You Can Leave Your Partner Who Scares You

Welcome to You Need Help! Where you’ve got a problem and yo, we solve it. Or we at least try.

Q:

I’ve been dating this person for four years who is genuinely the light of my life but has some anger management issues. They would never hurt me, and they have never even gotten angry over anything even relating to me, but sometimes (once every few months) when they’re mad or crazy anxious, they spiral and can’t stop fuming. They’ll raise their voice, and they’ve thrown stuff and gone crazy punching doors and walls. They’ve punched a hole in the wall before. And even though they would never, ever turn that anger towards me, it still terrifies me just witnessing it. They are aware of it, but I don’t think they’ll ever go to therapy about it. They don’t really want to even though they acknowledge it’s a problem. They always feel guilty about it afterwards and even get unbearably sad over the fact that they’ve scared me, but I just feel at a loss of what to do. I don’t think it’s ever going to change, and I think because they would never turn it at me or any other human, they feel like it’s not something they necessarily *need* to change because they are only ever physically hurting themself, and they see themself as expendable and pretty worthless (which is a whole other problem). What do I do? It’s not a deal breaker or anything, but it definitely makes me anxious, sad, and scared when it happens, and I know it isn’t healthy for them.

A:

First of all, I’m so glad you wrote in about this and reached out! I can absolutely believe that it’s making you anxious, sad and scared, and you shouldn’t be alone while you’re figuring this out. Second, while usually I try not to be directive in advice posts, this is an occasion on which I wanna tell you that what you do in this situation is leave this relationship as quickly as is reasonable for you to do so. I know that isn’t what you want to hear, and I understand why, but also I think you know this isn’t sustainable or healthy, and from experience I’m guessing that after four years with this person you’ve already tried everything else and more.

Having anger issues is human and doesn’t on its own make someone an unacceptable partner, but a stated refusal to work on them even though they know it hurts and scares their partner does. I know you’ve said it’s just once every few months, which I know feels like not often or serious enough to leave; I know you said it’s not a dealbreaker. I wonder how often it would have to happen for you to feel like it was serious; I wonder if, before getting into this relationship, you would have said that punching through the wall or breaking things was a dealbreaker, and what position (a behavior you’re hopeful your partner will never reach) you’ve now moved that goalpost to. I hope you’ll stick with me for a minute and let me explain why I think this is what’s necessary.

Your partner isn’t able to cope with their emotions in safe or healthy ways

I know you feel confident your partner won’t hurt you physically — for the sake of this piece, let’s say that’s true, as I definitely hope it is! Even if your partner’s behavior never escalates past what they’re doing right now, there are a few things here that are already well outside the realm of what’s healthy. Your partner doesn’t have any healthy or functional skills to deal with strong negative emotions in a normal adult way as is evidenced by their violent tantrums — and they are violent, as they’re at the very least causing property damage. (Either that, or they’re choosing not to use those skills, which isn’t better.) Your partner also doesn’t have the capability to be accountable or responsible for their actions even when the moment of intense emotion is over, as evidenced by the fact that they “feel guilty about it afterwards and even get unbearably sad over the fact that they’ve scared me” — but they don’t actually show this in an attempt at changed behavior or adjusting their behavior to address your needs and feelings, which is what someone does when they feel genuine remorse.

Your partner doesn’t have the skills they need to handle their own intense feelings, which means they definitely don’t have the skills to support you in dealing with yours, which means you’re effectively on your own in this partnership. Even when they aren’t in crisis and during the months where everything is fine, I suspect this is part of your dynamic, even when they’re sweet and loving. I imagine that feels very lonely, even before your partners’ outbursts. I also suspect that even when they aren’t having a tantrum, your partner can easily feel insecure or sensitive, and you find yourself having to tiptoe around that and around their sense of themself as “expendable and worthless.”

I’m guessing that in addition to feeling anxious, sad and scared, you feel very tired all the time from the energy of making so much space for your partner’s emotional reactions, and then their emotions about those emotions and their emotions about your emotions and you know, there’s a theme here. You shouldn’t have to feel this way, and you don’t have to feel this way forever.

This isn’t a safe environment for you

I also want to point out some of the specific language you’ve used here — how anxious and sad you are, and how your partner knows they scare you. To be blunt, in a safe and healthy relationship or home life, you don’t feel scared. You might feel upset, worried, uncertain, or anxious, but you don’t feel scared. Even though what I hear you saying is that you’re scared for your partner’s wellbeing rather than your own, that doesn’t mean it’s different or normal.

A lot of the behavior you’re describing — throwing things, punching walls and doors, damaging parts of the apartment — falls under a larger umbrella of behavior that isn’t technically violent toward a specific person but is still violent in nature, and harmful for you to be around. It includes other things that may be harder to name or pin down but probably also make you afraid and at a loss for what to do — driving intentionally dangerously or at dangerous speeds, picking fights or provoking strangers in a self-destructive way, breaking things or slamming doors, self-harming substance abuse (especially performatively in front of you, and/or announced as being as a direct result of how upset they are or how much they hate themselves), and more things that make you feel panicky or sick to your stomach in the moment but that you don’t think of as being intentionally harmful or about you in any way. Although you don’t experience this as violence towards you, all these things are classed as “intimidation” behavior — like you say, your partner knows this terrifies you and does it anyway. If they really can’t process their emotions in any other way, they could still, as an example, leave the house first or give you a heads up that they need space and that you should go out and get a coffee or something until they’ve calmed down. They don’t.

I hear you saying “they would never hurt me” — I want you to think about the other relationships in your life and whether you’ve ever had that specific thought about them. I’m betting you haven’t, because it hasn’t been a question you’ve needed to ask yourself. If you’ve had to ask the question, even subconsciously, and come up with an answer for it, you need to go.

The thing is that even if your partner’s outbursts aren’t directed toward you or about you, you’re the audience for them, and it’s obviously impacting you. Even if you don’t think your partner would ever harm you physically, the truth is this behavior is harming you emotionally and psychologically already. Are you having trouble focusing elsewhere in your life because you’re so tired from dealing with them and trying to support/soothe them? Are you finding your anxiety increasing or cropping up in other areas of your life because this is making you jumpy and unsure of yourself? Are you less close with other people in your life because you’re tired of talking about your partner and their emotional problems but also it’s the biggest thing going on in your life and so not talking about it means not talking about much of anything honest at all? Are you lethargic or having trouble sleeping or eating? Do you find yourself spending your free moments worrying and fretting about how to make things better for your partner or convince them to get help? How much time and energy do you feel you have for your own interests, passions, hobbies and friends at this point? When you think about your future with your partner, how do you feel? Is there any excitement there, or does it just make you feel tired and anxious?

