“She started screaming and ran outside and used her key to scratch up the side of my truck. This was after she threw the mug at my head. She told me I had flirted with the waitress. I don’t remember anything about the waitress. I’ve never cheated on her. She always thinks I’m cheating. This kind of thing happens every few weeks.”*
“He started driving erratically. I was freaked out. He told me if we got in an accident it was my fault for making him angry. He was mad that I hadn’t picked up the phone when he called me at work. I told him I was busy and couldn’t get back to him. He said that I don’t respect him. I jumped out at the next light. He drove away. I started walking. He came back a while later and told me to get in. He was calmer but he didn’t apologize. We just went home.” *
*NOTE: these stories are not intended to represent any specific person or situation.
If you love someone who seems to be randomly explosive, it can feel like you’re loving a volcano. You never know when it will explode and it can feel like you are constantly walking on eggshells.
People talk to me about their loved ones, how their partner had been mistreated or abused in the past and are now very sensitive, easily upset, and have difficulty controlling their anxiety and/or anger. I often talk to people after they’ve lived with this person or situation for quite a while. At this point they are often running out of energy or ideas, or they’ve noticed that, despite their best efforts to help, things are getting worse. Sometimes something terrible has happened and they don’t know what to do next. Often people will talk about how caring, fun-loving, outgoing, or sweet this person can be, and how they have seen their loved ones good side, and just want to know how to help them get better.
The situations described at the top of the post are identified, in ‘therapy-speak’ as emotional dysregulation.’ All of us have been in situations where we’ve “lost it” on someone. “Losing it” is within the normal range of human expression. Sometimes we’re calm, collected, and together. Sometimes we’re not. It is possible to be angry and express anger without ‘losing it,’ but this is something that needs to be learned, and not everyone has learned how to do this. (More on this in future posts). And, even when you’ve learned this, you can still “lose it” at times. For individuals who have experienced abuse of any kind, mistreatment by previous partners, trauma, or who have witnessed their parents acting in this way (when they were children), their frequency and intensity of dysregulation can be much higher than those of us who have not had these experiences.
For those of us who love volcanoes, these episodes of dysregulation can be extremely scary, and confusing.
Here is the best way to love a volcano…
If someone is threatening to harm themselves or someone else, either through words or actions, call 911. Don’t hesitate. They may not feel in control of themselves, and their next actions may be unpredictable – even if you feel like you’ve been in this situation before and think you know how it will end. You are not doing your loved one any favours by allowing them to carry on in this way. Even if you are not afraid for your own safety, remove children from the situation. A loud, angry adult, who does not appear to be in control of themselves, or is behaving in unexpected and/or or aggressive ways, can be very frightening and even traumatic for children. You may need to stay with a friend, or go to a shelter. You may need to call a crisis line. If you need to do this, you have not failed in any way. You are taking the right steps to better care for yourself and your loved one. If you are not sure if you need to do these things, call a crisis line anyway and ask for help deciding what to do next. If safety is not the immediate concern, but has been in the past, see a counselor; reach out and get help to make a good plan for the future.
How are you feeling these days? Pay attention to changes in sleep habits, appetite, increase in headaches, stomach pains, or other muscular pain. Take care of your health. Take a break, get away, and consider what you need to get back to feeling well again. You are responsible for your own health, above all. You cannot care for others, if you are not caring for your own health.
3. CONNECTION WITH OTHERS
Stay connected to friends and family who are supportive of you. If you don’t have someone you can confide in about the situation, find someone you can, such as a crisis line or a counselor. If you find that you do not have anyone to reach out to, this should be a red flag to you. Isolation is not in anyone’s best interest, no matter what the situation. You need people outside of the relationship to bring support and perspective. Think about ways to build your connections with others (See “What do Adults Do for Fun”) and (“Lonely? Lets move Closer”).
4. CONNECTION WITH YOURSELF
Sometimes when you are close to someone who is not doing well emotionally, you can feel like you are starting to ‘lose your sense of self.’ The other person’s way of interpreting the world, through their own pain, can start to influence how you see yourself and the world around you. If your self-esteem is becoming low, you need to ensure that you are connecting with others who care about you, caring for your own body, and getting input from supportive people outside of the relationship.
5. ASSESS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE VOLCANO
“The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.” (David Denborough- a therapist who works with men who use abusive behaviours). When you’ve reviewed the previous steps, you can determine if the current situation is sustainable for you, or if something needs to change in the relationship. You may need to look at “Where do I Draw the Line?” to determine this. If need be, also review “When Boundaries Aren’t Respected.” It is not your job to “fix” or “heal” the other person. It is your job to work towards a respectful relationship for both you and the other person. This is in both of your best interests.
