Content warning for some semi-aggressive sexual language.
From a young age, I learned that male temper was a scary thing.
It was common enough for me to hear my father swearing at the top of his lungs while he worked in the garage that I got used to it. Yelling was his response to any indiscretion or frustration, no matter how trivial, and his children were no exception. Being yelled at always reduced me to tears as a child. It made me feel anxious and attacked.
I internalized this more than I realized. As I matured, I was less and less surprised when men seemed unable to control their anger—or, as most would say, when men “had a temper.”
In an eye-opening article I’m sadly no longer able to find, a writer pointed out that yelling derails a conversation much more than crying does, and that an appropriate response to being yelled at might be something like, “You’re clearly too emotional for this conversation right now. Take some time to cool off and we’ll come back to it later.” I so wish I had read this article, or one like it, before college—before my college relationship with a man I’ll call Matt (not his real name). After becoming so normalized to the idea that men yell when they’re angry, Matt’s “temper” made perfect sense to me. It wasn’t a surprise. In fact, it was one of a few ways he reminded me of my father. Likewise, it was one of a few red flags I missed over and over again.
When I met Matt, he seemed like a super chill nerdy dude. He wasn’t obnoxious like some college guys, nor was he macho or egotistical. He struck me as a really down-to-earth, cool person. For a while after we began dating, that impression lasted.
I don’t remember the first time he yelled at me, but it might have been was while I was driving. Nothing made him lose patience faster than being in the passenger seat while I drove. Or, it might have been when I couldn’t make up my mind about something I wanted, like choosing an appetizer for us to share at a restaurant (for a non-hypothetical example). Or, maybe it was something totally unrelated to anything I did, but I was lucky enough to become an outlet for his frustration. Any one of these is just as likely as the other, because they all happened repeatedly.
Plenty of couples yell. There are probably people who couldn’t date someone who didn’t yell back—I’m not passing judgement if that’s just your style and yelling rolls off of you. But I’m not built that way. Through my long-term relationship with Matt, I learned an important lesson about myself, albeit very slowly, and that is that I cannot be with a partner who responds to anger by yelling at me.
Wanting a partner to treat me with respect and kindness is not too much to ask.
Yelling is the opposite of respect and kindness. Being yelled at by someone who claims to love me, particularly if that person is a man, makes my entire body tense up. My pulse quickens. My hands start shaking. All over again, I’m a frightened child, struggling to hold back tears. In college, I hated myself for this. I wondered why I was so immature and dramatic. Matt was exasperated by my reactions, too, and even once said he wished that I would get “angry instead of sad” because that would be “easier to deal with.” But yelling shuts me down. In true INFP fashion, I don’t want to yell back; I just want the unpleasant moment to be over. What’s more, at the time, I wanted to be a Cool Girlfriend.
I told myself that he just had a temper, that it was part of his personality, just like my father. I told myself that no one was perfect. Over and over again, I choked back my tears and told myself anything that would excuse his immature behavior. But yelling at someone because you’re not getting your way is pretty fucking immature when you think about it, right?
It’s important to note that I don’t consider Matt’s behavior abusive. I felt disrespected and belittled, but never threatened or scared. He simply had no patience for my mistakes. On a particularly stressful vacation, he yelled at me in public multiple times, loudly, as though I were an unruly eight-year-old. One time it was because I tried to turn a display of keychains only to realize it was broken and unstable, another time it was because we were on a narrow road and I didn’t notice I was blocking someone else’s path, and on and on.
Would it shock you to learn that he still expected sex when we got back to our hotel each day? At the time, I didn’t know how to say, “Maybe I’d want to sleep with you if you hadn’t been so mean today.” I told myself it was just the stress of the trip, that I didn’t want to create more conflict. I tried to tell myself that being intimate meant he wasn’t really that angry after all. I told myself that refusing sex would just create more tension.
RIP my sex drive.
I am incapable of desiring someone who shouts at and demeans me, which I learned the hard way. (So many times, he complained that I didn’t initiate sex enough, as though that issue existed in a vacuum with no possible root causes. On one occasion, he turned to me and said, “I want to have sex tonight, but I want you to initiate it,” and I almost screamed. Notice how my desires were irrelevant to his request?) My interest in sex seemed to disappear for months at a time, so much so that I could barely remember what being horny felt like. At the time, it was a mystery to me, but in retrospect, it’s crystal clear. How could I want to be intimate with someone who made me feel like an unloved child?
