January 2011

What do I do when my partner and I are having a fight and he gets completely furious, emotional and outrageous? I try to talk things through with him rationally, but he just starts crying and sometimes even punching things. I feel like I am walking on eggshells. Why is he like this?

Please help,

Miserable

Dear Miserable,

The first thing you need to do is pick your fights. Ask yourself what is so important that a fight needs to ensue? Could you communicate with your partner in a different way so that you don’t have to experience being on the receiving end of such volatility?

Most fights are about differences – what you or your partner believes to be right and proper. In other words it’s about an opinion, a social construct and often is based on the idea that includes the words ‘must, should and ought to’. Fights are also about needs and the fact that sometimes we get frustrated and explode because we don’t get our needs met in the way we want. We have difficulty communicating what it is we actually want. Some people fight in order to gain control – they lack self-control and believe if they can control others by exploding that they will be in charge. This gives them a temporary false sense of security. Fighting can also be a sign of a lack of trust and respect – and often stems from not having the opportunity to develop these aspects within our family of origin – we lash out because that is what we experienced when we were little from others or we did it in order to protect ourselves from others – so it has become a habit.

Paul T. Mason and Randi Kreger wrote a fascinating book called Stop Walking on Eggshells that unpacks what it means to live with people who suffer from Borderline Personality Disorders (BPD). They describe living on the receiving end of this disorder as being quite a challenge. Nevertheless, from your brief description I cannot diagnose that your partner is suffering from this condition. What I can say is that the book provides some useful tips on how to deal with someone who gets ‘completely furious, emotional, outrageous, starts crying and sometimes punches things’.

Here are some tips. First don’t take your partner’s actions personally and start believing that you don’t have to be treated badly. It is also good to note what it is that triggers this kind of behaviour in your partner. You need to accept the fact that sometimes your partner may act in ways that make no sense to you, that a person will sometimes behave irrationally to alleviate their own stress and strain.

Detach with love. Detachment is neither kind nor unkind. It does not imply judgement or condemnation of a person or a situation from which you are detaching. It is simply a means that allows you to separate yourself from the adverse effects that another person’s behaviour has on your life. It’s about setting yourself personal limits (boundaries) and finding the right balance between rejecting and or smothering your partner with constant attention. You can let your entire emotional life be dictated by your partner’s mood of the moment or you can detach with love. In Al-Anon, a support group for partners of alcoholics, they wisely recommend the three C’s when the alcoholic is being explosive or behaving irrationally. These are:

    I didn’t cause it
    I can’t control it
    I can’t cure it

An important way to defuse anger and criticism is to develop a non-combative communication style. When responding to your partner, first listen carefully. True listening takes concentration and mindfulness. Focus completely on your partner and forget what you want to say. Be careful not to interrupt what the person is saying. Listening gives you an opportunity to learn. Ways to show you are listening include being silent, pausing before speaking, making eye contact, physically turning towards the person, uncrossing your arms and nodding when appropriate.

When they have finished there are a couple of ways you can respond. The first is:

    Remember you can’t read another person’s mind but you are an expert on yourself. You are on safe ground when you describe your own emotions and motivations. So when responding, make ‘I’ statements, not ‘you’ statements. An example of an ‘I’ statement is: ‘I feel like I am being disrespected when you shout at me in front of our friends. If you have a problem with me I would prefer it that the next time this happens, you take me aside and tell me about it in private. How do you feel about that?’ ‘I’ statements need to be said in a quiet but confident voice and physical manner. Don’t stammer or act apologetic for having feelings or opinions.
    Reflective listening is another helpful style of communicating where you give your partner your impression of what they are feeling in order to show you are listening and that you care. Making a neutral observation can sometimes help to calm your partner down. An example of reflective listening is: ‘I can see that you’re very angry right now, instead of shouting at me let’s sit down and you can tell me what it is that you are angry about’.
    Ask questions by turning the problem to the other person. Ask for solutions, for example: ‘What do you think we should do here?’ Or, ‘I’m not able to say yes and you seem to really want me to. How can we solve this problem?’
    Don’t try to defend, deny, counter-attack or withdraw; rather use defusing techniques such as agreeing with part of the statement your partner has said, if it is true, or agreeing that your partner may be right, if it is true, or recognising that your partner has a valid opinion but that their behaviour such as shouting at you is unacceptable.
    Sometimes a sense of humour can help when appropriate but be careful not to sound sarcastic.

Finally, remember that while you may trigger your partner’s behaviour you are not to blame for it. You need to address your own fear, obligation and guilt by setting personal limits (boundaries) on how you want to be treated and you need to communicate this in a non-threatening, non-combative manner that is confident and clear. In the beginning these suggestions may need to be practiced, so take some time out and make a date with a close friend whom you can trust and try out some of the techniques in a neutral space.

Best wishes from
The White Rabbit