#1295: “Is my boyfriend a jerk or am I just Too Sensitive?”

Hello Captain,

Apologies in advance for the length- I (33F) have been with my boyfriend for just over 4 years, living together for the last 6 months in a house I purchased about one year ago. Our relationship has always been a bit…volatile, at least to my standards. I am someone who prefers harmony in the relationship and if there is a conflict, I prefer to talk it through calmly to find a resolution.

My boyfriend (44M), however, seems to be acclimated to a different kind of conflict management- he gets very defensive and dismissive of my feelings when there is an issue, and our disagreements turn into what I call “rants” on his part, where he gets very cyclical and repetitive in trying to make his point and does not let me get a word in edgewise. Any attempt on my part to jump in and explain my perspective or clarify an assumption he has made is seen by him as me arguing back, which further aggravates him and perpetuates the rant cycle. When he gets upset, even if I don’t say a single word back, he will repeatedly continue to bring up the issue until he talks himself out (usually an hour, give or take). He speaks disdainfully, at times sarcastically, and raises his voice during these rants. My response when being spoken to this way is usually to cry, which ends up further frustrating him, and he says I am like a child crying all the time and I need to grow up, let him blow off steam, or get mad back and tell him to f*** off and call him out on his s*** when he gets that way, instead of crying. I have explained that it is just my body’s natural reaction to the stress of being yelled/ranted at, but he doesn’t seem to care or understand.

Many of our conflicts are a result of something insignificant, and the fight becomes about larger overall relationship issues or he starts criticizing my personality. For example, just this morning, we went to a nearby trail to take our dog on a walk. He parked and then wanted to move the car to a different spot on the trail, but first pointed out another dog he wanted me to notice. I saw the dog, then commented that we should drive to where we were planning to walk. He somehow took that comment as me criticizing him for staring at the other dog, which started a rant that turned into him talking about how he doesn’t care what other people think if he stares, how I need to stop telling him what to do, how he is a grown man and no one needs to tell him anything. He brought my race, gender, and specific personality into it, asking when I would just “chill out” and stating that I am so uptight and too sensitive all the time because I am a particular race and am a woman. I pointed out to him that my original comment was more along the lines of “cool, I saw the dog, now let’s get going to our own walk” and here he was bringing up all these other points. He just continued ranting- I have found it is impossible to reason with him when he is escalated like this. We ended up just going home afterward, with me being upset the rest of the day.

After the rants, most of the time he prefers to not apologize or discuss it, and just wants to pick back up as if nothing happened. It usually takes me a day or two to get back to “normal” since his remarks are often hurtful to me, make me feel bad about myself, and like my point of view is not heard or cared about. I have explained this many times, but he can’t see the impact it has on me and just gets irritated that I am being too “sensitive.”

I suspect he has undiagnosed adult ADHD, which also plays into our relationship (he is quite scattered, needs lots of stimulation/caffeine, drives a bit recklessly changing lanes quickly without pre-planning and while using his cell phone, forgetful, leaves items and clutter all over the house without realizing it, constantly interrupts when I am speaking to point out something unrelated “squirrel!” And tells me I should not get upset but should just let him interject then get back to what I was saying, says and commits to things without following through much of the time, inattentive even after I repeat myself multiple times…). This results in me doing most of the “adulting” (chores, finances, mental and emotional labor, organization) so admittedly I do find myself getting exhausted and complaining or criticizing him for not pulling his own weight, which I think he overreacts to. I feel like this all just keeps perpetuating the cycle of him getting irritated and going on a rant, which happens at least twice a month on average.

Are we just incompatable due to different styles of communication and conflict resolution? Do I need to do more to help him manage his issues and feelings? He certainly seems to think so, he mentions that I just need to not “trigger” him or tell him anything to upset him, and largely blames me being uptight, too sensitive and too critical for his behavior. Others in his family are also very outspoken and have a “short fuse” so it might be part of his personality? I am having a difficult time figuring out if I should continue to work at this relationship. During times that he is not upset, we get along well and manage a fair partnership even factoring in the inattentiveness on his part. It’s a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde phenomenon. I just feel like I need an outsider’s perspective and thoughts, because much of the time I end up feeling like it is all my fault. Thank you for any insight you can give me.