Furthermore, there’s no way for this to not impact the way that you’re able to interact with your partner. Even if they’ve never done this in response to you specifically, I can’t imagine that you don’t carefully self-monitor for how you interact with them so as not to set them off or trigger their self-loathing; maybe you worry over whether something in their outside life is going to go wrong and so you spend your whole evening cleaning the apartment or fixing their favorite meal because you’re so focused on trying to soothe them. When your dynamic with someone is shaped wholly around trying to maintain their emotional stability because they aren’t willing or able to do it themselves, it’s legitimately impossible to advocate for your own wants and needs, or after a while to even know what they are anymore. The fear of someone you love harming themselves — which is the implication of your partner’s vocal self-loathing combined with their externally violent tendencies — is, for many people, at least as effective a controlling tactic as threatening to harm the other partner, and I don’t think you’ve had space to reckon with the toll this has taken on you and the effect it’s had on your decision-making.

Your partner isn’t going to change

You know this. You’re very clear on this. Your partner, even, has been clear on this, which preemptively absolves them from accountability. Your partner doesn’t want to change or to get better; I could take guesses at their reasoning for this, but to be honest it doesn’t matter all that much. Self-loathing is very real, but some people choose to work on it and some people don’t, and your partner is choosing not to. It’s been four years; if your relationship was a person, it would be walking and talking, about to enter kindergarten. I’m guessing it’s gotten harder over time, not easier, and I have to tell you that trend is going to continue.

Again, based on experience and instinct I’d guess that you’ve already tried everything you feel like is possible before you’d write to a stranger, and I’m also guessing that you’re a capable and resourceful person. You know, I think, that your own agency and options as far as improving things are very limited. They’re their own person, and the choices they make are their own. As a bottom line, you’re aware that this isn’t sustainable, that you can’t fix it on your own, and that your partner isn’t going to. There isn’t really a way forward here.

I can’t give you a solution for what to do; the person who needs to be taking responsibility for the doing here is your partner, but we both know they aren’t going to, and no matter how much we grieve that, it isn’t going to change. The best and most loving thing I can give you, then, is permission and a blessing to call it. You’ve done what you can, and loved as hard as you can, and those things were very real and always will be but you can’t fix this, and it’s hurting you and you need to leave. There’s a part of you that knows this, which is why, I think, you’ve reached out. I understand how sad this is, and how much you don’t want to hear this. I’m sorry. If I thought there was another way, I would give it to you, but there isn’t.

I cannot overstate how much I hope you leave this relationship as soon as you are reasonably and safely able to do so, even though I’m aware of how difficult that is! Regardless, I hope in addition to writing to us you’re communicative to people who care about you in your life about how you’re feeling about issues with your partner, and that you’re honest and transparent with them — I know how easy it is to stop mentioning it because you feel boring or are worried they’re judging you or you want to protect your partner or honestly you’re just tired of thinking about it, but having those outside perspectives and insights is really crucial.

I’d also really encourage you to read Why Does He Do That, which I’m aware has a very gendered title and jacket copy but is really indispensable for relationships with any gender where anger is a major concern (there are also a lot of free PDF copies floating around just a google away).

Take care, writer, I’m rooting for you.

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1063 articles for us.

49 Comments

  1. Sending you love, LW, good luck <3
    If you can, it might be worth looking for agencies/charities in your area that can support you and help you leave the relationship safely

    In the UK you can call 0808 2000 247 (National Domestic Violence Helpline) or 0800 999 5428 (GALOP, LGBT+ specific helpline) and they can give you advice or look on the Women's Aid website (https://www.womensaid.org.uk/).

    I'm not in the US so don't know best contacts for there, maybe this is useful: For anonymous, confidential help, 24/7, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).

    Good luck x

  2. Great advice, you should definitely leave.

    When I was with my angry ex, I used to say things like, ‘Yelling is just how she’s learned to express herself’, and ‘at least her emotions are always super present’ and ‘I know her anger isn’t about me, I’m just the safe haven where she can let out her frustration with the world’.

    All of that might have been true but it’s also true that it has taken years of hardwork since we split to undo the knot of anxiety in my chest. When I started seeing my current partner they would ask me why I was scared all the time – why I kept asking permission to do things like have coffee with friends or have a night alone. Terror crept into my life so slowly that I hadn’t noticed it become my new normal. And honestly, I didn’t even fully see it till I sat down to throw out all of her old love letters and I realised they all began with ‘I’m sorry’.

    But darling if someone really is sorry, then they are willing to listen to how you feel and work constructively with you to make sure their behaviour doesn’t hurt you anymore. Feeling bad and being sorry are not the same thing!

    Anyway, I can’t say anything Rachel didn’t already say. You deserve gentleness and compassion in your life! You should leave x

    • this comment is really really good! especially how you note you normalized yelling, “Yelling is just how she’s learned to express herself” and later realized it was in fact, not normal! <3 Similar to my experiences but better worded than I'd be able to muster!

  3. Oh man… this is so my situation right now. My partner does all of this, except actually does direct the anger at me (just verbally, though). She does all the other stuff op’s partner does.. She even broke her toe this summer kicking a doorway in a rage during a move (thankfully I didn’t witness that, but I did get to witness the aftermath of her being suicidal when her other partner threatened to leave over it). It’s been a year of awfulness after half a year of amazingness, and I held on for way too long because I felt compassion for all the shit circumstances in her life, also kept telling myself, “she’s just having a bad time, when circumstances get better, things will go back to being good…” Now my entire life revolves around her moods, trying to help, and usually having it thrown back in my face. I don’t care for myself, and I’m always on eggshells around her. This weekend, after she had another meltdown and kind of wrecked my three day weekend I actually tried to break up with her but she broke me down until I finally agreed to give her one more chance. She’s actually been in therapy this whole time, but not like.. actually putting in the work.. but now she claims she’s going to change and things are going to go back to how they were (.. over a year ago..) and she’s written all these elaborate apologies and plans to get better.. Months ago I would have been thrilled, but right now I just feel exhausted. I also feel stupid for allowing this to happen in the first place. It’s like.. I know better… and yet… here I am. I hope OP gets the courage to leave, and me too. 🙁

    • So. Wee Pagan me left an offering to my deity yesterday asking them to give me a sign that it was okay for me to leave, that I didn’t have to wait until the current “good period” went to bad again.

