Today’s post is about those moments when you don’t act like the person you want to be. It’s about snapping at the people you love and growing bitter, cynical, and fearful when you’d rather be… anything else. It’s about turning into monstrous Mr. Hyde when you’d much rather be the kindly Dr. Jekyll. In short, I’m going to talk to you about why we lash out at those closest to us — and how to fix things when we do.
The truth is that I have to write about this topic because it’s what I’ve been doing recently. In the past month, I’ve argued fiercely and unkindly with two of my partners. I nearly broke up with one of them. This is unusual for me, because I’ve spent the last few years learning how to turn disagreements into opportunities for kindness and growth. In my world, argumentation almost never involves insults, ultimatums, passive aggression, or raised voices. So when I see myself (or my partners) starting to do those things, it’s big red flag.Okay, sure. We all know that it’s never good to lash out at our partners. So why do we do it? From what I’ve experienced, there are usually three underlying things that can make me act like a monster:
- I’m feeling insecure about my personality/looks/intelligence.
- I don’t feel in control of my life.
- I’m feeling physically or emotionally unsafe.
Notice something here? I never lash out at my partners just because of what they’ve done or said; I always do it because of how I’m feeling about myself. This isn’t to say that my partners aren’t responsible for their words or actions. I’m a survivor of relationship abuse and I’ve definitely had my fair share of toxic relationships. But the fact remains that I only resort to ad hominem tactics when my partner pokes at issues that are already making me feel bad about myself or my situation.
For example: A few months ago, I got into an argument with one of my partners because he hadn’t told another of his partners about me. We spent dinner arguing in circles, with me eventually insisting that his choices were tantamount to moral decrepitude. Even though I really believed in a lot of what I was saying, I was framing it in a way that was super hurtful to him.
What was missing from that equation? My own context. Outside of my relationship with this partner, I was running into professional, romantic, and fiscal difficulties that had beaten my once-healthy self esteem into submission. My apartment was messier and less homey than I wanted it to be. My nesting partner was having second thoughts about polyamory. My bank account was dwindling even though I felt as though I was working all the time. I wanted desperately to feel as though I was valuable enough to change my partner’s course of action, so I pushed the issue too far.It’s not always clear to me when this is happening, though. It is, after all, hard to trace the emotional origins of a potshot. Usually, I don’t realize that the conversation has devolved into argumentation until after I see a look of anger or sadness in my partner’s face. At that point it’s safe to assume that what I’m saying is more likely to burn bridges than build them.
Here’s the thing to know, though: everyone does this. You’re not a horrible person if you take the occasional jab at your partner. What makes you a good partner, though, is your ability to realize what’s happening, acknowledge it, and mend. Think about it like a wound. Most wounds heal without leaving any scars. It’s the ones that are left to fester which cause gangrene.
So let’s break this down:
1. How to realize that you’re turning into a monster, and why:
Ask yourself these questions (all of them!):
- Am I saying things to help my partner understand my perspective and my needs, or am I saying things because I want to get a specific reaction?
- Is what I’m saying consistent with how I’d feel outside of this conversation?
- What, outside of this conversation, has been weighing on my mind recently? How is it coming out in this conversation?
2. How to acknowledge it to the person you’re monstering at:
It’s super important here that you don’t back away from your own emotional and physical needs. A lot of people, once they recognize that they’re getting emotionally worked up, will abandon the conversation entirely by saying something like, “I’m sorry, I’m just being crazy. It’s not a big deal.” You don’t need to lose sight of the point of the conversation, which was ostensibly to make you feel better in the relationship, not worse.
Instead, try a three-part script like this:
- Restate what you’ve done: “I realize that saying ________ was hurtful, and I shouldn’t have done that.”
- Give a genuine apology: “I’m really sorry. I want us to take care of each other, not take cheap shots like that. I’ll try to do better in the future.”
- Provide context: “I’m feeling [emotion] because of [context], and that’s making it hard to be kind about this.”
3. How to mend:
First, figure out what you would need — physically and emotionally — in order get back to a place where you can feel and act kindly towards your partner, and then ask for that. Here are some suggestions:
- “Can you hold my hand while we talk to remind me that I care about you?”
- “Can we speak in quieter, slower voices so that it doesn’t feel like an argument to me?”
- “Can we watch an episode of funny TV and then return to the conversation so that I’m in a lighter mood while we talk?”
- “Can you give me a compliment about my smarts/looks/potential/etc. so that I know it’s not in question while we’re talking?”
And then ask if there’s anything you can do to help your conversational partner feel less defensive. Even if you’re already a super caring conversational partner, it’s important that this one goes both ways. That way, you’ve both vocally affirmed your commitment to each other’s comfort and safety, which sets a strong basis for mutual support going forward.If you’re having trouble following this process, don’t worry. It takes a long time to figure out how to do these things effectively. A wise human once told me that relationships mean solving problems that you wouldn’t have if you were single, and he was right. But that’s also the joy in it. The fact that you and your partners are willing to dedicate your time and energy to this sort of thing indicates that you truly care about yourselves and each other, even when you’re monsters. And that’s pretty swell.