Miss Information

The fights my boyfriend and I have are really vicious. Is this normal?

By Cait Robinson

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Dear Miss Information,

I've been with my boyfriend for about two-and-a-half years. We're both in our late twenties and both of us had other long-term relationships before we met. For the most part, things are cool. We laugh a lot, travel well together, are affectionate, and have a lot of fun times. The problem is that when we fight, it's full-on, and I'm having trouble dealing with it. Part of it is that I've never dated anyone with much of a temper before — things would sometimes get heated, but mostly we talked about our problems before they got to the breaking point. With my boyfriend, we don't fight a lot, but when we do, it gets out of control fast.

The thing that upsets me most is that he gets mean — he'll jeer at me, get sarcastic, insult my family, and call me names. He'll call me stupid, or a bitch, or in our most recent fight, a stupid fucking bitch. I know I can be frustrating — when I get really angry or upset, I'll freeze up or try to leave, rather than being able to clearly express myself. But I always try to stick to a few rules. "No name-calling" is one.

I know his meanness is a symptom of not being able to clearly express himself either, but still. When he acts like this, the fight escalates. I usually cry or yell or try to leave the room, and he stands in my way and tells me I'm being hysterical. (He's much bigger than I am, so if he's in my way, I can't get around, and he knows this.)

I've talked to him before about how much the name-calling upsets me. I've also told him that before my parents divorced, things got violent occasionally, and this is a trigger for me. I've also told him that fighting the way we do wears me down over the long term and makes me doubt us. He seems to bounce back pretty quick, and tells me that it's normal to fight like this, and that I'm overreacting.

Am I? Have my previous experiences in relationships been abnormal? Is this just the way it usually works? Even if it is, I think I need some advice on some communication strategies/battle tactics, so I'm not emotionally drained for a week every time a problem comes up. What's your take on this?

— Inexperienced at The Art Of War

Dear Inexperienced at the Art of War,

A few months ago, a good friend told me a story about getting into a knock-down, drag-out screaming match with an ex on the side of a highway. ("That type of fight is so foreign to me!" I marveled. "And as a child of pop culture, I can only assume that a crazy fight is always followed by really hot sex. Like on Mad Men." He gave me a look I could only translate as, "Oh, you sweet, sweet moron.") Anyway, like your boyfriend, my friend also says he "bounces back" fast after a particularly nasty fight. According to him, it's just a thing that happened during his upbringing and transferred into his adult life: arguments get heated, cheap shots are thrown, then everyone dusts themselves off.

Here's the difference between my friend and your boyfriend, though: my friend recognizes that this is destructive. And he is making big changes in his life to stop it from happening.

In short, Art of War, you are not being hypersensitive. "Fighting dirty" is nothing anyone should have to tolerate in a relationship. Whether your boyfriend realizes it or not, this is abuse. Name-calling, jeering, and insulting family/bystanders undermines you emotionally. Preventing you from leaving is physical intimidation. I can't give you any tactics or strategies to deal with a dirty fighter. All I can say is, get out and stay out.

In the best-case scenario, your boyfriend might be like my friend: an otherwise lovely person who grew up in an environment that taught a destructive approach to conflict resolution. But that's where my tolerance ends. No matter how lovely he is, he needs to change. You're not responsible for this change, nor can you make it happen. Get out. You need to preserve your own emotional well-being. Hopefully, he'll learn to connect the dots.

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