      …I’m calling the appearance of this article and the title that jumped out at me like a flashing neon sign exactly what I asked for.

      I hope you can consider it a sign for you, too.

      • I’m rooting for both of you.

        If today (or this week, or this month) isn’t when you leave, then take a small step – tell a close friend or family member the truth, look into therapy options and sign up (online services can be very affordable and easy), do something that makes you feel stronger, or start an exit plan.

        It took me almost four months from the point I decided to leave. I started a list of 5 things I needed for myself (therapy was one). It was a slow climb, but it made me strong enough to get out.

        • Thank you for this.

          Well, we’re not done but we have had a very serious conversation. I got talked down from “it’s over” to a month-long break. Spouse is spending a few weeks with their mum while we wait for their therapy waitlist to come around.

          The frustrating thing is when we talk about this and when it’s clear I’m Done or Approaching Done, they say all the right things. Like a total awareness of what they’re doing wrong and why it’s hurtful and an explicit and powerful drive to change and do better, sans-excuses.

          I don’t understand why that doesn’t last. Why it doesn’t translate into action. Why a couple months later they’re all excuses and all avoidance.

          They’re so good when they’re not like this. And I know they’re in pain too. Shit sucks.

  4. LW, can I describe something to you? It’s a relationship and how that relationship evolved.

    V’s partner B was a gentle soul. B had a hard past, mental health issues, self esteem issues, and depression. B was so kind and loving and smart and fun and funny, and V cared so much for this person who had these challenges in life.

    Early in the relationship, B talked about getting in fights as a child, about being bullied, but about how as an adult now they loathed violence because of their experiences with it. V couldn’t even imagine what a violent B would look like.

    B had anger issues. Well, who wouldn’t, with the struggles they’d had and still had? B was such a gentle person normally, that when their anger boiled up and led them to shout, get snappy, punch walls and throw things, V could barely recognise them. Mostly, V was moved by the sight of what had to be deep pain.

    Sometimes, it was scary for V. But B always assured V that the anger was not directed at them, but at B themselves or at “the situation”. V swallowed down the fear, feeling guilty about feeling it.

    B was sensitive, though. Fragile. Criticism would send B into a spiral. Any critique, statement that a thing was not done or done poorly, or request for improvements, B took as a personal attack and was deeply wounded by. If V did not capitulate and end their requests in the wake of this pain, B’s anger would surely follow.

    V started getting into the habit of speaking out less about “minor things”, but would inevitably explode into frustrated arguing after several months of holding in the same frustration. The end result would be B’s wounds, B’s anger, and V’s capitulation and comfort for B. And the original complaint would never be addressed.

    V found themselves responsible for increasing amounts of the running of their lives and relationship. It was easier for V to do something themselves than ask B and risk dealing with a spiral.

    B was still lovely, though. As a sensitive soul, B could be so caring and loving, so affirming and appreciative of V and all the things V did for B. So gentle, when they weren’t angry. And most of the time they were happy, though V found daily life tiring.

    The anger issues continued. And sometimes, B would break something they owned. Or would act in ways that made V worry about B being “too hard” on their cats.

    Sometimes, B would seem to be on edge for days, and V would tip-toe around them, trying to avoid an explosion. V would be unable to comfort B or improve B’s mood, and often V’s attempts to help would only seem to make things worse. Sooner or later, B would explode.

    But still. This smart, sensitive, kind, funny, gentle (when not angry) person always seemed to be trying so hard and struggling so much to do better. B wanted to do better (but not through therapy which B was averse to), and B wanted to contribute more (but would resist any conversation where specific improvements were discussed). V was tired a lot, but couldn’t understand why. B was always sympathetic to V’s exhaustion. Nothing changed. They were mostly happy.

    B’s triggers for anger got more common, more minor. B’s fuse got shorter. B’s expectations of what V would do for them grew and grew, while B’s responsibilities shrunk. At the same time, B still needed to be praised and complimented for everything they did do.

    One day V turned around and realised that what had become “normal” in their relationship was anything but. It happened the day that V refused an unreasonable demand from B, refused to back down, and actually stood up for and defended their stance. The result, after an hour of furious silence, was hours of escalating anger and violence. Shouts, slammed doors, stomping around, yelling, smashed and broken items, punched walls, nasty off-the-cuff comments and a rage that seemed to build and build the more B let it out. B went to bed angry. B got angry when V slept on the sofa. B was still angry when they left for work the next morning. B was still angry when they came home. And the whole time V sat shaking, silent, afraid to do or say anything, and in tears the moment B was out of sight.

    B never hit V. Not once. Never threatened to. Never pushed or slapped or laid a hand directly on V.

    What B was doing was still abuse, V later learned. Anger and emotional issues that form patterns where one partner is manipulated and frightened into catering for the other to the exclusion of their own happiness or needs is abusive. A partner who would rather frighten the person they love, repeatedly, over years, rather than try anything at all to change, is a partner who is choosing to make their partner afraid. Violence that is directed at walls and crockery is still violence. A hand raised to hit that smacks a wall is still a threat.

    LW, I’m still in the process of finding my way through and out of exactly this situation. My partner’s anger issues led me to ask them to leave a few weeks ago, though they’re back home now, and are being so gentle and loving and kind and patient that I can barely recognise the person they are when they’re angry. But I’ve seen that before, usually right after an explosion. I picked up a copy of the book recommended above, and I seem to keep highlighting large sections of it as I read. I’m still working out how to extract myself from this.

    And I see a lot of myself in your situation and what you describe.

    Please take care of yourself. If your partner won’t go to therapy, but it is something you can afford, get solo therapy for yourself. Find a therapist familiar with Lundy Bancroft’s work.

    I promise you’ll be okay outside this relationship. Maybe at this point you worry more about how your partner will cope without you, than you do about yourself. Please take my permission to relieve yourself of that burden.

    And maybe I can try taking my own advice, too.

