Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn:

My boyfriend is sweet, kind, and everyone I know adores him. However, it bothers me that he often uses profanity when we are arguing (sometimes directed at me). He always apologizes afterward for doing so, and has admitted he needs to change, but it always slips out during arguments.

I have told him it is rude and something I will not stand for, but it continues to be a problem. Is this something that can change, or is it just wishful thinking?

Curbing a Potty Mouth

(Nick Galifianakis)

So when his profanity is “sometimes directed at” you, is he saying “[Bleep] you” or “You’re such a [bleeping] [bleep]”? Or is it, “I am so [bleeping] sick of having this [bleeping] argument”?

I ask because the latter is just a potty mouth, but the former raises the specter of verbal abuse.

Even without more information, I can say that you actually do “stand for” his profanity, because you’re still with him and he’s still doing it.

That’s fine, of course, as long as that’s what you want and as long as he’s not being abusive — but it does expose the supposed hard line you’re taking as so much hot air.

This is true of anything: When you declare that you “will not stand for” something, then you need to be ready to leave the relationship the next time that behavior happens.

If what you mean is that you’ll give him time to work on this but you will ultimately leave if he doesn’t change, then that’s something else. It’s also something you need to declare to yourself, primarily — not to him. If you say it to him, then it’s an ultimatum.* If you say it to yourself, then it’s a plan. That’s why your first step must be for you to be clear with yourself where the line is between staying and going.

For example, as long as it passes the it’s-not-abuse test, you can decide that his profanity actually isn’t a breakup-worthy issue for you after all, and you can stop saying things like, “I won’t stand for that.”

You can also decide that you’re willing to stay as long as you see some indication that he’s trying to manage his anger better.

You can also decide that you’ve waited long enough for any sign he intends to work on his anger, that you haven’t seen any at all besides empty apologies and that it’s therefore time to break up.

Whether something “can change” or is “wishful thinking” is not universal or absolute. It depends entirely on the effort of the person doing the unwelcome thing — and on you, the one who’s deciding whether to stick around for it.

*What you can say that isn’t an ultimatum is that when he uses profanity, you feel [whatever you feel] — and then you can ask him for whatever it is you’ve decided you need for you to be willing to stay. That is, without the threat: “When you use profanity, I feel [whatever you feel]. It would mean a lot to me if you made a real effort to manage your anger better instead of just apologizing after you lose your temper.”

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