Exhausted and Confused

Dear Exhausted and Confused:

Dump. Him. 

Please, dump him. 

I can’t make you dump him, obviously, but oh my god, DUMP HIM. 

You ask if you should keep working on this relationship, and “do more,” per your boyfriend’s request, “to manage his issues and feelings.” I wonder, what “work” would that even be?  This guy turns walking the dog on a crisp fall day into an entire ordeal, flips the fuck out because you did not fully appreciate his dog-spotting, and then he turns it all into a story where supposedly you are too sensitive and need to get better at letting things go?

I mean…what? 

You mention that he’s like Jekyll and Hyde. Sounds familiar, and I can link you to past posts from the #ThisFuckingGuy hall of fame all day, because you are far from alone in falling in love with a man a little bit older than you, someone with a lot of opinions and thoughts, someone who can probably keep up his end of a conversation about neat books and music and the state of the world, a communicative man who seems refreshing when you think of all the texts you’ve received from men in your peer group that just say “Hey…” 

You are also far from alone in waking up one day and realizing that this man is “interesting”  the same way those M.C. Escher prints people hung on their dorm room walls in the 90s were interesting: They represent closed, impossible systems, and once you see the trick it’s like, oh hey, those stairs don’t actually go anywhere, howabout that.

Your boyfriend was forty years old when you met. He is forty-four now. This is how he is: Mean, condescending, dismissive, sexist, racist, entitled, and a bad driver. Expecting you to handle all of the household finances and chores, tiptoe around his feelings, and apparently sit with an eager, placid smile on your face while he blames you for all of his own negative feelings, to prove that you are just the right amount of sensitive to cater to him in all things.

This is how he is. (Spoiler: Jekyll and Hyde are the same dude.) 

ADHD, if present, certainly makes emotional regulation and keeping up with household chores and bills harder, but look, I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 40, and yet somehow I never handed the people in my life a giant stack of paperwork, cleaning tasks, and weird feelings and said “Here, handle this for me, while I’m mean to you about it.” Can we just marvel for a moment at how big one’s sense of entitlement would have to be in order to behave that way? Being kinda scattered and the other things you mention? Possible ADHD symptoms. A man turning to the nearest lady with “Hey, run my life for me. Wait, no, not like that!” is most likely plain old boring patriarchy and personal selfishness at work. The two can exist simultaneously in the same host.

Let’s talk about what it means to be “too sensitive” when it’s used the way your boyfriend uses it, as a pattern that normalizes cruelty and indifference to cruelty. 

When he rants at you and yells at you, and you don’t like it, and you react by getting visibly upset, and then he yells at you for being too sensitive, what is happening is real-time victim-blaming. He hurts your feelings, then robs you of the right to feel those feelings (such as righteous anger), quickly erases his own problem behavior from the narrative, and, for the grand finale, he turns his actions into something that has you auditing your reactions, like, shit, am I just feeling feelings wrong? I’m sorry! 

This is a pattern that normalizes cruelty and indifference to cruelty. Re-casting all your reactions he doesn’t like as automatic overreactions, and making you fear the possibility of overreacting so much that you stop reacting at all, allows jerks like your boyfriend to reframe almost *any* behavior they do as being normal and reasonable, and any anger you feel as automatically misplaced and wrong. If you accept the idea that it is you who are too sensitive (vs. Hangry McRantybeans, Chill-Dog-Spotter-At-Large), it means accepting a world where being mean to a weeping person and calling them a baby is just a perfectly reasonable, normal, routine things one does every day and would be perfectly fine, if only everyone would just “chill out” about it. 

But what if being mean to a crying person is actually…not…the obvious, reasonable path of least resistance?

Imagine you and I are hanging out in person, masked up, outdoors, obviously, and I’m petting your dog, obviously. We’re chitchatting away, and without meaning to, you say something that hurts my feelings and I start to cry. What would you do next? First instinct.