  5. I literally just registered to respond to this column. The advice given here is spot on. I can tell you from personal experience that leaving is your best and possibly only option. My ex partner and I were together for 4 years. I’ve forgotten the number of times I used to wonder why they stayed. I, often, told them that if I were in their shoes I would have left. And then one day…they were gone.

    I had tried anger management but it didn’t help. Five years after our breakup, I had a diagnosis (several comorbid illnesses) that made sense. I wish I had gotten help sooner. So much of your description of your partner reminds me of myself. If they are unwilling or unable to get help then they’ve already decided what’s important to them. You have to decide what’s important for you. Good luck and stay safe.

  6. If the only solace LW has is that their partner has never directed their anger or violence at them, that suggests that once their anger is at you, then so will their violence. That’s not a saving grace, that’s a hypothetical waiting to be proven.

  7. Hi everyone, I am amazed at how strong all of you are. You are all just dazzling.
    As far as the experience that most of you are sharing. I work for an agency Strength United which focuses on providing both Referrals and services for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, and we can connect you to agencies and organizations near you.
    I am one of the LGBTQIA+ advocates here, and you can feel free to call me at my direct number 818 933 9462 or you can call our hotlines which are open 24/7/365 818 886-0453 or 661 253 0258

    Let me know if anyone has any questions.

  8. I’ve been on the receiving end of this in a four year relationship, and I wish this advice was there when I needed it. Getting a therapist helped me see how to name this abuse, how far this abuse had gone, and how to end the relationship. It was truly a lifesaver because at the end I started having suicidal thoughts as my partner’s behavior spun further out of control. Please get help, please leave, please know that a life where you aren’t in fear and aren’t modifying yourself all the time is truly a possibility.

  9. This comment is for anyone thinking to themselves, “well, my person has never been physically violent around me, and they don’t yell, and they don’t say horrible things to me, so I don’t have enough reason to leave even though everything else in the letter and previous comments resonates.”

    I spent multiple years in my first marriage walking on eggshells all the time, and not commenting on minor things, and doing a whole lot of processing (self-blaming) about why my unhappiness X was really selfish, and my unhappiness Y was really just an attempt to get sympathy, and my unhappiness Z was just laziness, and, and, and…He never had to say any of these things to me; hurt looks were enough to get me to say them to myself. (He lived up to his determination that the generations-long cycle of physical abuse in his family would stop with him. I admired this about him – still do – but now I realize that just because he had identified a lot of things he never wanted to do, didn’t mean he knew how to replace those things with positive, constructive strategies. Emotional manipulation is still manipulation, even if the manipulator has “good intentions” or truly doesn’t know a better way.)

    I undermined my every desire, fear and dissatisfaction; I never reached out for support to any family or friends because I was so ashamed of failing at marriage and not being able to will myself out of my unhappiness and back into love with him. I desperately avoided honest conversation with him about how I really felt, for years, because I knew if I said anything honest I would hurt him so badly, and what had he done to deserve that from me? How could I be such an awful person? Surely if I just tried harder I could love him and stop resenting him and wanting out.

    Short version: it was miserable and fucked-up in my head. For years. And some of it was certainly my own lack of experience in relationships, and I did make some choices I regret; I don’t want to present myself as lacking agency. But regardless of how you got there or whose fault it might be or whatever, _it is ok to say ENOUGH_. I did – eventually. I could not provide the tightly reasoned argument he wanted for why it was logically/philosophically/ethically acceptable for me to leave – and that stopped me. For years. If this note is for you, don’t wait as long as I did.

    “We’re done” is enough. You are enough. Put down that baggage and walk away. You’ll be amazed how much easier it is to stand up and breathe. Good luck. (And also, talk to your family/friends, you will be amazed by how much they support you.)

    • Oh god I can’t tell you how much this resonates with me. Yes yes yes to having spent so much time thinking that I was the problem, that my own selfishness was the only thing that needed fixing. And it really did take coming to a crisis point and walking away to start to see things clearly.

      Are you caring for yourself by being in this relationship?

      How could you best love yourself?

      Questions I should have asked myself many many years earlier.

    • I read this article and then read your comment and had to create an account on here so I could tell you how impactful this was for me.

      I’m bi and currently married to a cis man. He became my safety net after a series of really traumatic events, some involving the woman I was in love with before I met him. But I’ve known all along that I’ve been accommodating behavior that’s really not acceptable. And I’ve recently come to realize how many of my own needs are not being met because I’m constantly supporting him.

      Two things you said really resonated: “if I said anything honest I would hurt him so badly” and “it is ok to say enough”.

      I needed so badly to read these words and Rachel’s wonderful advice right now. Thank you.

  10. My abusive ex-girlfriend also had anger issues, but her method was to disappear and play mind games and make it my fault somehow that I couldn’t read her mind well enough. She eventually dumped me though I wish we’d ended things way sooner. I kept trying to be a better girlfriend…but after I learned that she’d continue her patterns with other partners I realised it wasn’t me that was the problem.

    <3333

  11. ‘When your dynamic with someone is shaped wholly around trying to maintain their emotional stability because they aren’t willing or able to do it themselves, it’s legitimately impossible to advocate for your own wants and needs, or after a while to even know what they are anymore’

    This part was v.affecting and spot on.

    Rachel you should genuinely try and get an advice column in a mainstream publication. You’re so bloody good at it and the world beyond us queers needs your wisdom and warmth.

  12. Thank you for this advice Rachel.

    This sounds a lot like a situation I was in with someone a few years ago. She never hurt me, she just got angry and sometimes punched the wall, and then it became sometimes she’d punch the wall beside my head.

    I rationalised it away so many times. She’d had a bad childhood, she was sorry, etc etc. Sometimes she’d just disappear after a fight, like straight up leave in the middle of the night and go to a bar and that was just as damaging. I didn’t realise how much it affected my mental health and relationships with others until well after the fact.

    Eventually I left and it was the best thing I could have done, despite how hard it was at the time. She hadn’t hit me yet, but with the benefit of hindsight I don’t doubt it would have come to that in the future.

    Rachel’s advice really resonated with me. Especially the part about thinking other relationships and whether you have to think about if you’ve ever worried about that.

