The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: Partner proves a calm demeanor isn’t always nice

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I tend to yell when I argue. I’ve promised my partner I’ll tone it down, but I’ve failed to keep that promise 100 percent of the time.

He is calm and measured — I’ve only heard him raise his voice twice in three years; if anything, he pulls out heavy sarcasm to point how absurd something is.

Last week, I waited 48 hours before addressing a situation, hoping it would make me less reactive and more communicative. But when he failed to see a problem with planning a four-day vacation for us in one hotel room — WITH HIS EX — without asking me, I just couldn’t find another way to my point across.

His ex won’t speak to me and we’ve had dozens of conversations about how uncomfortable I am. He tells me it is my job to work it out with his EX. More yelling.

This isn’t the person I want to be. But growing up in a physically abusive family where punches and plates were thrown in addition to words, I learned some very bad habits.

— Yeller

Yeller: So did your partner. Wow. Sarcasm and gaslighting are unhealthy, too, not just yelling.

I hope you make time ASAP to get some counseling. I know it’s not accessible to all, but please try. (Resource link here.)

Think of emotions as layers: Imagine the innermost layer as where the feelings are, and the outermost as the way those feelings are expressed. So, for example, you feel upset (inner) and then yell (outer).

If your partner gets upset (inner) but stays calm (outer), then, okay, it’s good that he’s not yelling, but his inner upset is still equivalent to your inner upset. If the inner layer is messed up, then smoothing out the outer layer doesn’t fix that, it just reduces the noise in the room. Ask anyone who lives amid anger issues — if they’re holding back the yell, is everything suddenly okay? Or is there a seething ball of rage sitting silently at the table while everyone tiptoes around, wondering when it’ll blow?

Meanwhile, your guy’s outer layer is sarcasm, contempt and blame — which gives him zero standing to find your coping methods lacking.

The yelling habit you have is easy to trace to your abusive family (for which I am so sorry — no one deserves that). But it looks like you formed another, inner-layer habit of taking emotional abuse as something normal or familiar. He’s treating you badly — just in a quiet voice vs. a loud one — and you deserve to be upset (if not yell) about that.

There’s a brilliant, non-yelling way to get your point across when someone treats you as badly as your partner does: breaking up. Leaving. Bye. But if you’re not confident enough — yet — in your ability to see that and trust it and go, then counseling can help you with that, too — along with the impulse to yell. Take care.

Re: Yelling: The way you’re communicating about what your partner did — booking one hotel room with his ex, ignoring you and telling you to work it out with ex — is waaaaayyyyyyy second to the fact that he is doing all of those things. Holy crap, none of that is okay. And his big move is to turn it on you by COMPLAINING ABOUT YOUR COMMUNICATION STYLE? Wow.

— Wow

Wow: That would be the gaslighting, yes.