I’m guessing, most likely, you’d stop doing whatever you were doing and check on me. “Are you okay? Did I say something wrong?” 

And I’d say something like, “You had no way of knowing, but that really hurt my feelings.”

Again, what would you do next? First instinct.

I’m guessing here, but most likely, you would apologize to me for whatever you said. Even if you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, even if what you said was pretty innocuous and wouldn’t hurt your feelings or be a widely-known conversational danger zone, you would see that I am upset, so I imagine you’d say something like “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize.” 

And after that, you might even check on me again, right? We probably wouldn’t pick up our conversation until you were sure I was okay to continue. “Are you sure you’re all right?” 

And, dig this, what if the thing that set me off WAS really weird? When you said “What a beautiful maple tree,” what if  I said “How could you, don’t you know my grandmother was kidnapped and eaten by maple trees?” and burst into tears, you’d probably be like, “Um, I didn’t…? know that…? Actually?????,” and find yourself regretting this entire interaction, but before you backed away slowly you’d probably check your pockets and see if you had any tissues.

You’d do this because 1) even if we stopped sharing a frame of reference, something was clearly freaking me out, and 2) it costs nothing and actually feels pretty good to do your best to be kind and gentle when you can see someone is suffering. Shutting up is free, being nice is easy, and doubling down on insulting people and trying to make them feel worse about themselves takes way more effort than either of those things. 

You and I are complete strangers to each other, and yet, I am pretty confident that you would show me at least this amount of care and thoughtfulness if we found ourselves in one of these scenarios.

So why doesn’t someone who supposedly loves you show that kind of care to you? 

When your boyfriend rants at and insults you, getting upset to the point of crying seems like a pretty reasonable reaction to me. Even if it were unreasonable – WHICH IT IS EMPHATICALLY NOT – but even if it were? After four years together your boyfriend has enough experience to know that it is a predictable reaction: “When I rant like this, it makes my girlfriend cry.” 

He is from a Yelling Family, sounds like, lots of us come from those, it happens, and yet he has a ton of information that demonstrates that you neither enjoy nor wish to adopt his family’s exact way of arguing. His available choices for building a family with you include decisions like, “Hey, even if yelling is my first instinct, I should really strive to be more gentle with her,” or, “Wow, where did my girlfriend learn to handle conflict so calmly? She’s wonderful, and maybe I have something to learn here.”

So why does he think his shitty family habits have the automatic right of way in your house, and that you are the one who must adapt? When he yells at you to “get mad back and tell him to f*** off and call him out on his s*** when he gets that way, instead of crying” he is saying that changing yourself, making yourself as mean as he is, is the “adult” path, but the thought of him changing his behavior to be kind and measured like you never crossed his mind. Chill dude you’ve got there. 

Making your fights all about your supposed sensitivity (as if sensitivity is a bad thing, a framing I do not accept) locates the blame for the way he is treating you in you, and also locates possible solutions to this problem as things that you must work on (somehow). It normalizes a pattern where his upset feelings are all your fault and your upset feelings about his behavior are also all your fault, and it lets him skip right past any accountability for or even acknowledgement of his own actions. If he can get you busy thinking it’s your fault and looking for things you can fix about yourself, you may forget that he’s an asshole long enough to have a nice little lull between the fights he picks with you, and string those lulls into the idea of a relationship that works most of the time.

“Look what you made me do” is classic abuser-logic, but this kind of gaslighting goes even further, by neatly excising the part where the perpetrator did anything at all. It is ricocheting through our politics and our cultural discourse as well as our interpersonal and family relationships, and it moves along existing lines of power and structural oppressions, which is why it is not accidental that your boyfriend brought race and gender into his most recent rant. Women are routinely called too sensitive, uptight, and told to get a sense of humor whenever they do not laugh at men’s unfunny jokes, whenever they do not center, cater to, and pamper the feelings of men, and whenever they do not make automatic excuses for any harm that men do to them. If women mention a man’s bad behavior at all, the immediate prompt is to look for ways to explain and excuse it – Oh, his family is like this, that’s probably why, or he has something diagnosable going on – and look, I have got to grab my megaphone for a sec: 

You can be from a mean family!