    It took me a very long time to stop tiptoeing around people. Even quite awhile into my current relationship. She’d get so confused about why I’d ask to spend money, even before our finances were combined, or why I’d ask to see my friends. I’m very lucky to have a partner I can safely work through these things with. I’m still dealing with some of the anxiety 8 years later.

  13. Okay, so my partner of 1.5 years left me six months ago and I’ve basically realised that I was emotionally abusive in our relationship.

    So much of this rings true to me and mere days before reading this I have started to come out of denial and admit that I abused my partner. I was able to talk to a really old friend who helped me see it with some tough love. It feels like a relief to admit what I’ve done even though it was so terrible. I feel awful (and I should because I was awful!). I have serious physical health issues and I am ashamed to say that for 5-6 months my partner cared for me whilst I treated her terribly. She helped organise medical appointments, cooked us dinner, whilst I lay in bed and acted like a shit.

    There is nothing that can redeem what I did. I have control issues and they have contributed to my illness. I am addicted to control and, like all addicts, have left a destructive wake.

    I am trying to move on now and get help. I know the first step is admitting what I’ve done. What scares me is that I have already read the book recommended in the article, not with my partner but whilst uncovering my own experiences as the “victim” in abusive relationships. I’ve also already done psychotherapy but sadly the results of talking about my childhood trauma left me retraumatised and suicidal. I actually think the stress of this retraumatisation is part of what lead me to behave so badly with my partner.

    It is no excuse though. I am 28 years old, old enough to have known better, and terrified of entering another relationship in the future. Seriously, I don’t know how to put this because none of you know me but I would have sworn I was one of the good ones. I actually worked in domestic violence support groups before this happened. I have helped talk friends though abusive relationships. What I have done shocks me and, although at first I was devastated, now I’m so glad my partner left.

    I guess what I’m asking is how the hell do I make sure I never do this again? The last time I did therapy it left me suicidal and an anxious, a controlling mess, and I promise that this directly contributed to how I treated her.

    Maybe I should try again one day with a new therapist? What I do know is I never want to treat another person like this again. (I am based in the UK).

    I’m sorry to comment like this on a post that is directed to someone leaving the relationship, but I can’t be the only person reading this and thinking oh fuck that was ME. Any pointers would be really appreciated. I just want to say again how shocked I am at what I did and how I never, never thought I would do such a thing.

    • I also just want to say, for the record, I NEVER would have hit my partner. I know this about myself and I am being honest here. This doesn’t matter though because we spoke once after we broke up and she said “I just had no idea what you were going to do”, so that shows that she was scared and the point is she didn’t know I never would have hit her.

    • Every type of therapy has different goals. Find a new therapist who deals specifically with control/anger issues. Explain to them what happened last time. Don’t date anyone until you feel confident that you wouldn’t repeat the same behavior. Anecdotally I know that people do break such patterns, it just takes self-awareness and effort.

      It’s no secret that many people who end up abusing others in queer communities have their own experiences of childhood trauma/abuse. I think this is one of the reasons we have a harder time recognizing and knowing what to do about abuse in our relationships. It would be nice to have counselling/resources for people who exhibit these behaviors who aren’t cis straight men, because the materials designed for them seem pretty useless to most GLBTQ folks.

    • I think traditional talk therapy is useless for many people. I highly recommend DBT, it’s about changing your thoughts and behaviors NOW rather than understanding the past. CBT is also like that, but DBT was more helpful for me because it’s designed to be validating and teach people emotional skills they didn’t learn growing up. In my experience you can know exactly why you’re messed up and still act totally messed up. Alternatively, you can learn to change your behavior and not act messed up without having to delve into every detail about how you got messed up in the first place.

      • Pink, thank you for your comment. We all know there are abusers out there who are unrepentant or clueless assholes, and forget it, we don’t need them spewing here. But you and my ex are proof that good people can fuck up – even with the best of intentions, even having made specific and serious, good-faith efforts not to. That doesn’t make you bad people.

        I want to second RM’s recommendation for therapy focused on teaching you the emotional behaviors/skills you need moving forward. You’ve clearly already figured out where your problems are coming from, and since you know focusing on that more may be actively harmful to you, I don’t see any reason you should go there. You’ve got the good intentions and motivation; you’ve got a very clear picture of what you want to avoid doing; now you just need a positive image of what to move towards.

        I don’t think you should be in another relationship until you’ve made some progress with a therapist who can help you get the skills you need – but I do believe you can get there. Don’t give up on yourself, ok? A good person who messed up can learn from her mistakes.

        • Thank you so much for the compassionate comments. Was not expecting that. I’m definitely going to make sure that I feel confident this behaviour will NOT repeat before I enter another relationship. I don’t see myself entering another relationship for a long time because of that but when I do, do folk think I should tell my future partner what happened? I know that this is something abusers do to be manipulative (I’ve literally been in abusive relationships where this has happened) but I basically just don’t know who I am now that I’ve done this (it’s only been two days since I admitted it to myself after all) and I feel like I’d need to come clean with a new partner… this might change with time but I don’t know… Maybe I just need to change myself and not put the responsibility at all on a new partner.

          Thanks very much for mentioning DBT, I will look into it. Im hoping to meet soon with a psychiatrist who specialises in trauma (and therefore hopefully control issues!). Weirdly, I never saw myself as having anger issues but I probably do… I never thought I was angry with my ex, I would tell myself that I was “panicking” or “having a freak out” but she experienced that and my self-harming behaviour as pure rage.

          I just wish I had more faith in therapy and I felt like it was a safe pursuit. I’m actually terrified of the consultation in case they bring up my past and I have a flashback afterwards.

          I’ve also started doing a mindfulness course with an instructor. Some of the details are available online. I don’t think I can post the link here but if you google palouse mindfulness MBSR it will come up. It’s been helpful for facing up to stuff that is hard to face up to. So maybe other people who have been abusive will find it helpful too.

          It totally shocks me that I behaved in a way where my partner didnt know what I might do, and as Iarrann said in a later thread, couldn’t trust that I wouldn’t hit her. I’m still letting that sink in. I’ve been a total wretch.

          I’m not going to give up because giving up is what got me into the mess. I gave up and made the person I loved responsible for my happiness. That is such a destructive thing. I used to think there were good people and and bad people, but I don’t think that’s true anymore. This is a damn humbling time, I can tell you.

