- Struggling people are oblivious to the negative impact of their hurtful behaviors on their partners.
- It is important for you to explore and take inventory for why you accept hurtful behavior from your partner.
- If your partner does not agree to work on changing their problematic behaviors, it may be best to leave the relationship.
"He is always moody and snaps at me, then later he wants to have sex! I'm so done with this!"
The above words were from Brenda* as she sat down next to Kevin* in their recent counseling session. I knew the remainder of the next 50 minutes would be quite challenging.
In response to Brenda's opening comment, I said, "Kevin, how do you see things right now?"
Kevin appeared annoyed. He said, "She just doesn't get it!"
Brenda jumped in, "Are you kidding me? Get what, Kevin?"
Then, Kevin, looking down and faintly said, "There's nothing I can say that seems to be what you want to hear."
Brenda, now shaking her head, looked up at the ceiling, seemingly desperate for answers, or at least hoping for a modicum of emotional relief.
A Long, Telling Silence
Next, there was an agonizing silence, laden with frustrated sighs from Kevin.
I said, "Kevin, you and Brenda have a lot going on. Two teen girls from your first marriage, and now a one-year-old between you and Brenda. You both have demanding careers and Kevin, your side hustle that you started five years ago has you working almost as much as you are breathing. Brenda, I also realize that it has been really difficult going for you with the demands of family life, your job, and your mom having stage-four cancer."
"Thanks for saying that, Dr. Jeff. But at least I talk about what is going on," Brenda said. "He just gets super tense, shuts down, and treats me like crapola!" she added with frustration, giving way to sadness.
Kevin replied, "I have payroll coming up for the business next week and still have a lot out in receivables. And, if I say anything about how terrified I am, you'll just think I'm whining."
Anxiety And Vulnerability Often Underlie Negative Behaviors
Suffice it to say, Brenda was shocked to hear that Kevin was terrified in response to the financial pressures he was facing. Feeling unsafe to share how vulnerable he felt, Kevin, like many stressed-out, afraid-to-open up intimate partners, got himself on the "bottle it up and explode (or implode) later plan." This usually does not turn out well.
The positive outcome of the Brenda and Kevin story is that once Brenda knew and understood more clearly how Kevin's anger was driven by his anxiety, Brenda and Kevin were able to discuss the underlying financial stresses.
Brenda and Kevin got help and their relationship got better. Yet, sadly, sometimes people put up with relationship misery because it becomes their new normal. They even may lose sight that things could be better.
Why Do Some People Put Up With Hurtful Partners?
Tolerating a hurtful partner can be challenging and can have negative impacts on one's emotional and physical well-being. However, people may choose to tolerate a hurtful partner for various reasons, including:
Unhealthy Love: Some people may still love their hurtful partners despite their anger issues and may believe that their relationship is worth fighting for.
Fear: Others may fear the consequences of leaving their angry partner, such as violence, retaliation, or financial instability.
Low self-esteem: Sadly, in other cases, people may believe that they do not deserve better than an angry partner or that they are responsible for their partner's anger.
Hope (perhaps false hope): Some individuals may hope that their partner will change their behavior and become less angry over time.
Unhealthy levels of guilt: Some may feel guilty about leaving their partner or may believe that they have a responsibility to help their partner with their anger issues.
Remember that tolerating an angry partner is not healthy. If you or someone you know is in this situation, seeking help from a therapist or counselor can be beneficial. It's also important to recognize that changing someone's behavior is not your responsibility. As exemplified by the example of Brenda and Kevin, it's up to the individual to take responsibility for their actions and agree to seek help.
No one signs up to be treated like dirt by their intimate partner. Be sure to know your value. Sometimes, that may include deciding to move on.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Askari, I. The Role of the Belief System for Anger Management of Couples with Anger and Aggression: A Cognitive-Behavioral Perspective. J Rat-Emo Cognitive-Behav Ther 37, 223–240 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10942-018-0307-5
Beames, J. R., O’Dean, S. M., Grisham, J. R., Moulds, M. L., & Denson, T. F. (2019). Anger regulation in interpersonal contexts: Anger experience, aggressive behavior, and cardiovascular reactivity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(5), 1441–1458. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407518819295
Bernstein, J. (2020). The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.
Bernstein, J. (2003). Why Can't You Read My Mind?, Perseus Books, New York, N.Y.