Q: Last night we had the worst fight we’ve had in our three years together. Our fight exploded over—you guessed it—the wedding, and spiraled from there. As we were going over the to-do list of all the things we need to get done before the reception, he was freaking out that certain things “hadn’t been done already,” and I felt scolded for not being able to pull this off seamlessly for him. He had offered to do three pretty major tasks and they haven’t been completed, so I told him I felt really overwhelmed because he hasn’t been holding his end of the deal with planning. In response to this, he dropped a pretty major bomb: he told me that he felt rushed into this whole thing, and nothing was going the way he wanted it to, and he felt pushed into getting married.
As you can imagine, I lost my shit. I couldn’t help it, I started crying hysterically and he punched himself in the face. On the one hand, I was dealing with the emotions of my partner and wanting to recognize those emotions. On the other hand, I felt like this was a total tantrum on his part and that he was digging with any knife he had. But like most tantrums, I could tell that the emotions underneath it were real. I was also totally alarmed by his level of distress and didn’t know if I could handle it. (He has never behaved like this, and usually our disagreements are pretty tame.) And then what about my distress? The feeling like the past year of engagement was a lie! That he wasn’t really excited, that he didn’t really want to get married! This swirling cyclone of distress was more than my brain or my body could handle, and I threw up.
He said this morning he doesn’t feel pushed into getting married, that he does truly want to marry me, but the pressure of the wedding was making him feel like a crazy person (to which I think we all can relate on some level here). He felt pushed into the party, but because his emotions were so high the party and marriage got all smushed together. I’m at a point right now that if a freaking party causes us this much distress, the party isn’t worth it and I’m ready to cancel all plans.
How do I talk to him about his feelings, but also address his behavior? Because I think this whole fight was half-sincere, half-really manipulative as hell and I don’t know how to address that. Also, not a big fan of self-punching. That was so sincerely distressing and I don’t know how to even think about it, let alone talk about it. Have you had a partner tell you they felt pushed into marriage? How did you overcome that, and how did you guys repair your relationship? Did that excited engaged feeling ever feel the same again?
—Punch, Do You Take This Puke
A: Dear PDYTTP,
Your situation is extreme, but this next step is something every single couple has to do—even if they haven’t puked in the middle of an argument. Set some definitions for a fair fight. There’ll be some universal ones (like not punching yourself in the face, for example or… punching at all, even), but many will be unique to you guys. Can you tolerate yelling? Would you be better off with a little space to process before hashing things out? Set some rules. What he said was fine (assuming it was true and not, like you wonder, just meant to injure and manipulate), but it’s completely unproductive when the method of talking about it gets in the way of actually talking about it.
While you set some standards for fighting fair, figure out what you can do to check when you’re getting into the unhealthy territory. Put another way, how do you stop the conversation before it gets into a punching pukefest? Usually it’s just a break—somebody needs to step up and say, “We have to finish this conversation later,” and go cool down with a walk around the block. But for other folks, a break just exacerbates things. Think about it.
And recognize that not every single fight is going to be a healthy one. Sometimes (hopefully, most of the time) you’ll be able to remember you’re on the same team, you’ll remember not to call names, you’ll check yourself before you’re at the point of going too far. But sometimes you’ll be tired or hangry or coming in from a long day at work, and you’ll slip and say something you really don’t mean. And other times you’re trying to fight fair, but it’s hard to analyze and articulate a feeling, to communicate what you really mean right in the moment.
That’s why fight debriefs are so great. This thing you’re about to do now—talk about feelings and address all of the ways they were handled. It’s a great thing to make a habit. Saying, “Hey, can we talk about the other night?” and sorting out what was said in the clarity of calm, cool daylight is excellent for everyone.
No one really warns you, but some arguments are going to make you feel like, “This changes everything,” or, “I won’t ever be able to get over this feeling.” Even in the best marriages. We’re talking about the one person you’re most vulnerable with, the one who knows everything about you, the one whose opinion is most important to you and who you care about most. That’s a situation rife for some deep, penetrating hurt. When those earth-shattering fights happen, it’s a good opportunity to pause and assess. Many times you will, of course, work to get over whatever happened and eventually feel better again. Maybe occasionally memories of that fight will crop up and the flood of hurt or anger will rush back. But you’ll still be able to move past the overwhelming sting.
Your situation calls for that same pause for assessment. You very likely may get over this feeling and get back to being excited about marrying one another. But this particular argument raises some questions that need answering. He may or may not feel forced into marriage. You’re not excited to get married. You’re questioning the past several months of planning. You’re not sure how to move past this argument just yet. You didn’t ask, but this sounds like a good place to set wedding plans on hold until you’re both sure for sure of what’s going on.
It also sounds like the perfect place to involve a professional. What was that face-punching even about? Is he prone to self-harm and you’ve never known? Is he a half step away from being other types of violent? Do you feel safe?
So, right, this is where I say, “Go talk to him” (and someone else). Ask him what parts he really meant, and which he didn’t. Set some boundaries for how you argue in the future. And depending on how that goes, maybe set aside these wedding plans for a bit. Fingers crossed this conversation doesn’t end in vomit.
IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO ASK APW A QUESTION, PLEASE DON’T BE SHY! IF YOU WOULD PREFER NOT TO BE NAMED, ANONYMOUS QUESTIONS ARE ALSO ACCEPTED. (THOUGH IT REALLY MAKES OUR DAY WHEN YOU COME UP WITH A CLEVER SIGN-OFF!)
*H/T to Sara Lesser, LCSW, for CONSULTING ON this post