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Dr. Robert,

I have known my boyfriend for 5 years and we plan on getting engaged as soon as we are finished with school in the next couple of years. He is the most loving, generous person I have ever known and I know I want to be with him but--he has SUCH a temper! One minute he treats me like a princess and I think everything is fine, but if I do something to upset him, whether I intend to or not, he flips out. He gets unnecessarily angry at the one thing, and it escalates, and then pretty soon he's not even talking about my initial offense that started the argument, but something completely different! He can be down right mean about it too. He has always had that bad habit.

If I do something that upsets him, he doesn't tell me right away, and I don't know that it bothers him so I continue to do it, well it all bubbles up and then it erupts! It bothers me because he says they're things he shouldn't have to TELL me are wrong and I should know better then to do them. My response is always "We are human therefore we make mistakes. A mistake is something we do simply when we don't think before we act. I am human and I am going to mess up sometimes." It's just very frustrating because he doesn't care whether I meant to or not. I tell him over and over that I can't fix a problem unless he tells me I'm doing it to begin with, and that it's not fair of him to unload on me all at one time! I feel like I've told him this over and over but it's not working.

I promise him I love him and would never do anything to hurt him on purpose, but he doesn't look at it that way. He treats my every offense like it's an attack! I don't understand him!!!! 90% of the time he makes me soooo happy, but when he gets upset he makes me feel so small. What can I do to get through to him?


Sausalito, California

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As I understand what you have written, your view of your boyfriend's character is quite incorrect. This man certainly is not the most loving person you have ever known, as you said, or, if he is, your acquaintanceship must be very narrow. A truly loving person does not often do the kinds of things you say this man does routinely, and, if he or she ever does them, such actions would be followed by an immediate apology for having lost ones temper. In other words, you have misjudged this man. You fail see him as he is, and you really do not know him at all. That is why you say (followed by four exclamations points) that you do not understand him. You certainly don't understand him! Understanding someone first requires seeing that person as he is, and you have avoided doing that.

Let me explain. A human character is inevitably complicated. Human beings are animals. We are primates like gorillas and bonobos, and, just like those other primates, we humans are deeply programmed not just with a sense of morality, altruism, fairness, and generosity, but also with self-interest, aggression, forceful sexual impulses which have nothing to do with love, compulsions to dominate and to control, and many other powerful drives which impel us, whether we recognize them or not, to act in ways which are not at all generous or loving. Go to a zoo sometime and observe the gorillas in their cages. If you will do this carefully, you will begin to understand what we are. Yes, Monica, it is true that we humans have a level of self-awareness which probably is beyond that of our primate cousins, but the basic set of drives is very similar, and is acted out in very similar ways. Your boyfriend may not beat on his chest to express his desire to dominate you, but his angry words have the same meaning as the chest beating and the screaming of the ape.

Your assessment of your boyfriend is inaccurate because you have made the classic mistake of splitting his character in two. Part One is the things you like about him (generosity, loving nature), and Part Two is all the ugly things like anger, unreasonableness, lack of forgiveness, meanness, etc. And in your calculations, Part One is really your boyfriend, and Part Two is not him, but just his "temper." But his real character is all of it, the generosity and the meanness, the sweetness and the demands that you try to satisfy his outrageous demands. You try to convince yourself that his meanness is just a "bad habit," as you put it, but that view is just a way of fooling yourself. The meanness is not a "habit" and more than the things you like about him are habits. It is all him. Until you accept that, you will never understand him because you are not even seeing him. In other words, you are in denial of who this person really is: a troubled, angry person who can sometimes compensate for his anger, but who expects you to be able to avoid, as if by magic, doing anything to set him off. And, when he does "lose it," he has himself convinced that his anger is your fault. If only you could read his mind and never "mess up," then he would never have to become angry.

I am sorry to say this, but judging from what you have told me, your boyfriend is suffering from serious personality problems which are much more than just "temper." A person who can seem loving one moment and then lapse into such unreasoning meanness is a loose canon who could turn really violent without warning. If he does not get some help, his problems almost certainly will worsen, and I would even be worried about your personal safety. If he does not get the help he needs, I advise you not even to think about marriage to this person. After all, if he can be this mean now, what will life be like when you two are living together, sharing finances, dealing, as a couple, with all the problems and pressures of life on earth, raising children together, all of it?

I regret having to be the bearer of such bad news, but I take seriously my responsibilities in offering advice on this site, and as I have stated often, "I do not mince words. If you approach me for advice, I will tell you exactly what I think, withholding nothing."

I hope you will take my advice to heart and begin to see your boyfriend as he is: a troubled, conflicted person who may want to act "nice," and who sometimes can, but who really isn't up to it in the long term.

Be well.

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page last modified January 20, 2008

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