My partner and I have been together for about 9 years. We’ve built our lives together, and I can’t imagine what my world would look like without them in it. However, I’ve been really struggling with the way they approach conflict. More often than not, they really dig in. They sometimes say cruel or dismissive things, like that the conflict is proof that I never loved them. This ends up happening at least once a week.
I also want to clarify that these fights won’t necessarily be over something big (for example, last week, we had a fight over the fact that I forgot to put the toothpaste back in the bathroom after using it, which messed up their evening routine). That can make it hard for me to guess when I’m doing something that’ll upset them. This gets even more tricky because we’re both neurodivergent and have strong triggers from past abusive relationships (both romantic and familial), and all of this manifests in ways that cause more friction.
I’ve had many conversations with them about it. I’ve tried to change how I engage with them during those conflicts. I’ve also tried removing myself from the situation when it happens to give us both space. None of it works. Potentially, therapy would help, but neither of us can afford it with our current jobs.
I’m not trying to deflect blame. I know there are ways I don’t react well to conflict myself and that I’ve had my fair share of fuck-ups. But I don’t feel like it should be this hard all the time.
I’d really appreciate any advice.
Oh, friend. No, it is not supposed to be this hard.
Everyone gets up on the wrong side of the bed occasionally. Most people accidentally snap at a partner every once in a while. We’ve all said something we regret during the heat of an argument, once or twice. But weekly, sustained arguments over things like forgetting to put back the tube of toothpaste? Fights you can’t predict in which you find yourself defending basic facts, such as the fact that you love your partner? That’s not okay. It’s not okay regardless of the trauma in your partner’s past. It’s not okay even if you’ve “had your share of fuck-ups.” Everyone fucks up. But your partner is enacting a sustained pattern of harmful behavior. You don’t deserve it, and it needs to stop.
Loving someone who asks you to prove your love, or who takes innocuous actions as proof of some sort of slight against them, is such a destabilizing spot to be in. It’s destabilizing not only because your partner has connected the dots between two points that don’t have anything to do with one other (say, toothpaste and love), but also precisely because you do love your partner, and you want them to know it! When small actions lead to big accusations, it’s really natural to work as hard as you can to avoid causing any of those arguments. But irritants and triggers can’t always be avoided, and they definitely can’t be guessed at. Moving through the space of your relationship as carefully as you are is unsustainable. And I want to be very clear: whatever your partner is going through in the moments where things like toothpaste trigger larger conflicts, you did not cause it. Inadvertently setting off a trigger is not the same as deliberately causing harm.
It’s not surprising that even though you’ve tried to come at these conflicts from various angles (processing, distancing, etc.), it’s not working. I noticed that while you mention a lot of work that you’re doing to try to avoid these patterns, I haven’t heard about any work that your partner is doing, or how they communicate in between arguments. Does this pattern seem to work for them? Are they taking any steps to break it? If there’s hope for your relationship to continue, they’ll need to do some real work. You can support them in it, but you can’t do it for them. You can’t fix it alone.
I’m sorry that couples therapy is out of reach for you at the moment. For now, I’m wondering if you’d like to practice setting a hard boundary with your partner, and maybe work out a couple of scripts for how to disengage. These boundaries would involve refusing to follow your partner down the garden path of cruel or dismissive accusations. For example, with the toothpaste: “I’m sorry I forgot to put the toothpaste back. I know why it’s important to you. I won’t engage in further conversation about it right now. If you continue, I will leave this space.” I know you’ve made attempts to interrupt the pattern before, but I really want to emphasize that you need not even reassure them that you love them. That’s simply off-topic. (If they’re able to have a clear and helpful conversation about the toothpaste, what it’s triggering, and your systems for shared spaces, without making accusations or false connections, that’s great! But if not, that’s something you’ll need to do much later, when they’ve cooled off.)
Another aspect I’m wondering about is what it looks like when you assert your needs. Often when we find ourselves having to do a lot of defense, our own needs fly right out the window. It can be hard to remember even what they were because our partner’s needs are taking up so much space. I hope you can think about your own needs and goals and what a relationship might look like if there was equal space for you. Was there a time in this relationship when that was the dynamic? Do you think there’s any possibility of there being equal space again?
Nine years is such a long time to build a life together, and I really want to honor what you and your partner have had. If there was a time when there was trust between you, when you felt like you and your partner were on the same side, a time before you felt you had to walk on eggshells, maybe that will be possible again! I do think that it will only be possible if your partner is willing to put in real work on identifying and interrupting these patterns within themselves. If you can’t have some really honest conversations about what a sustainable future might look like together, it might be time to start taking some concrete steps towards breaking up.
Wishing you the very best of luck. 💙
You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.