We've got an anger management problem

I'm in an abusive relationship -- but I really think we can change.

Published August 16, 2006 9:45AM (EDT)

Dear Cary:

I have been in a relationship for four years with a man who is wonderful, intelligent and generous. We were close friends before we became romantically involved, and our relationship became intimate around the time that my parent passed away suddenly. Since that time he has been tremendously supportive of me through my grieving process and has been an absolute rock during some of the difficult family situations that have resulted since this death. I love this man dearly and want to spend the rest of my life with him. He has told me he feels the same, but has also expressed doubts about our relationship due to our inability to resolve an ongoing issue with fights that escalate rapidly into incidents of violent rage on his part, and of crying and groveling on my part. And yes, a few times these incidents have turned physical (pushing, shoving, grabbing), but to his credit he has not put his hands on me in over a year, after vowing that he would never do it again. However, the fights are still incredibly ugly and often involve name-calling, public humiliation, smashing objects, threats to leave, actual packing up and leaving, and me being the recipient of the silent treatment for days following.

Despite our best efforts to communicate, compromise and avoid conflict it seems that this is something we can not overcome together. Fairly routine fights and arguments quickly turn to blowups at least once every two to three months, sometimes more frequently. If I am honest with myself, I do feel that I am in a relationship that is emotionally abusive, as it seems no matter what I do the end result is always the same.

From his point of view, I know that he sees me as controlling and feels that I wrongfully accuse him of being a "monster" when he is merely emotional, not angry. I know in my heart there is no way I could consider having children with this man and risk their being exposed to that kind of anger and violence. We have both had issues with different forms of abuse in our childhoods, so I also take responsibility for enabling this behavior and I do understand why this type of dynamic exists between us. I just don't know how to fix it.

In the past he has made promises to seek counseling or to take an anger management course, but so far has not delivered other than attending a session with me and my therapist.

To put it simply, when things are good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad, they are horrid. I can't imagine my life without him, but I also can't imagine a life with this kind of violence and rage as a part of it. I am 34 and I want to have a child in the next few years and am wondering if there is a possibility for change, or if it is time for me to move on.

A Scared and Sad Woman

Dear Scared and Sad,

I think it is a shame when relationships between people who genuinely love each other fall apart because they cannot take a disciplined, organized approach to solving a behavioral problem between them. This is especially true when the problem is readily solvable. I know it is hard. Of course it is hard. That is why relationships between people who genuinely love each other fall apart: It is hard to fix these things. But this problem is solvable.

I definitely believe it can be fixed. It does not sound as if it is aggravated by drug addiction or criminal habits or a history of repeated violence or ongoing involvement in the criminal justice system. It does not sound like there is brain damage or psychosis, although part of your program ought to be to rule out such things.

It sounds like it's a behavioral problem between you two that can be solved if you both are willing to do the work. You will need to work closely with an expert in this area. You will need to do some things that don't feel comfortable. You may in the process remember some painful things from childhood. But you and he can retrain yourselves, assuming that he is willing and has no other deeper problems.

Doctor, don't you agree? (That's my imaginary doctor whom I talk to.) Yes, the imaginary doctor agrees. I think if you do some research into methods for learning new ways of coping with extreme anger and frustration in a relationship that you will agree it is possible for change. And then you just have to find the right person to work with and commit to changing.

The key is: Can you and he actually do the work? That is, will you actually do it? What do you think? Do you think you will? If you don't do the work, if you don't think you will do the work, then you must leave now. It's too dangerous to stay in such a relationship. I would never advise anyone to stay in a relationship like the one you describe unless both partners will commit to a rigorous program of behavioral change. It won't get fixed on its own. You have to do the work.

You're at a crucial point here, too. If you do nothing, it will get worse. If you are not going to begin work on this now, my advice, for your own safety, is to leave now. It's one or the other. Commit to a serious program together, or get out before you get hurt.

The pitfall with these things is that when there's no scary blowup for a month you start to feel OK. You drift. You don't get around to finding an expert to work intensively with. It's easier to deal with daily life and just hope things will get better. And then it happens again. And it's worse than ever. This time you get hurt. There's a hospital visit involved. And it keeps getting worse. So you need some kind of formal, organized commitment in order to accomplish the necessary change.

I suggest that you and he sign an agreement saying that for the next year you and he together will do whatever it takes to learn new behaviors. Perhaps in the context of working with an expert, you could execute some such agreement.

Do it. Make solving this anger problem your highest priority. If you don't solve this problem, you're not going to be able to have kids with this man. You're going to have to leave him. And that would be a shame.

Don't even think about having kids until you get this solved. It will hurt those kids. I know you're not -- you said so yourself. I know you don't want to do that. I'm just saying -- don't even think about it. In spite of everything you know, in a weak moment it might be tempting. For instance: What if you were to find yourself pregnant?

There is no time to waste. You must plunge into action. With a rigorous, committed, systematic approach, you and he can rid your lives of this destructive pattern. You just have to do the work.

And, like I said, unless both you and he are willing to go to any lengths to solve this, you'd better just get out of the relationship today.

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