Sane yet crazy

We are in love, but when we fight, things get out of hand and last week he walked out on me. Is this normal or should I despair?

Published January 23, 2003 8:53PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm a 36-year-old woman who's been dating a 37-year-old man for about five months. Neither of us has kids or has been married or really even come close. Meeting him was like a quiet revelation. There were no fireworks or bells or knee-weakening heart palpitations -- instead this quiet recognition of this shining, beautiful softness between us and awe at how beautiful, strong and calm I felt in his presence, how he felt to me.

We've been together every day since, either by calling, e-mailing or going to see each other (he lives an hour away). We waited almost two months before making love so that we got a chance to really know one another before bringing sex into the mix. I've met his family several times, and his mother has said that his family loves me because of how good I am for her son. He and I have talked of marriage, buying home and land together. We have several work projects in the beginning stages or being seriously discussed.

The love between us is palpable. We get to see each other once or twice a week and we cook for each other, rub backs, brush hair, talk about things deeply and compassionately. My friends think that he is the perfect match for me, and I have felt that way, too, as has he. I am absolutely positive that he loves me. I can see it in his eyes, feel it from him, and I love him.

We've had a couple of bumps but have talked them out, until several weeks ago, when the talks escalated into what has now turned into emotional free-for-alls and out-of-control bad behavior. The fights start from small things -- I didn't feel well (I've been sick for a couple of weeks), he said he wanted to make love, I didn't, he really wanted to and said, "We should make love," and from that I felt pushed and told him so, even as I'd been open to making love the previous two nights but he'd been too tired. Within an hour we were going round and round in circles where nothing gets solved but emotions heat up higher and higher. We take timeouts to calm down, come back, things fly off again.

My issues with him: He can't take any sort of criticism and responds to it by turning it around -- well, you don't, etc.-- instead of discussing what I've brought up. After our arguments he refuses to apologize because he doesn't feel that he's done anything to apologize for. His life is very intense time-wise right now, so I do most of the "doing" for us (food shopping, cooking, driving to be with him, etc.) and he doesn't show much appreciation but treats it as if it's a given. I've brought this up in the moment many times and he'll thank me, but then it feels as if I've forced it. When we fight he becomes cold and unloving -- no compassion for me or what I'm feeling or how I see things.

This past Sunday found things at detonation level, with me crying, him threatening to leave, me asking him to please stay so that we could work things out, and him being enraged by this and stomping angrily out and leaving, even though we've had long talks about how separating before we've at least called a truce drives a wedge between us and causes me to panic terribly. His issues with me: I criticize him and he feels attacked; what I'm feeling and how I see things don't make sense to him and seem to come out of some sort of false emotionality; he doesn't feel he really needs to thank me because he is allowing me to do the things I do, and they are my choice to do or not; leaving is a perfectly acceptable way to deal with a situation that can't be solved in the moment.

We are both in counseling and have made tremendous progress emotionally the past few years. My mentor tells me to keep my emotion contained, to not take his emotion personally, but it's as if I slide into an emotional pit from my past and once there can't get out. And in that moment his emotion feeds right into it -- he treats me with anger and contempt. And mine feeds his -- I blame him for my feelings of despair and hopelessness. His mentor tells him similar things.

I feel at a breaking point with things. I've asked for time to sort things out and don't want to see him or talk to him, though I have sent a couple of short e-mails to keep the channels open between us, hoping that some sort of soft energy can open up between us. Nothing so far. He still hasn't apologized for walking out on me on Sunday. I don't know what to do. Our fights have been solved in the past few weeks by my coming to a place inside myself where I apologize to him for my own bad behavior and find a way to connect to the love for him that is inside of me. He opens back up, too, and we stay in a loving space until the next fight happens. He says that this is a normal part of relationships. I say that our behavior is intolerable and has to stop.

I'm really hoping you see something real and true for us to bring into the chaos and love we're swirling in ...

Trusting Love?

Dear Trusting Love,

You need to have some patience with this thing. Five months is not a long time. You've had some insights in therapy, and you seem to know what's happening between you two, and it's obvious that you have something good together. But you're just going to have to spend some more time working through this stuff.

I suggest that in the meantime you make some kind of limited commitment to each other. What if you two agreed to commit to each other for one year? That way, you wouldn't need to fear that the whole thing is falling apart each time you have a fight.

Then, once some of the pressure is off, you can concentrate on building your relationship fight infrastructure. You say you mostly drive an hour away to his house. Is that the house that he stomps out of when he's angry? That's odd. Why would he stomp out of his own house? Maybe he stomps out of your house. If so, does he know your neighborhood? Anyway, if you're fighting at his house, you need to put some of your stuff there to mark some territory you can control during a fight situation. It could be a big flowered hat that you hang in his bathroom, or a portrait of your mother in his dining room, or a folding shoji screen in his bedroom on which you drape your silk peignoir. Do you have a noisy dog you can bring with you? The dog will bark at him when he gets mad. That will be fun, too, and give you an advantage. Or you could build a fort in his living room out of the couch cushions, and you can crawl in there with a flashlight and refuse to let him in.

It might be when you crawl into your couch-cushion fort on his living room floor that he stomps out. The stomp-out is a classic boyfriend fight move, and I think you're being hasty in ruling it out. If the man executes it at the right time, say, just when you are about to unveil your formula for how many groceries he should buy to compensate you for the aggregate miles you have driven to his house, and if he brings to it the right combination of dizzy high dudgeon and flustered romantic-comedy timing, like Hugh Grant at the top of his game, it can have an astounding dramatic beauty all its own. There's nothing more charming than seeing your boyfriend slam the door and charge indignantly down the street only to be startled out of his wits by the local man-eating terrier. And it would be a shame to miss the sight of him at the end of the street, held at bay against a smelly dumpster by the barking terrier.

What you need is a countermove of commensurate drama. One classic is to lock up the house and drive away furiously, throwing up sod as you peel out, taking out a mailbox and crushing a fading garden gnome. That will give him something to think about, next time you drive up. And repairing his lawn will make a nice weekend project for him to work out his frustrations with.

What I'm trying to get at is that the kind of arguments you describe, however terrifying they may feel, are not evidence of some deep pathology. They're just crazy love shit. As has been known for many hundreds of years, love makes you crazy. And you need to learn to laugh at the craziness.

One other suggestion: You sound like you're trying to be too good. As a remedy, I suggest that you and he each tell each other the worst thing you have ever done, your most embarrassing, indefensible and possibly criminal act. That might help you let down some of your defenses.

On the other hand, it might land you in jail. It's called taking a chance on love.

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Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.

By Cary Tennis

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