Mad about him

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 21, 2003

Our love makes me feel part of something bigger, but his anger scares me.


Dear Cary,

I’m in love. Hooray! This is a good thing. It’s beautiful. There is mutual honesty, caring and affection. This man encourages me to think and to explore, and he makes me feel beautiful and loved. Our love makes me feel a part of something bigger, some biological necessity. He’s the first person with whom I’ve ever considered starting a family.

I know all the joys that come with love, and I know that love involves risk and vulnerability. But, we’re fighting. I’m not a good fighter. I am learning to be a good discusser of feelings, but a fighter I am not. My beloved is a fighter.

Rarely (maybe three times in the last year) he gets really angry and blows off steam through a kind of violent stream-of-consciousness spoken fantasy. I’m not frightened or threatened personally; I know he uses those words to let go of anger, and he would never act on his violent thoughts. But I never know how to react to these outbursts. The first time it happened, I tried to talk him down immediately. But after we both calmed down, we discussed it and he said that he doesn’t want to be talked down, he wants to feel that anger in the moment and then let it go. This sounded fine to me. (Does it help to know that he is an artist? The only time I’ve ever seen him like this is when his art is attacked — not just a critical review, but really scathing remarks.)

Recently he had a temper tantrum at my house. His violent stream of vocabulary was really unnerving and disturbing to me. So I told him that if he needed to talk that way therapeutically, that he had to go talk to someone else, because I just couldn’t handle seeing him that way. So, of course, he left.

When we discussed it later I found that he wants me to fight for him, with him, next to him, to be on his side — to be angry at whomever has wronged him. He thinks that it’s him and me against the world, and he doesn’t feel like I “have his back” or support him emotionally.

I want to support him, but I don’t want to be “against” anyone. I just don’t deal with things the way he does. I’d rather sit down and discuss something with someone than tell that person to shove off.

My roommate heard his recent outburst and doesn’t really feel comfortable with him around the house. I think she’s overreacting, but if that’s the way she feels, there isn’t really anything I can do. My boyfriend sees my acceptance of her feelings as a betrayal to him. He thinks I should have told her off and stood up for him. He’s really disappointed.

Is this simply one of those fundamental differences that can’t be overcome? I feel like I would be compromising myself to fake an empathetic anger if I don’t feel it. But on the other hand, I don’t want to leave him stranded, feeling embarrassed and ashamed of his anger. I know that relationships involve introspection and that lovers can teach you things about yourself and help you grow. And I see his point about me needing to “butch up” in certain circumstances. I’m at an impasse. I don’t want this to be a deal breaker, but I’m not going to become an angry person. I don’t want to be one.

Trying to Stand by My Man

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Dear Trying,

What makes the dramatic display of anger frightening to onlookers is the worrisome sense that bones are going to get broken if it keeps up much longer. If you don’t know the guy who’s stringing together a sputtering symphony of profane threats, making withering allusions to sexual dysfunction and raising questions about the phylum and genus of one’s parentage in an often alliterative and sometimes surprisingly musical — if hardcore — way, you might be justified in assuming that the next step is going to be the breaking of facial bones or some kind of epileptic seizure. Especially if you’re in the next room, it’s hard to tell if and when the police are going to be pulling out their tiny notebooks and talking in that strangely repressed monotone that the most violent of public authorities seem to think lends gravitas to their mien. The whole thing is to be avoided if at all possible — as no doubt you’ll agree.

But since you’ve latched onto a man who isn’t stuffing and holding onto his anger like a good citizen but instead sees life as some primal battle that must be fought, us against them, as loudly as possible, you don’t have the option of avoidance.

Feeling as I do somewhat hemmed in by our undemonstrative public culture, I do sympathize with this guy. But, heck, it’s your job to be hemmed in, buddy. Because, look, the rest of us are hemmed in. So what makes you think you can pop off while the rest of us are meekly submitting to the rules of polite society? Because you’re an artist? Ah, go fuck yourself!

That’ll get me in trouble, won’t it? But you see, that’s how I feel, and it’s healthy to just let it out, isn’t it?
Well, no, it isn’t healthy really, because already I’m filled with remorse for my little outburst, as perhaps your boyfriend is, in a mild way, when he realizes that his outbursts aren’t going over in the heroic way he would like.

I think the most important question is: Can he control when and where he has these outbursts? There seems to be an element of conscious choice in your boyfriend’s outbursts. Perhaps he knows where the line is; perhaps he can bring himself to the brink of losing control and then back off, and feels cleansed and powerful afterward. Perhaps, like an actor, he conjures up frightening emotions and directs them for artistic effect. But there is also an element of loss of conscious control, perhaps allied to a longing for primitive power.

The fact that he frightened your roommate suggests that he either is not in control of these outbursts, or that he does not use good judgment. If he can control this, perhaps he ought to find some theatrical environment where he can take it as far as he wants to, without frightening your roommate. If he cannot control it, then he and you have a problem. An outburst could get him in trouble if it happens at the wrong time. He could get shot. Besides, nice people will get the wrong idea.

I’m really curious: Where did your boyfriend learn to talk that way? Did he pick up this stream-of-consciousness angry-man act from his father? Is there a library of tantrums in the closet of his mind, passed on from father to son like a box of porno tapes? Or did he think this all up on his own? Did he grow up rich or poor, on a farm or in the Bronx? Is he Italian or Norwegian? I’d love to know where he comes from, where he learned this.

But the bottom line is: 1) He doesn’t get to dictate how you choose to express yourself; you’re both free to express yourselves in the manner that seems true to you. If he thinks that because you don’t yell, you’re not on his side, then maybe he can’t hear well. 2) He needs to know that under certain situations his yelling and screaming is way out of line and is going to have consequences. 3) You need to look into whether he’s got a history of violence; the yelling and screaming may just be an outlet, but there may be a history of violence, or abuse, behind it. If so, that’s a serious matter. He could be dangerous. If you feel really frightened, there may be a reason.