13

Context:

A while ago I purchased limited edition chocolate and I had been saving them for myself, to eat at a later time. To my distress, I found out that my boyfriend opened it without my knowledge or permission and ate most of it. I grabbed the remainder of the chocolate from him and expressed my displeasure, telling him I was saving it.

At the time, the dog was refusing food, so I verbally expressed my concern that she's refusing food and might be sick. At the same time, I guess he started speaking about some code he had finished. He expresses how I don't care, but to my mind the more important topic to everyone is the state of our dog's health.

In response, he took the remaining chocolate from my desk and threw it out into the trash, stating "If I can't have it, you can't either."

I really don't understand this (in my eyes childish) behavior, even if this is actually startlingly similar to what my dad would do to express a point. To me, this behavior seems to come completely out of the blue, after periods of perfect stability.

What breaks my heart the most about this is that his stated reason for his actions (sometimes only discernable later) is usually contrived or a distorted version of reality and just doesn't make sense to me in any way.


For example, in this case I asked my boyfriend what happened. He said it was because I spoke over him when I spoke regarding the dog and that this made him angry. In my mind, this is not even close to being a valid justification for him throwing out something of high value to me. He seems to think that the way he behaved is the only way he can make me understand the anger he feels.

Q: How do I express to him that this kind of behavior is not okay, and that he needs to be aware of what's going on around him rather than only looking at his own issues?

  • 2
    This sounds like layers upon layers of difficult feelings. Exaggerated: First shaming him for eating your chocolate, then not paying attention to his coding-troubles and then telling him even the dog is more important than him. - I can understand one losses his cool, but I doubt a single post will enable you to have healthier communication. Have you thought about improving upon this point, or do you just want him to suppress his heartfelt anger? – user6109 Jun 5 '18 at 11:58
  • 2
    There are a lot of different things going on here, and it sounds like neither you nor your boyfriend are able to step back and look at things dispassionately. Have you considered getting some joint counseling so you two can work on listening to each other and make a rational decision as to whether you can stay together or not? – DaveG Jun 5 '18 at 12:47
16

I'm going to (partially) play the devil's advocate here. But before I do, let me make a few things clear:

  • Your boyfriend is an adult (I assume) and is responsible for his actions and their consequences.
  • Relationships only work when both partners are in it together. If one of them wants out, the other doesn't get to veto that. Emotional blackmail does not save relationships, it kills relationships.
  • None of what I say, if correct, obligates you (morally or otherwise) to suffer your boyfriend's behavior. When you draw the line, that is where the line gets drawn.
  • You are within your rights to outright not accept this behavior, regardless of potential mitigating circumstances.
  • Mitigating circumstances are invalidated when they are intentionally gamed. Gaming the system is outright manipulation. It's nigh impossible to ascertain whether something is genuine or merely acted as genuine. This can only become clear when seeing someone's behavior over an extended period, which doesn't translate over your description.
  • I am not making any judgment nor definitive statements. I am only pointing out possible explanations and mitigating circumstances.
  • I might slightly rephrase what you said, because I'm accounting for your description being influenced by your perception. This is not done to dismiss or invalidate your experiences or observations, but rather trying to shed a different point of view on the events.
  • My answer draws (and illustrates, and fills in some blanks) from personal experiences. This is a matter of example to prove the point that there can be less-than-obvious connections between two seemingly unrelated events.

Playing the devil's advocate.

Based on your description of events, it is not wrong to label the behavior as abusive. Whether the behavior can be labeled as willfully abusive, however, is not as clear cut; and this is what I'm trying to focus on.

Reading between the lines here, there are certain flags about the behavior that make me identify with personal experiences. Even if correct, that doesn't absolve your boyfriend's behavior (as it doesn't absolve mine either), but the point of mentioning this is to show give you an insight from the other side, to understand why the reaction (possibly) emerges the way that it does.

In short, I was raised by a strongly narcissistic and dominant father. He was dismissive of anything that he didn't agree with; frequently told me that my experiences were not real, lies, or willful slander; prevented me from speaking in cases where I he know I could disprove his statements (often resorting to filibustering); never admitted mistakes; and resorted to random punishment, bullying and violent behavior when I countered his other tactics.

He said it was because I spoke over him when I spoke regarding the dog and that this made him angry.

This is a massive trigger for me. Having been talked over my entire life and having anything I say dismissed as meaningless has rendered me easily irritable when what I say is interrupted or ignored.