6. GET PERSPECTIVE
If you believe that you have done something to harm the other person, and that their intense response is rational, given the circumstances, check in with those who are outside of the situation, and have your best interests in mind, to get another perspective. When we are close to someone who is dysregulated, our ability to see ourselves clearly can be difficult. We may be too defensive and too quick to call the other person “crazy” OR we may take on responsibility for another’s emotions out of our own feeling of guilt. Talking to someone outside of the situation can help. If you have done something wrong, check out, “I’m Sorry – 8 Steps to a Good Apology.” Whether you were actually in the wrong, or not, continue on to the next step.
7. NAME WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE RELATIONSHIP
Abuse is a loaded term. In the English language, someone who does abusive things suddenly become an “Abuser” and the rest of their identity can become lost. Seeing good things in someone who uses abusive behaviors can add to the confusion to those within the relationship. We want to believe that people are all good or all bad. I work with individuals who use these behaviours and with individuals who are victims of these behaviours. The person who is victimized by abusive behavior has a job to recognize and name the behaviour to themselves and to others. It is not their job to decide if someone is all good or all bad, but to take action based on a clear assessment of the situation.
James & Mac Kinnon (2010)) identify three types of non-physical abuse in couple and family relationships.
Verbal Abuse –
“If you hadn’t become so fat and ugly, I wouldn’t have to cheat” “F—you, you f—ing a—hole!!” “Shut your ugly hole!”
Is the person verbally insulting or abusive? Do they call you names or mock you in ways you do not find amusing? Do they yell and scream at you? These types of behaviors are considered verbally abusive. Do not use these behaviors yourself, against the one you love, or anyone else.
Emotional Abuse –
“I’m going to leave you and you’ll never see your kids again” “If you really loved me you would do what I say.” “You made me do this.” “If you leave, I’m going to kill myself.”
Does the person threaten to harm you, your possessions, pets, or themselves? Do they blame you for their actions? Do they disregard your privacy or boundaries? Do they use the silent treatment for extended periods of time, refuse to acknowledge your presence, or fail to show remorse, empathy, or love? Do they threaten abandonment regularly? Do they try to discredit your reputation to other people?
“You don’t really feel that way…” “That never happened…” “You’re exaggerating…” “You’re insane and need help if you think I’m the problem.” “Those people don’t really like you.”
James & MacKinnon (2010) note that psychological abuse happens more often when one person has “greater physical, financial, or social power” than the other. For example, a stay at home mom, with young children, living in the community her husband grew up in, may have significantly less power than him. If he threatens to leave, she may be in serious trouble. Psychological abuse includes isolating someone from their friends, family, the community, or other professionals. This may involve disparaging their reputation to others by letting it slip that “my wife drinks a lot” OR “she’s just a very anxious person.” Physically isolating someone by cutting a phone line or hiding a cell phone, hiding shoes, taking away bank cards, money, etc are also abusive acts. Psychological abuse also includes minimizing or justifying the abusive behaviours being used, and being “a different person” when others are around. This type of abuse can result in the person who is being abused, thinking they are going crazy.
Psychological abuse may not happen in a ‘fit of rage’ but may be an ongoing way of relating by one person towards another. Angry or not, these behaviours are never okay.
Physical, Sexual and other types of abuse-
Aside from pushing, slapping, hitting, or throwing things at someone, other types of physical abuse include locking or blocking exits, or physically restraining another. I have found that these ‘other’ types of physical aggressions are common when intimate partners fight. Sometimes people will tell me that they were not afraid for their own safety or of the other person, and these behaviours are ‘normal’ in the context of their relationship. Even if this is so, these behaviors are very destructive to any relationship and should never be used against another person.
Forcing or pressuring the other person into humiliating activities, sexual or otherwise, is also considered abuse. And of course, pressuring someone to have sex or sexually assaulting another person, even if you are married to that person, is abuse and NEVER ok.
If you have evaluated your relationship based on the above aspects (please read James & MacKinnon’s (2010) article in its entirety to be sure you are not minimizing your experience), then you need to decide on your next best plan of action by reviewing the 7 previous steps.
Sometimes the relationship will need to end, and firm, sometimes legal, boundaries will need to be put into place. Sometimes there will be physical separation for a period of time, with clear objectives set in place and re-evaluated at a set date. Sometimes a conversation with the loved one is enough to bring about a substantial change in their behaviour and can lead to health and healing. This may need to happen while others, who have your best interests in mind, are present as supportive witnesses.
You cannot predict the future but you can act with the knowledge you have using the supports you have with the resources available.
You are not alone. Help is available. Shelters, crisis lines, counsellors, programs, friends, family, police, and the internet, may all be places where help can be found. Do it today, for yourself, and for the ones you love.
NOTE: If You are the ‘volcano,’ check out When YOU are the Volcano – 7 Ways to Care for Yourself
See also Where Do I Draw the Line?