          I worry a bit that if people in my community find out what happened they will hate me. But I also think that’s their choice and if they want to hate/judge me then so be it. I can’t control that and I wouldn’t want to. You gotta just let people be who they are.

          • Telling a future partner: If someone approached that conversation as “if you see me do XYZ, run,” I’d leave right then, because they’re telling me they don’t trust themselves not to be abusive, so why should I trust them? If “so make sure you avoid doing XYZ because that will trigger me,” again, goodbye, because that’s putting it all on me.

            But if they came at it wanting to be honest and vulnerable, taking responsibility for their own behavior but trying to protect me, “these are my triggers and the strategies I use to deal with them, it’s my responsibility to treat you well and I understand you’ll call me on it and/or leave if I don’t”…I’d certainly take things slowly and carefully after that, but if they showed me over time that they really meant it and they were otherwise awesome…maybe? I’d respect the honesty at a minimum.

            You mention you weren’t expecting compassion. If you’d come here entitled and unrepentant, all “my ex was oversensitive” or whatever, you wouldn’t have gotten it. But you sound like you’re reacting like a decent human being who’s realized she hugely fucked up. And all of us, sooner or later, hugely fuck up. I sure did! If someone recognizes their mistake and commits to doing the work to learn and grow and not do it again, that’s worthy of respect and compassion in my book. It doesn’t help anyone if we just grind you down further. (OP said of her partner, “they see themself as expendable and pretty worthless (which is a whole other problem)” but I don’t think it is a separate problem. It’s hard to react healthily to stressors if you have no spoons because you’ve spent them all dealing with thinking you’re nothing. It’s hard to change if you believe you’re worthless and no one could or should have any compassion for you.)

            I appreciate this community so much because I see so much compassion and support here. And while most of that should be directed at people surviving/leaving abusive partners (she said, not going very far out on a limb at all), you and the others who’ve written in to say “I must change!!!” are worth compassion and support too. This feels very odd to say, but it’s really kind of heartening to see multiple people making sincere attempts to wrestle with what they’ve done and grow from it. Now keep walking the walk. 🙂

            Here’s to peace & healing for everyone who needs it.

          • Pink, you didn’t have to comment at all, but you made a sincere appeal for help, and that’s a sign that you have real potential to change. Many of us are rooting for hurt queer people to stop hurting other people, and we want to see everyone get there.

            If it has only been two days since you’ve admitted to yourself what was going on- slow down and let yourself take this one step at a time. You don’t need to anticipate telling future partners yet, just focus on establishing coping mechanisms and shifting your behaviour right now. One day you will hopefully trust yourself not to do this again, and when that day comes you will figure out a way to broach the topic with new partners.

            As for your community, don’t broadcast what happened (especially if it’s going to have people randomly asking your ex about it if she doesn’t want to talk about it) but be honest with them if it comes up and don’t minimize or deny your actions. Respect all requests your ex has for space and whatever she needs for her own healing. That’s the best you can do. You may end up having conversations with others in the community who have similar experiences. Maybe your honesty will prompt them to be honest or share their own struggles with anger etc.

            You’ve already come further than many people unfortunately ever will. You need help. Make sure you get it, and be brave enough to see it through. RM’s point about DBT suggests that it’s possible to get effective therapy that doesn’t focus too much on the past. If the first DBT therapist isn’t to your liking, try another. You’re right; the world is not divided into good and bad people. We are all capable of anything, and we’re all capable of changing if we really want to. Best of luck to you.

  14. I’m sorry, I’m sure everyone here has only the best of intentions but I feel this needs to be said: why the heck was this assumed to be abuse? The asker at multiple points states how the anger is never directed at her and that gf would never do anything to hurt her, so it seemed to me as far more of an instance of one person’s habits unintentionally harming another. Yes, indirect intimidation is a thing, but not any/all instances of one partner scaring another are intimidation, as abuse inevitably involves some aspect of control, which is not suggested by OPs description. There are a number of unfair assumptions in the answer. Who is to say that OP is regularly walking on eggshells, or anxious all the time, or anything else? It’s not supported by the question.
    The reason OPs gf is reluctant to change seemed to me to be a feeling that they shouldn’t have to change as their behaviour is something that only harms themselves, likely underestimating how much OP is hurt by this or thinking they should just ignore it as it is unrelated to them. I would recommend OP talk to their gf and make sure to emphasise the full impact this behaviour is having on them, perhaps with an ultimatum. Therapy is useful, but online support, books etc. can work as well as not everyone is comfortable with therapy. I would also recommend investigation into various anger-related conditions such as PMDD. If gf refuses to change or consider these, I would absolutely recommend leaving; but I think they are absolutely worth considering.
    I’m absolutely not defending abusers here, or people harming their partners. I’m making this comment because I think the advice given here is reckless and downright harmful based on the information in the question. OP has stated that gf is the light of her life, would never harm her and that this isn’t a dealbreaker for her: I think the advice given represents a very different situation than the one described.
    I understand many people have struggled with indirect abuse: I want to make it very clear that this comment is not a defense of indirect abuse, but comes from a place of concern for OP, as I think their issue has been mischaracterized.
    Best wishes to you all.

    • I could not agree more. I’ve been in a similar situation to the letter writer and it was super frustrating when I asked for advice about how to grow in the relationship and work through issues and the only advice people could give me was to leave the other person. Relationships are messy. They take work. Of course, of COURSE if there were abuse directed at anyone in the relationship, that would be cause to leave, but in this situation, breaking up is not the only option. It is AN option, but it’s not the only option. For my relationship, what helped was therapy. Every time the other person raised their voice or acted out in anger, I left and did not engage (and through therapy, we were able to figure out that they were angry to get attention, and that there were healthier ways to seek comfort and healing even though they were never taught that). They started therapy and stuck with it and we recognized together that anger was an okay emotion to feel in appropriate situations, but in their case, the anger was too much and not safe. They also started exercising regularly and that helped. The anger was a symptom of mental illness, not an inherent personality quirk. The other person was also willing to help themselves, and so if you, letter writer, feel that it is your job to help or fix them, it’s not. But it’s also not *necessarily* your job to leave them.

    • I’ve been in this relationship. And I had it slightly better because my ex went to therapy and it wasn’t physically violent. But it was still abuse.

