very much please him to help Mirah. But does he take her home? Nope, he takes her to the mother of a trusted friend who also has several daughters, and asks her to let Mirah stay with them, while he only provides financial support. Mirah is quickly integrated into the family and becomes good friends with the daughters, just as Daniel hoped she would. It's not just concern for Mirah's reputation that prevented him from taking her to his own home, Daniel also feels that Mirah needs women around her. His first instinct is to help her find friends.

Since Daniel's friend also lives there, Mirah and Daniel continue seeing each other on occasion and quickly fall for each other. But does Daniel propose? Again, no. He's afraid that Mirah would feel too emotionally obliged to accept him, since she might feel she owes everything to him. He doesn't want her choice be distorted by gratitude. Instead he helps her with her singing career so she can earn her own money, and he helps her search for her long-lost brother. They find him, he's a good guy, there's a tearful reunion. Now Mirah has friends, family, a career, and also, finally the self-confidence to confess her own love for Daniel, when she starts fearing another woman is making eyes at him. And only then, Daniel proposes.

Now, Daniel and Mirah are unrealistically perfect for each other, because they are fictional characters who were written to be. Even so the message is that it would have been wrong for them to get together at the start. Because a relationship in which one party is so completely dependent on the other is just doomed, no matter how individually great everyone involved might be.

I don't know who's the villain in your story, if there's a villain at all. Sure, your black-and-white-self-flaggellation does sound very similar to internalized abuse. Then again, performative self-loathing can also be a form of coyness, a strategy to invite contradiction ("Surely, you can't be that bad"), and you do write that you are manipulative. I'm quite willing to take you at your word that the brunt of the responsibility for the dysfunction in this relationship should be placed on you, and that she's a flawless angel (although I'm not at all sure that putting her on that sort of pedestal is doing her any favours). Whatever. In some sense, it doesn't even matter.

Because here's the thing: Even if she's a saint, and you manage to become one, this relationship in its current form is untenable. It's untenable that you're her only shelter in the storm. Not because you're necessarily abusive, irredeemable, etc. Simply because you could be run over by a bus tomorrow, and what then?

If you decide to stay in this relationship, you should make it a condition that she seeks therapy for herself. You can't guarantee that you'll never get abusive (I actually think none of us can), so she needs to feel strong enough to leave you if you do, and she needs therapy to realize that she has better options than suffering abuse and that she could survive on her own, if you were run over by a bus.

If you really want the best for her, you need to do everything in your power to get her to a place where she can not just survive, but thrive without out. Very likely, she will then leave you, and I strongly believe this would be the best outcome for both of you.

But you also also need to realize when you've finally done everything in your power, and that it might not be enough, and then take responsiblity and leave her. Because ultimately she'll have to take those last steps herself, whether she feels ready for it or not. And it's quite possible that things will get worse for her at first, because sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better. But ultimately, I'm fairly confident that you'll both be so much happier for it.

What I'm not just fairly confident but utterly convinced about hower, is, that things will only get worse as long as she remains so completely dependent on you. Right now your're both so entirely trapped, and that can't but feed and feed resentment on both sides, which is bound to ultimately erupt in tragedy. I really fear for both of you. Don't let it happen.
posted by sohalt at 5:43 AM on February 10, 2021 [7 favorites]

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