This is seemingly confirmed when you said:

He expresses how I don't care

He seems to be sensitive to people ignoring him and how this means that they don't care for him.
Notice how he immediately equates being talked over to being un(der)appreciated. That seems like a clear indication that in the past he has been talked over/ignored by people who showed affection for him (or interest in him) less than he needed/wanted/expected them to.

Without trying to blame you, I do want to point out your statement:

but to my mind the more important topic to everyone is the state of our dog's health.

If this is how you phrased it, you have basically informed him of your decision that your topic is more important than his. I doubt that that's what you outright meant; but your phrasing does leave it open for that interpretation.

If he's sensitive to being dismissed, he's also going to be prone to favor the interpretation that seemingly dismisses him. I have similar reflexes that I have to actively counter whenever I feel them pop up.

In response, he took the remaining chocolate from my desk and threw it out into the trash, stating "If I can't have it, you can't either."

I mentioned that my father would resort to random punishments when his other tactics failed.
To my regret, I've ended up applying similar "punishments" to my SO when she seemed to dismiss me or otherwise treat my like my father did. And it seems your boyfriend has a similar response.

A simple example of how this can escalate, I'll use an personal example:

  • I'm listening to music, relatively loudly (but was allowed since I had a floor to myself)
  • My father enters the room, informs me that he's working next door and "either turn down the music, or turn it off".
  • As I'm at the end of my playlist, and leaving home in a few minutes anyway, I turn the music off. I'm not upset about it.
  • My father storms back in, red faced, screaming at me for punishing him. How childish I am for turning down the music when he would've wanted some background music while he worked.
  • I reply that he told me to either turn it down or off. He could've asked me to just turn it down.
  • He denies that he ever said that, and threatens me (without specifying) that I shouldn't lie about things he does.
  • I said that I would've happily queued some more music or given him the computer after I left.
  • He interupts me, takes my ice skates (which I needed to go out), breaks them, and grounds me for insubordination.

It didn't happen in this case, but had I then escalated due to him breaking my ice skates (or in any other way refused to yield after being punished), he wouldn've resorted to outright violence.

Looking back on in now, fifteen years down the line, I see that his reaction displays a victimization that he then subjected me to: he felt randomly punished, I did not agree with his version of events (to him, that is dismissing him), and he therefore enacts a random punishment on me.

This seems very similar to your boyfriend's reaction. And, if your boyfriend has indeed suffered through similar abuse, it makes sense why he'd respond this way.
You (inadvertently) end up wearing the mask of his abuser, and therefore he retaliates in a way that befits how the abuser mistreated him. He's responding to the abuser, not you, and his strong emotions make him forget that he's dealing with you, not his abuser.


So now what?

This isn't as clear cut. If you do not accept his behavior, and do not consider past abuse he was victim as a justifiable mitigating circumstance, then you should consider either drawing a strong line (ultimatum), or consider ending the relationship.

If you do want to work through this, the first step is to have him confirm that his behavior is a kneejerk response based on his past.

Important
It is possible that he doesn't (yet) acknowledge past abuse, or sees it differently. Until I was 25, I was somehow unaware of my father's unacceptable behavior. It took a friend to repeatedly explain why certain past events were abusive and not just "me being a difficult teen", before I started realizing it myself.

If it is the case, then the next step is to get him to acknowledge that his response, while feeling justified to his point of view, is not something you've deserved. You are not his abuser, even if you sometimes end up touching on a sensitive topic.

This is not easy to work through. Many people would discard abuse victims as "too broken to date/love" (personal experience). In a way, he may always be sensitive to those issues.

But if my SO hadn't stuck with me through it, I wouldn't have been able to identify my behavioral issues and work at improving them.

This is your choice.


Assuming you work through it with him, this will be a gradual process. He'll be sensitive to being pushed around, and therefore won't accept you pushing him towards a more healthy behavior. It needs to be voluntary.

  • Focus on explaining your perception, without making statements as to what he did or said. Don't dismiss him when he brings up his side. Acknowledge them and explicitly (tell him that you're doing it) pull focus to your experience.
  • Make a clear distinction between him and his behavior. Make it clear that you're addressing the behavior, not him personally. If he feels targeted, he'll get defensive, and you'd be surprised how strong his defenses can be.
  • Acknowledge that his interpretation is a possible explanation of what you said, but point out that it's not the only possible explanation.
  • Ask him to identify what triggers the emotional outburst (I'm pretty sure it's being dismissed; but the point of the question is to get him to find the answer himself. He needs to self-reflect). If he knows what triggers it, he can start intervening on his own behalf.