      Everything else about it was the same as this letter. The unwillingness to work on anger. The feeling that nothing you do would be good enough. And yes, the feeling that she was the light of my life despite it all.

      I couldn’t name it until many months after the relationship ended.

      It was still.abuse.

    • The LW is describes themself as terrified. That has a major impact on quality of life, to put it mildly. It does look like the LW loves this person deeply. But when you have to find 12 different ways to say ‘it’s really not that bad, they would never hurt me, they’ve never crossed x line, they’re only harming themselves’ that looks like denial. Some behavior is unacceptable even when it comes from people we love deeply, and regular, terrifying actions fit in that category.

      LW’s partner feels guilty/sad because they are aware that LW is scared by their behavior, but LW doesn’t think they’ll ever go to therapy about it and doesn’t think it’s ever going to change. The partner KNOWS this is a problem. That part of the letter sounds VERY HOPELESS. Would an ultimatum help in this case? Maybe, but ultimatums are not magic, and you can’t force someone who feels hopeless about changing themself to work on a behavior that terrifies you. It might take years to solve that problem, and the partner might also benefit from being on their own and focusing on getting the help they need.

      At no point does Rachel recommend punishing the partner, or demonizing them as an abuser. The very title of this post is ‘You can leave your partner who scares you’, which is an important reminder for many of us who minimize the fact that we’re afraid/miserable with our partners’ behavior because the other person is queer/oppressed, suffers from mental illness, is having a rough year etc. Two people showed up in the comments to discuss their own anger problems; I don’t think that would have happened if not for the nuance and care Rachel demonstrated in her answer.

    • (yikes this is long – sorry – I keep trimming but I keep having things to say!)

      Jasmine & Ally, thanks for raising an alternate viewpoint and for your care in doing so. I can’t speak for others, but I call this abuse because the pattern seems to be “I know I’ve repeatedly terrified you. I feel bad, but it’s not important enough to me to actually change. You’ll stay even if I don’t.” Partner is abusing the privilege of being in a relationship with OP. I’m focusing on the behavior here, not saying Partner is a bad person – OP seems to think not, and my ex-husband and Pink (and maybe Ally’s partner?) are evidence that abusive behavior can come from good people.

      Ally, you said “of COURSE if there were abuse … that would be cause to leave” (others said similar, I’m picking on you because it’s visible on my screen while I write this 😉 ). Thank you for that acknowledgment, but based on its similarity to things I told myself with my ex, I wonder if it means your definition of abuse is something like “physical harm & possibly yelling/verbal cruelty directed at the OP.” My ex was up-front with me very early about his family’s abuse history and his commitment not to repeat it. I told him I appreciated his honesty and that if he ever hit me, I would leave. (No shade to anyone who was hit and stayed – given how fucked-up my head got in that relationship, if he ever had hit me I’d’ve found a way to blame myself, absolve him, and stay.) I stayed for years despite being miserable because he never “abused” me, right? No violence. No yelling. Mostly no verbal cruelty, and what there was I labeled as him just being honest. I even resisted labeling it abuse for a long time after I left, because I thought doing so would mean I had to label him an abuser, i.e. a bad person, and I wasn’t willing to do that.

      It’s only now that I’ve been in a healthy relationship for a long time, and have had years thinking about how we parent (because omg I love her so much but my kiddo makes me process impatience and sometimes anger far more than my current awesome husband does) that I’ve come to think about abuse much more…holistically I guess? On a spectrum? Now I think of it as, you have a right to expect from your partner (or a child does from a parent) that they treat you with love, compassion, honesty and respect and that your best interests are important to them. You don’t have a right to expect perfection from them, but you do have a right to expect that they won’t hurt you on purpose, that if they do they will usually notice and apologize on their own (and not do it again), and that if they don’t notice you can safely point it out and they will then apologize and not do it again. And of course you owe them the same in return. This view of what’s positively owed in a relationship allows more than a binary “not abuse=stay/abuse=go” response. If basic trust is still there, then even serious abuse of the relationship expectations can be dealt with, as Ally and her partner did. If it isn’t (e.g. Pink’s partner unable to trust that Pink wouldn’t hit her), then it seems to me much less likely that a healthy relationship can be built.

      So that means my question is, how strong is the trust in OP’s relationship? Rereading the letter left me unsure of the strength of the evidence on which OP bases her belief that her partner will never turn on her.

      Best case: OP has said or done things in the past that made Partner fully as angry as what usually triggers an outburst, but Partner controlled herself and dealt with the issue constructively. OP feels safe standing her ground and bringing her needs and fears to Partner, even if she is sure the conversation will make Partner angry or anxious.

      If this is true, then since OP loves Partner and wants to stay, a good outcome could be possible. OP can have that difficult conversation with Partner (“I love you, but your behaviors DO harm me. I will not stay in a relationship where I am terrified. I can support you in working on this – therapy, online support, however you want to approach it, we’re a team – but this pattern MUST change and you must take responsibility, because I am not the problem and I cannot fix it myself.”), and if Partner responds well and really does do the work, maybe they can wind up happy together.

      But…if Partner has the skills to handle serious anger at OP, and the level of respectful but honest & difficult criticism necessary for this conversation…then why doesn’t she use those skills all or at least most of the time in other situations?

      More likely case: OP’s belief in her own safety is based on “well she’s never turned on me YET and she says she never will” and a desire to think well of someone she loves. If OP thinks “I’m just careful never to make her angry,” or even unconsciously has learned “she’s violent and terrifying when angry” and so avoids “being difficult,” then I think the chances of an honest conversation being productive and safe are much lower.

      OP, you’re the only one who can make the call. What does your gut tell you? When you think of saying the words I suggested above or something like them to your partner, do you feel a little nervous but resolute and confident that you two will weather this difficult talk together and come out stronger? Or do you cringe and shrink and feel afraid?

      One way or another, you deserve not to be afraid of the one person who more than anyone else should have your back.

  15. I was once that person: the one who hits walls and breaks shit. I thought because I wasn’t hurting anyone directly with my hands, that what I was doing shouldn’t affect other people.

    I was wrong. I am not perfect, by any means, but I finally recognized my responsibility in the matter (especially after someone pointed out that my abusive dad and stepdad had done similar behavior), and I did (and still do) the work to be better.

    Once I acknowledged it was a problem and it was my problem to deal with, it actually became easier to find better coping strategies, to learn how to properly address emotions, etc. It’s now so obvious to me how much my actions affect others.