You can have a panoply of diagnosable shit going on!

And you can still be expected to generally a) not be an asshole and b) be accountable for the way you treat other people! One very common difference between assholes and not-assholes is that when not-assholes discover the people they love are sensitive to something, they do their best not to make whatever it is harder.

Digging into the root reasons someone is behaving like an asshole only matters if the asshole does something with that information, and by “does something” I mean:

Step 1: Yo! Asshole! Stop doing whatever asshole stuff brought you to this epiphany! “Hey, stop harming me!” “Whoa, not so fast, I need to figure out why I’m harming you so you can feel bad for me about that.” No! Stop doing the thing! You can dig into your complicated psychological scars on you-time!

Step 2: Apologize, account for, and make amends for the specific harm you caused to the person or people you harmed to the best of your ability, while centering the needs of and consent of the person who was harmed (i.e. just ’cause you want to apologize real bad doesn’t mean the person has to stick around and hear you out, sometimes not being an asshole anymore has to be its own reward.)

Step 3: Do your best to not repeat the harm. 

Step 4: Be self-aware and accountable on an ongoing basis. Since we’re talking ADHD for a minute, yes, my fellow Distractables, it’s probable that we will forget to grab milk at the store again in this life, even though the person we live with reminded us to get some. Making a mistake is usually not the end of the world or a sign that we are terrible people, as long as we 1) say “sorry” and 2) facilitate the earliest acquisition of milk. If you screw up and then you’re like “Wait, why are YOU so obsessed with dairy anyway, this is your fault really, or probably SOCIETY!” at the person whose milk you forgot, then sorry, we’re right back to petulant asshole territory. 

It is okay to make mistakes, to struggle, and to need a little understanding at times, but it is impossible to apologize, make amends, and grow from your mistakes if you refuse to name them and if you continually displace responsibility onto the people around you. To be clear, your boyfriend isn’t actually working on any of the the things that make him moody, abrasive, and hard to live with, instead, he’s blaming it all on you leaving the whole problem on your desk like it’s the cable bill. But it’s not your fault he’s like this, and it’s not your project to fix him. You seem very competent, but you can’t self-actualize for someone else, even if you wanted to. The kind of “work” on yourself it would take to slog through a lifetime with this man means both excusing his repeated bad behavior and dulling your own emotions and authentic human reactions to the point that it just doesn’t matter what he says anymore because you probably weren’t listening anyway. 

This is why I say: DUMP HIM. Please dump him, as soon as you can safely do so. Even if he were committed somehow to working on himself to save the relationship, the most likely outcome is that he will do just enough to keep you around and then revert to exactly how he is now. Another completely likely outcome is that he will take SO FUCKING LONG to go about it and also make you participate in and coax him through every moment of his “growth,” down to recapping his therapy sessions to you in full and expecting you to admire and praise him each time he could have called you a baby but heroically didn’t. No! Nyet! Nay! Nein! You’ve already put in four years of this, you are exhausted and blaming yourself for his repetitive, racist, sexist tirades and I beg you, read up on sunk cost fallacy and GO. You are not a one-woman-asshole-rehabilitation sanctuary! You are a super lady with other shit to do, and your own fabulous growth to see too! 

If you’re ready to skip ahead to breaking up, I strongly suggest making some sort of safety plan first, especially since you live together. Here are some resources: 1) Safety planning when you live with the person 2) Safety planning with pets 3) Protecting digital privacy

Hopefully he’ll be reasonable and get gone ASAP after you say “This relationship isn’t working for me anymore and I am breaking up with you.” Hopefully you will never need any of these resources. But you live together, he is volatile and mean to you, he has a lot of access to you and your life, and if he wants to be petty and disruptive on his way out of it, he has lots of ways to do that, and lots of ways to linger and make the project of finding him new housing and getting him out into your problem (the way he does with everything else). I also suggest looking at the tenancy laws near you, so you can be maximally protected if he decides to become a “Well, actually, in our jurisdiction, as my landlord you must give me X months of written notice” pain in your ass. 