This subject matter is deep and wide. I suggest reaching out to online communities such as /r/raisedbynarcissists.

  • Narcissistic behavior (and the learned behavior by the victims) is very recognizable. If you read other people's stories, you'll notice that it often mirrors experiences you've had (or that sound completely in character for your case). I see a lot if similarities between the example I wrote and your story, for example. It's the same story but with different words.
  • It may help him to read through some posts there. The community strongly focuses on explaining why certain things that you're raised to think are normal are most definitely not normal. Having some random internet stranger tell me something that should've been obvious was actually massively helpful. Often, you don't realize that the (victimized) lesson you learned as a child is wrong, and you never question it until someone points out the obvious flaw in your thinking. For over a decade, I considered my father's violence to be proof of what a problem child I was; even though I was able to argue the opposite point when supporting someone who went through domestic abuse. After a while, you start tricking yourself into believing the abuser's truth.
  • There are many links in the sidebar to resources that help you identify narcissistic behavior, and how to cope with it .
4

Most newspaper advice columnists would tell you that your boyfriend's repeated behavior pattern is abusive, and many of them would suggest that you stop trying to change him and end the relationship. (If your father acted the same way, you might not have an example of a healthy relationship to compare it to.)

However, there are a few things you may be able to do without going that far.

First of all, you need to make it crystal clear that the way your boyfriend acts when he is angry is not fair to you. "When you get angry and yell at me, I feel unloved and afraid" is one way to start. "It seemed really unfair that you threw out the fancy chocolate I bought as a special treat after you ate most of it and I never got any at all" might also work.

Secondly, you need to watch out for mismatched expectations. Did your boyfriend know that you had bought special chocolate or did he just treat it like any other food in the house? Have the two of you talked about your different communication styles?

If you decide to stay with your boyfriend, you may need to teach him to deal with the consequences of his actions, for example by asking him to purchase replacements for things he destroys out of his own money, not your shared budget.

(Mostly based on my experiences with my own and my friends' relationships, and also from seeing professional advice columnists answer similar letters.)

4

This is an alarming behavior and you are really smart and brave to stand up for yourself and ask for support.

Your boyfriend sounds abusive to me. Distorted sense of reality, using justifications to trespass your boundaries is a dangerous slippery slope. Be extra cautious as it might escalate quickly. You are doing great by posting your story here and hearing about different perspectives. I am sorry that this is happening to you. It is a tricky and confusing situation. And it can be very painful to recognize and acknowledge that this is happening from someone you love and trust.

It would help a lot if you look into some books to learn more about abusive behaviors. From where I see, this behavior might not be an anger issue at all and the underlying psychological problems that your bf has might be much deeper. One book I'd highly recommend “Why does he do that? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men” by Lundy Bancroff.

Also start finding your support system. Sounds like your dad had similar emotional problems. It's possible that you might need help to better identify red flags in your relationship with your bf. It's also possible that you have been emotionally wounded growing up in that family and you need to heal. Find a therapist. Or a friend who is in a healthy relationship. Do not go to partner therapy with a potential abuser. The book will tell you why.

Please protect yourself by setting and asserting boundaries. You can’t change him but you could choose to say no, keep distance from him (like moving out) or exit the relationship. You said his behaviors is not okay, how would you let him know that? If verbal communication doesn’t work, would you take a break from the relationship, or break up with him? Be mentally prepared. Be compassionate about your own needs. Set a limit of how much you are willing to take. And stick with it. Once you back off from the boundary you have set for yourself and communicated with him, your self esteem would take a big hit and he would learn that there are no consequences to do these "not-okay" things to you. Things could get worse from there.

A final note - you can't save him. It's very common for us to want to save the people we love from his own misery. He might be a victim of early abuse himself, but he needs professional help to truly recover.

3

Sit down with your boyfriend and create a general list of guidelines that both of you can refer to when one of you gets upset. Here are some ideas that you can use as a basis.

  • Don't eat any food marked with my name on it because I might be saving it.
  • After 11pm I will be tired and may respond differently because I am tired.
  • I don't appreciate it when you speak over me because I feel like you don't care.
  • Anything else you can think of that you want your significant other to keep in mind and respect.

At any point in the conversation if you feel like one of these guidelines are being disrespected, draw attention to the list and point out what you want him to stop doing and why. The why part is important because it gives reason to your actions and allows the other side to know why you care and think it's a problem.

