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