    To the OP: if your partner refuses to even try to work on this, get out. They may be a good person at heart, they may change later years after you’ve left them, who can say? But as someone once said, “you don’t have to set yourself on fire to keep others warm.” You deserve to not be scared. You don’t have to wait for them at the expense of yourself. Their unwillingness to own and take responsibility for how much their actions hurt you is selfish, no matter how “sorry” they say they are.

  16. Great advice I wish I had heard (and believed) a very long time ago. I was in a relationship like this, and it did get worse, because of course it did. The examples of other intimidating behaviour like driving intentionally recklessly were things I’d never even considered as part of this dynamic but how you explain it makes so much sense. Thanks Rachel, for further validating what I knew was true but is very hard to admit to myself and convey to others. I’m feeling a bit shaken by the reminders of bad experiences, but I’m glad I read this.

  17. One more thought I wanted to share…

    Something that has been helpful for me is stepping aside from thinking what or who might be/ might have been “wrong” or “right”, and instead thinking of it as the dynamic between us.

    It has been much easier for me to see that yes, this dynamic is not healthy, and it does not seem to be able to change within these parameters. So, what would be a healthy dynamic? How would I bring that into my life?

    All the best to all of you – and yes, you are all worth it, and you do all deserve to feel love instead of fear.

  18. So, as someone who’s been on both sides of this issue (being abused in an indirect way as well as having anger issues myself), my advice would be this:

    For those of you who are on the receiving end, remember the saying “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” When your abuser has issues with self worth, I know it’s tempting to feel guiltly and try to justify or normalize their behavior, but remember that fixing their problems is not your burden to bear alone. If your partner refuses to get help and you have tried everything on your end, the rest is on your partner. Don’t let your abuser guilt trip you into feeling like their self destructive behavior is entirely your responsibility to fix.

    If you have anger issues, remember that just because you yourself have been a victim at a point in your life does not mean you are incapable of being the aggressor. I know how hard it is to listen to minor criticism when your past abuser constantly told you your feelings didn’t matter and you were “crazy”, but your current partner is not your past abuser. Do not interpret “you need to get help, this scares me” as having the same meaning as your past abuser’s comments of “you’re crazy. Get help so I don’t have to deal with you embarrassing me”. It’s important to make this distinction when you get help.

  19. Oof, this hit me hard. So much of this reminds me of my ex, except he never really got physically violent.

    “Your partner doesn’t have the skills they need to handle their own intense feelings, which means they definitely don’t have the skills to support you in dealing with yours, which means you’re effectively on your own in this partnership.” This. This right here. We had also been together for 4 years, and this was the theme of our seemingly endless fights those last few months. I was feeling exhausted and emotionally neglected and like I was doing everything I could to help him but it wasn’t enough, which was causing me SO MUCH ANXIETY and my own mental health/self esteem was at a horrifying low point because of this. As hard as leaving was, I can actually, truthfully say that I’m happy now, and so many things in my life are finally falling into place. If you’re in a similar situation, do yourself a favor and get out. You deserve better. You deserve to put yourself first, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for it.

  20. This – this whole post, and every single contribution below it – is why Autostraddle is the only place on the Internet worth reading the comments. Thank you, every single one of you, for being respectful and genuinely reflective, both regarding the post itself and your own related experiences.

  21. What happens when you include kids and financial dependence (not abuse related)? I can see that I’m not in a healthy situation but I feel like I can’t break up a family just because I’m the only one mentally going around on a loop for years. I can’t bear it that the one I love so much is also the one that scares me (without broken stuff or shouting). I also feel like I’m not entirely blameless, I have other issues of my own to work through too, but I spend a lot of my time blaming myself so have trouble working out what the af is going on, it’s so confusing. Thank you for this article, and all the commenters, it’s been so helpful to pinpoint stuff I was struggling to see because it didn’t quite fit the stereotypical idea of things, not ‘serious’ enough.

    • Sue-

      Speaking from my own experience, your children are most certainly are experiencing the impact of the dynamic between you and your partner, it is not just an adult issue! The emotional climate children grow up in will shape their self-perception of what is ‘normal’ and will serve as a template for them in forming their own relationships in the future.

      If I may make a suggestion: put your own oxygen mask on first. Get yourself some support. Take baby steps towards more financial independence. Believe me, taking a hit in terms of your standard of living is a price worth paying to reclaim your spirit and creating a safe launching pad in life for the kids.
      I ended my marriage when my children were 9 and 12. It had taken me nearly 5 years of counseling to come to this decision. It took me this long to re-build my sense of agency and to believe I had done all that I could. I worried about the damage the scars the divorce and subsequent hardships were going to leave on my little ones.

      Flash forward 18 years: my daughter has shared with me that the example I set in leaving that unhealthy marriage has given her the courage to know she can also leave an unhealthy relationship. My choice to leave an emotionally abusive marriage allowed my kids to have a genuinely safe world, at least when they were with me. I have reason to believe they have internalized this and as adults recognize the need to rescue themselves when needed.

      Rachel, I love you and the person you have become. I am so proud of you.

    • Sue,

      You should leave. It may take time, but you should. I am 27 years old and I hope to god that my mom leaves my dad. He is scary and he cannot deal with his own emotions. He never wants to do anything new and he holds her back. I think she is worried she will be alone if she leaves him, but when she is not around him she makes friends and has a good time. Definitely get some support, but you will be fine. If you need to make money to leave I would really recommend trying to get a real estate license. My mom did when I was in high school. I helped her learn the math and now she could totally financially support herself.

  22. please be safe 🙁
    i have been there- binge drinking, yelling about stuff but maybe not *at* me, driving too fast and away from where i want to go, not letting me out of the car. nothing changes. nothing is easier. please don’t let yourself get sucked in further. please be safe

  23. came back to say thank you for this post! I scared my partner by breaking things and punching pillows when I was really angry. I am learning to catch myself. My therapist says that this is common because in the 90s people in her profession & similar were taught to teach kids to release anger in these ‘violence against things’ ways (punching pillows/yelling into pillows, etc), but now they know better. So like, if this is you, know there are many of us, and we HAVE to learn to do differently because it’s always an implicit threat to people around us (I go on a run, even if it’s 2am).

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