6/20/16
How Can He Get His Boyfriend to Fight Fair?

We get a lot of advice questions coming in at EMandLO.com, but sadly, we just can’t answer them all. Which is why, once a week, we turn to you to decide how best to advise a reader. Make YOUR CALL on the letter below by leaving your advice in the comments section. 

My boyfriend and I have been together for 3 years. We’re very serious and have been talking about getting married, especially now that we can!  I love him, he’s great…except in this one area: When we fight, he gets super mad and resorts to low blows. If he feels I’ve criticized him in some way that makes him feel bad, he tries to hit back with something super personal, mean and hurtful. When we disagree, he gets dismissive and condescending. He’ll call me crazy or stupid and will melodramatically scream “We’re doomed!” or “We should break up!” He eventually comes around and apologizes when he’s calmed down. I don’t think he’s genuinely abusive, I just think he’s insecure and doesn’t have the right filters due to a less than stellar family upbringing. I expect fights in any relationship, I just think in a respectful relationship the fighting has to be FAIR — no insults, no low blows, no disrespect. How can I get my boyfriend to see and respect that. Or, to use his language, are we doomed?

— Whipping Boy

What Should W.P. do?
Let him know in the comments below:

10 Comments

  1. A lot of the discussion seems to be “what I would do” or pseudo-psychoanalysis of the boyfriend, but that is not the answer sought. I think the heart of this issue is to answer the question: what if it never changes? Is he willing to marry someone who in their worst moments may always revert to that sort of reaction?
    You alone cannot change him, all the logic/love/reasoning/therapy in the world cannot change him if he doesn’t want to; he has to see it as a problem and be willing to change and all the work that entails.
    That said if the answer is ‘yes, it must change for us to marry’ I do think people can change, and I do think it will be fairly apparent if his partner recognizes it as a problem and is willing to work on it. But there has to be the acknowledgement that it may never be fully solved, marriage as a contract is seeing each other’s flaws and forgiving them and inversely working on your own flaws for the sake of your partner. Somewhere in that balance lies what you are or aren’t willing to accept and willing to change… both people have to recognize their contribution(s) to the situation.
    Finally, though having never read it myself I might recommend the book Nonviolent Communication, if both are open to change and seeking a starting point.

  2. Your BF sounds like he has a super-fragile ego and lacks the tools to deal with certain normal situations. What’s particularly striking is that it’s not just fights or criticism that send him into DEFCON 5, but that mild stuff like disagreeing prompts his brain to issue an “extreme measures required!!” message.

    Maybe you’re already aware that he always needs to be right. This is something I find soooo tiring. Your tolerance might be higher than mine, but I don’t think anyone should have to deal with this. It’s the antithesis of give-and-take. Also, his apologies are nice, but are they always just for the fireworks or does he ever indicate that you made a good point and he could adjust his point of view?

    There could be a glimmer of hope if he doesn’t trot out this behavior around other people. That could indicate he’s self-conscious because he knows it’s not quite right. And it means he might stay calm if you two see a counselor. I picture his response to sober discussions in counseling as the litmus test for the future of your relationship.

    1. “That could indicate he’s self-conscious because he knows it’s not quite right. And it means he might stay calm if you two see a counselor.”

      See, that makes it worse to me. That makes it like, “so you KNOW you’re being an asshole, and would never dream of trying it on or even in front of anyone else, meaning it’s reserved especially for me?”

      That’s what I always tell my friends when they say, “my girlfriend is crazy.” I say, “does she act like that toward her boss? Toward a cop? Toward a stranger on the street? No? Then she’s not crazy, she just has no respect for you and you’re her punching bag.”

      1. I can’t agree. The “makes it worse” response is overly egocentric to me. So, when the realization hits that they don’t do this with other people, you feel more upset? Doesn’t make sense to me. Does that also mean that on witnessing someone else endure that crap, you feel some relief? If I saw that, I’d think, “Oh man, it’s worse than I thought”.

        It just seems like spin designed to amp up the feeling of victimization or personal hurt. Same goes for the crazy girlfriend. I don’t think your friends were being clinical when they used the word crazy. To make it more clinical and then steer the focus toward the fact that her crazy is reserved just for them is unnecessary spin. Her behavior is bad enough as it is and can be judged as such, no crap garnish needed.

        But to be more relevant to the OP’s question: if the BF is doing this in front of/to other people, it probably means he lacks self-knowledge and doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with it. In which case, I don’t see much hope.

        1. “So, when the realization hits that they don’t do this with other people, you feel more upset?”

          Sure. A generally disordered personality is easy to blow off, or ignore, or empathize with. A clear-headed loved one who reserves their cruelty for you is a much more painful thing.

          “Does that also mean that on witnessing someone else endure that crap, you feel some relief? If I saw that, I’d think, “Oh man, it’s worse than I thought”.”