Think through how and when you will break the news, do you want friends and family standing by to support you so you’re alone with him as little as possible, do you want the dog to be at a friend’s place for a couple days, what is your proposed timeline for him leaving your place and what are the ground rules until he does, are you willing to give him some money to facilitate the process (you are not responsible for setting up his new life, he survived forty years on the earth before he met you, but sometimes the cheapest way to pay for stuff is with money). Think it through. 

If you’re not there yet, I understand, this is a lot! While you chew on the prospect of breaking up, there are a few things you can try to make your home life less contentious. They aren’t mean, they don’t escalate conflict, and they’ll either work, and he’ll ease up, or you’ll get confirmation pretty quick that this is totally unfixable. 

Recommendation One: Point of order, recommendation One is DUMP! HIM!, so even though this part has only three recommendations, we’re automatically starting with #2. 

Recommendation Two: You said that he rants at you when you argue with him and he rants at you just as much when you’re silent, as he makes up versions of what he thinks you’ll say and then punishes you for those.

I wonder what he’d do if the next time he started in, you left? “Look, you’re obviously emotional right now, and I don’t feel like having this conversation with you while you’re yelling. I’m going to go for a run/a drive/walk the dog/do some errands/take a bath/shut this door and have some quiet time, we can talk when you’ve had a chance to calm down.”  You don’t have to say all that or inform him first, but you can. 

If you think he’d escalate even more, use your judgment, you know him and yourself best! If he won’t let you leave the room, that’s a scary escalation and an indicator that it is in fact GTFO time, and whatever keeps you safe moment to moment is the right move, including fake-complying with him while you make your plan. But maybe this is worth testing. You’ve told him you hate being yelled at, so what happens when you remove yourself from the situation? “Oh, I can’t talk to you when you’re like this, I’m going to step out for a bit.” What if part of being the grownup that he is so sure he is and that you are not is deciding that nobody is allowed to yell at you in your own damn house?

Recommendation Three: Tell somebody who knows you and who you trust exactly how bad things are at home. Do not try to tough it out alone or spackle over the cracks.  I think you’ve been carrying a lot of this alone for far too long. I’m glad you told us, now tell the person you would call if you needed somebody to come get you in the middle of the night, no questions asked.

Recommendation Four: Another thing you can do that doesn’t require any buy-in from him is to reclassify the things he says in your mind while he’s saying them. He tends to call you a baby when he is throwing a tantrum, he tends to insist on his extreme adult maturity when he is making you handle his bullshit in some fashion, he tends to accuse you of oversensitivity and needing to chill out when he’s the one foaming at the mouth because a random poingle went by and you didn’t say “Oh, great honey! Good job noticing! Yeah!” In other words, he’s projecting all over the place. 

So, time to play Opposite Day quietly, inside your mind. He says “You just need to chill out!” = SOMEBODY here needs a nap and a juice box, and it’s not you. He says “You’re just a baby who needs to grow up!” = Hmmm, I wonder how many times you’ve done both his bills/chores/paperwork/administrative tasks and your own this week/this month/this year. What if you counted all of these tasks up while he talked at you?

As a catch-all, re-watch The Big Lebowski together and then mentally channel The Dude whenever your boyfriend says something mean to you: 

(After you dump him you can make this clip the ringtone associated with his number on your phone.)

You will get free of him when you are ready, but the process starts as soon as you reject the absurd idea that this tedious motherfucker gets to be as mean to you as he wants and you are somehow causing it and/or are lacking in some way if you do not enjoy that. This is not your fault, you are super great, and even if you were a literal walking exposed nerve who had to be transported in a special magic bubble because you were so sensitive, I would fight anyone who was mean to my weird little dendrite buddy about that.  

In closing:

No chill,

Captain Awkward

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