I fully admit that I lacked agency in this relationship. For most of my life, I haven’t been good at standing up for myself. It’s still something I struggle with. (The book Nice Girl Syndrome by Beverly Engel was enlightening for me, and I still recommend it to many women I know.)
But of course, no one should need to stand up to their romantic partner.
For a later vacation, we went to the beach with another couple I’ll call Amanda and Jared. On that trip, Matt was at his absolute worst. He yelled at me for leaving a fan on, for wanting to eat fast food, for spending more time with Amanda and Jared than him, and even for not wanting to have sex. (The memory of him shouting, “I’m horny,” at me with petulant anger in his eyes still makes me want to vomit.) A few months later, after Matt and I finally broke up, I talked to Amanda about what a huge asshole he’d been on the trip, and she admitted that many times during that week, she’d turned to Jared to say, “he’s so mean to her” after one of Matt’s outbursts. I felt so validated that I almost cried.
Lots of women probably marry Matts. From the outside looking in, our relationship must have seemed like a great match to many people we knew—most of whom never witnessed that side of him. My father couldn’t reconcile our breakup for a long time; go figure. Matt was intelligent, and most of the time, he seemed like a decent and even sweet person. But he had a temper. Honestly, fuck “tempers.” Everyone gets angry and agitated, yet most of us are capable of not treating our loved ones like garbage in those moments.
Even now, I almost feel semi-guilty for sharing this. We dated for over five years and had some good times together; hell, we had some great times together. For a while, I even considered him my best friend. But none of that was worth the price of being yelled at, or being subjected to the whim of his moods. The happy moments weren’t worth the tense, silent dinners we sat through when he was mad at me, or being berated for my driving, or the “wave check” I started doing when approaching him from afar to get a read on his mood before interacting with him. None of the bullshit was anything I should tolerated in the name of keeping the peace, and I’m sharing this story because no one ever told me that.
Matt’s yelling killed that relationship long before either of us realized it was over. Someone who yells at me is not a person who loves me in the way I need them to.
It was only as our relationship was waning that I was able to start calling him on his bullshit in small ways. We met for dinner one night while we were living in separate cities, and for reasons I’ve forgotten, Matt was pissed from the moment we got there. I could tell he was angry from the way he pulled into the parking lot glaring at me. He got out of his car yelling and then silently fumed the whole time we ate. He clearly wasn’t happy to see me, which was what hurt most at the time. The next day, I was still reeling from how he’d behaved, but he came to my place with a spring in his step, hoping to hop into bed the moment he walked in. I flipped. I finally said what I should have said every time before, even though I was still too nice about it: “Didn’t you think that after yesterday, you might need to put in a little more effort getting me aroused?” He blinked, caught completely off guard. “Honestly, no,” was his response.
I tried pointing out to him that the way he often spoke to me was in grave contrast to how he’d speak to other women in his life—would he yell at one of his close female friends? His mother? Certainly not. His response was to admit that he “felt bad about it every time,” and yet he continued to do it. And yet, he never apologized unless I sought an apology . . . while we were together. A few months after the relationship ended, Matt actually called me to apologize for the way he treated me while we dated. I have to admit that I appreciated that he was able to acknowledge that he had something to apologize for, but the call left a bitter taste in my mouth. It felt like it was more about clearing his conscience than anything else. Plus, I’m not sure one apology can ever cover several years of shit.
For better or worse, I learned a lot from that relationship. For one thing, I learned that a man being “nerdy” doesn’t automatically mean he’ll be nicer than his “jock” counterpart (required reading here). What’s more, I learned that respect is as important as love in a romantic partnership. Too often, women are asked to weather the storm of men’s explosive tempers, to make excuses, to be a soothing voice in response to petulant tantrums. It’s no wonder this mindset came so naturally to me. But looking forward, I know that I want to date adults who behave like adults and treat me with the compassion and decency that should come standard. Someone who yells at me is clearly not ready for a mutually respectful, healthy relationship, and is not someone I’m going to continue dating. Ever again.
Featured image photo credit: Vladimir Kudinov