          It would explain a lot about that person, and again, yes, a certain relief comes with knowing that they’re an asshole across the board. Not because I like to see other people take shit too, but because then it might be something other than contempt for me specifically. But like you, I would take it as a sign for the worse, not better.

          “It just seems like spin designed to amp up the feeling of victimization or personal hurt.”

          I’m talking about a situation where one person is, in fact, the “victim,” if you want to use that word. Why shouldn’t a person feel aggrieved to be singled out for mistreatment?

          “But to be more relevant to the OP’s question: if the BF is doing this in front of/to other people, it probably means he lacks self-knowledge and doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with it. In which case, I don’t see much hope.”

          I don’t see much hope either way.

          I guess the disagreement is this: whereas you see self-consciousness as a sign of hope, I see it as a sign of abuse and deceit. Like someone who knows how to hit without leaving bruises. He “knows it’s not quite right,” as you say, but he still does it. And where you see a discussion with a therapist as a litmus test for the future, I see being in a therapist’s office as a sign that everything’s gone to shit. Therapist!? OP has to pay a referee because otherwise it’s low-blows and ear-bites? No freakin’ way.

          If it’s not an over-all personality problem, then it’s contempt for OP I in his BF’s behavior, and yeah, I’m encouraging him to take that personally if it’s the case.

          1. I agree that we’re coming at this from essentially two different schools of thought. Whereas I step back a little and try to see the big picture, I’d say that you view things through a more personal lens.

            First, to clarify something. When I said “around other people” in my first post, it was meant to be synonymous with “in a more public way”. I think that’s how you took it, given the boss, cop and stranger references. So, it’s not just their BF/GF who gets exposed to these behaviors, it’s usually their inner circle: family members, close friends and BF/GF.

            “Reserved especially for me”, “reserves their cruelty for you”, “contempt for me specifically”, “singled out for mistreatment”. I think this is the crux of our disagreement. These phrases make it sound like a cynical calculation – “Yeah, I’m only gonna expose my inner circle to this shit”. If that were true, it would make sense to feel more pain when it’s revealed. But I don’t think that’s it at all. It’s human nature to not want to air out our dirty laundry. And so some behaviors come out when we’re at ease, with our inner circle. It’s not just abusive crap either, but silly foibles too. If it makes sense to limit our foibles to behind closed doors, then I think it does with bad shit too. So again, in these cases I think making things seems more cynical is erroneous and unnecessary; shit is bad enough as it is.

            I do agree that there’s not much hope with this BF. His behavior’s pretty extreme; I did only mention an iffy glimmer.

            On your point about self-consciousness and hope, if a person with a private issue doesn’t know that it’s “not quite right”, aren’t they just unable to admit there’s even a problem? To me, that’s the epitome of zero hope. Knowing there’s a problem has to be at the core of any hope for overcoming something like this. And there’s usually a period where they know it’s wrong, and still exhibit it, before any success with it. On a less douchey scale, are the myriad of broken New Years resolutions a sign of willful vice?(not quite abuse and deceit) It’s the human condition. We know we have a thing, and we still do the thing.

            P.S. I imagine there’s some folks who read the comments about therapy who feel that the couples counseling environment was helpful for themselves or others.

          2. ” Whereas I step back a little and try to see the big picture, I’d say that you view things through a more personal lens.”

            I mean this is you and me here speculating as to whether the BF is generally like this or whether it’s just in his relationship – OP’s letter doesn’t say. I guess my advice would be, “step back and look at the big picture if these things actually take place across the bigger picture, but view it through a personal lens if he pretty much only does this to you.”

            All good points you make though. Difference in perspective I guess.

          3. Your point is well-taken.

            I thought more about this yesterday and realized I was too harsh about something. I shouldn’t have used the word “spin” in my 2nd post, because it indicates that the sentiment is based on a re-arranging of facts after further reflection. But I believe now that there is a genuine emotional reaction in the moment. That reaction might even be the experience of a majority of people in the hypothetical situation, I don’t know. And it’s been said that feelings aren’t right or wrong, or “erroneous” either. It should have been enough to contend that actions based on those feelings wouldn’t be very helpful in the situation. Any sentiment on my part that smacks of invalidating feelings is too much of an attack.

  3. I’d break up with him if I were you, or at least put the brakes on any plans for marriage. Nasty fighting is a HUGE red flag.

    I don’t have any advice because I don’t think you can work with this type of personality. How are you supposed to have a rational-yet-critical discussion with someone who explodes at rational criticism? I’m sorry, but your BF sounds histrionic, immature and unstable. All of which makes for a fun casual partner, but a terrible spouse.

    I say dump him in an email – so he can’t screamily interrupt you – and tell him exactly why. If he writes back in contrition and swears to work on it, give him another chance if you really want. But I suspect he’ll flip out and confirm that he’s a jerk.

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