Me and my girlfriend have communication issues at times, with both parties not really understanding why the other side is getting upset. We made a list of "rules" so that if one of us starts crossing a boundary, we can just refer to the list to better explain why we feel the way we do and how we want the problem fixed.

  • 1
    One more rule to add: Don't throw away or destroy my property without permission. I wouldn't think this needs a "because". Heck, I wouldn't think it necessary, except it is in this case. – David Thornley Nov 9 '18 at 23:05
2

I am going to assume that you said your sick dog is more important than your boyfriend when you were fighting. This part wasn't really clear in the post. I'm also going to assume that you don't want to leave him. By the way, please take your dog to the vet! :)

This is a difficult situation, and it sounds as if there are several underlying factors that have led up to this point. I have seen a similar relationship before, and here is what I'd like to say. Bear with me at first, since you said that you want your boyfriend to focus less on himself, but I'm going to start off by talking about him.

You say your boyfriend is calm most of the time but suddenly lashes out. How often does this happen? And in what sort of situations? The most common reason I have seen for "lashing out" is that the person has been bottling up anger, sadness or stress and they reach points where they can't take it anymore. I recommend encouraging your boyfriend to talk to you about these feelings and trying to help him resolve them. Maybe he has had a bad time at work, or there is something between you that you need to resolve. Listen to him.

If he has trouble controlling his anger, then you could take him to anger management classes or try meditation/mindfulness. You could also take him to a therapist/counsellor. The more often he lashes out, the worse his bottling up of emotions is, and the longer you leave it the worse his "lashing out" will get. Although if you think he'll take offense at 'getting help', then you may need to reword it slightly. There are probably articles on the internet that explain how to take reluctant people to therapy, and I recommend looking at those. A final note: don't take the whole burden on yourself. Get him to a counsellor, and if it's getting too much, leave and stay with your friends or relatives. Arrange this as soon as you can, since there's a high chance of him becoming violent if he acts this way.

NOTE: If he is being violent to you, hitting you and slapping you or verbally abusing you, then DO NOT tolerate this. Tell him that it's not acceptable and try to stay away from him until he's calmer. If he still doesn't try to control his anger, then I strongly suggest that you leave him.

Secondly, also set boundaries with each other. Find out what he does/doesn't find acceptable, and tell him what you don't or do find acceptable. Try to come to a compromise: maybe you could agree that when you buy chocolates, you buy them together and agree to share. You could point out that what you buy is yours and he needs to ask before he takes them from you. You also need to point out that it's not acceptable for him to speak over you. Once you know what's acceptable to each other, the easier it is to avoid these situations and handle them appropriately if you do get into them. I would do this once you and your boyfriend has calmed down. I would also explain to your boyfriend that you're not trying to antagonise him by telling him your boundaries, since it seems like he would overreact.

Your immediate situation

Both of you are upset and angry, and you think that he is without reason. But I think in this case, both sides have apologies to make.

  • You didn't listen to his coding troubles. If you're not a programmer, then it might sound boring to you. It's going to be hard to understand all of his rants about his colleagues and their coding troubles as well. But if you had a bad day at work, you would want some consolation, right? That's probably how he feels. Even if it's hard to understand, listen and try to sympathise with him. He will really appreciate it. It looks like this is a long term problem that might have caused him get upset in the first place. Please, please listen to your boyfriend and talk this through.

  • You also said that the dog is more important than him because your dog is unwell. Try to put yourself in his shoes and think about how you would feel if he told you that he cared more about the dog. You need to go and apologise for this, and tell him that you were upset when you said it.

  • However, your boyfriend has his faults as well. He threw your luxury chocolates into the trash, which as you say, is pretty childish. You should point out that even if he is upset with you, this behaviour isn't acceptable. If he was really having issues with you, tell him that he can always talk with you.

Maybe you could approach him like this: "Hey honey/dear/(term of endearment), I'm really sorry for saying that the dog was more important to you and that your coding troubles weren't important. Next time, I promise that I'll listen to you. But I'm also upset that you threw my chocolates in the trash, since I spent a lot of money on them. I would be glad to share with you but please don't take them without asking." Feel free to put your own touch on it or adapt it according to the situation.

If you feel uncomfortable talking to him in person, then you could always text him/message him online. After you've reconciled the chocolates issue, move on to the long term things I suggested above such as setting boundaries with each other and working out why he "lashes out". Hope this helps and good luck!

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