Consult with Krystal
I’ve been with my boyfriend for a couple years. The only real problem we have is that we don’t know how to communicate. When we disagree about something, he’s quick to get defensive and yell. Sometimes, he calls me names. When this happens, I try to calm him down at first but then I snap. I start yelling too. Obviously I know that’s a problem but I don’t know what else to do.
After we fight, he always apologizes for losing his temper and so do I. Usually, I get over our fights quickly and we have a lot of fun together. But we have started discussing marriage and I don’t want to spend our lives like this. My parents fought all the time when I was growing up and I promised myself I’d never do that to my kids. I’ve tried to talk to him about this but he just apologizes over and over again. He’ll be better for a bit but after a couple weeks, he yells at me again. I love him so much and don’t want to break up. How can I get him to change?
-Hopeful and determined girlfriend
Thank you for reaching out for support. It sounds like overall you feel happy in your relationship which must make these intense arguments super confusing. I appreciate your hope and determination to resolve this issue with your boyfriend. It’s very wise of you to be committed to this before getting married.
As a relationship therapist, I’ve noticed people sometimes mistakenly believe that getting married (or having kids) will make their problems improve automatically. However, it never works out this way. The only one true way to resolve issues is through conscious effort.
Of course, it’s understandable that you want to get over your fights quickly when they happen. It makes sense you don’t want to linger on the problems and just focus on having fun together. Unfortunately, when we move on too quickly, it can sometimes brush things under the rug. This never resolves issues and it only makes them fester. This leads to resentment which hurts relationships further.
I’m glad you’ve tried to bring this up already. However, I understand the pattern keeps repeating. While you probably already know this, deep down, you are not responsible for how your boyfriend chooses to react when he’s angry. The only thing you can control is how you react when you are feeling attacked or overwhelmed when you fight.
There is no problem with either of you feeling anger. The problem lies in how he loses his temper and so do you. It sounds like the two of you may struggle with self-soothing in the moment which is understandable. When we get overwhelmed, we literally move into fight-or-flight (or freeze) mode which makes us want to either attack our partner or run away from the fight.
When this happens, we move into the sympathetic nervous system and it makes it very hard to think clearly. In fact, the part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, that helps us make wise decisions turns off so that all our energy goes to fueling our muscles to fight or run.
This mechanism in our bodies works very well if we are being chased by a lion. Not so much when our partner has irritated us. Therefore, the most important thing you must do in these moments is to take a break to do some deep breathing. If you’ve ever tried to do this in the moment, and it didn’t help, please know, true deep breathing is a skill which must be practiced. I cover how to effectively breathe deeply in this video:
At the same time, it is perfectly reasonable to get upset when your boyfriend yells and sometimes calls you names. This type of treatment is emotional abuse. I know that term can be scary but it’s important to honor the truth to effectively solve the problem. When someone is emotionally abusive towards us, they are unsafe emotionally. To have a healthy relationship, and healthy marriage, it’s essential to be completely safe with our partner.
Furthermore, name calling is contemptuous. Basically, contempt is when one partner acts like they are superior to the other person. This is painful to experience and has been proven to be the greatest predictor of divorce (and break-up) in relationships. In happy, healthy relationships there is no incidents of contempt. Although, some happy couples report having loud arguments.
To solve this problem effectively, I encourage you to contemplate your boundaries. It sounds like you have talked to your boyfriend about yelling at you and that while he apologizes, he goes back to yelling and name calling after a couple of weeks. This is a problem of course. Safe people take genuine accountability for their behaviors that hurt the people they care about.
Genuine accountability is more than an apology; it’s taking conscious steps to truly change this pattern. For example, if your boyfriend says he’s “sorry” but isn’t willing to work on coping better with his anger or communicating with clarity and kindness than he’s not truly taking accountability.
Boundary setting includes identifying your limit and simultaneously, setting a consequence if the other person violates this limit. You probably experienced your parents trying this formula out with you when you were growing up i.e., you couldn’t go out with your friends until you did your homework. The boundary was the need to do your homework and the consequence was the positive one of going out with your friends.
Getting clear on your limits is important to do. Ask yourself: What can you live with and what can’t you live with in your relationship long-term? These boundaries are unique and personal to you. One helpful strategy to get clearer on your limits is to identify your non-negotiable needs. To do so, please check out this article to learn more (and get a free worksheet if you’d like).
It sounds like you don’t want yelling or name calling in your relationship based on your childhood. I respect this and completely relate. I grew up with constant fighting and yelling too and I deeply value peace in my home life now. I protect my peaceful home life with healthy boundaries.
Once you’ve identified your basic limits, such as no yelling or name calling, then you must clearly communicate this with your boyfriend alongside the consequences if he does this again. These consequences may be that you will walk away or you will need him to attend therapy (either individual or couples therapy) if he chooses to be abusive again. Finally, to change this dynamic with him, you must be willing to honor your consequences or you send him the subconscious message that he doesn’t have to respect you or your boundaries.
You may be nervous about boundary setting but please know this: The only people you will ever lose by setting a boundary consistently are people who are fundamentally unsafe for you.
If this pattern continues, please know, I’m completely supportive of therapy. Often times, men react to complex emotions including insecurity and shame by exploding in anger. Brene Brown, discovered this in her research featured in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. A therapist can teach your boyfriend how to identify his emotions and communicate clearly while managing anger more effectively.
I understand, there is no perfect person. Your boyfriend may make mistakes throughout this process. However, a safe person is willing to take genuine accountability and change rather than just giving an apology lip service. It will require effort, time, and practice for your boyfriend to change but to feel truly safe and to have the future family life you desire, it’s necessary he takes these steps.
If he is unwilling to truly change and put the effort in, please know that you have done nothing wrong. Some people, regardless of love, just can’t or aren’t able to put in the effort to heal their abusive patterns. If this is the case, as much as it will hurt, I ask you to consider if you want to spend the rest of your life enduring emotional abuse at times and exposing your children to this?
If you decide you don’t want to live this way for the rest of your life (or expose your future children to this), please know that while it will hurt to leave, there are absolutely safe people out there for you to have a peaceful home life with. I’m sending you so much love as you set boundaries with your boyfriend! Truly hoping he takes genuine accountability!
About The Author, Krystal
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. She has focused her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She teaches the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.
This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.
Her course, Confidently Authentic: Stop People Pleasing and Start Being True to Yourself, provides the skills necessary to have a healthy relationship. This course features over a year of relationship skills you would learn in therapy. Students share this course has been “life changing.”
Each week, she answers your relationship questions from a place of expertise and compassion. To submit your relationship questions, please DM us @confidentlyauthentic.com