Tell Me About It

My boyfriend withdraws from life when something upsets him

Tell Me About It: He has cut my brother off over a nothing incident

Problem

About once a month, a row breaks out with my boyfriend, with whom I have an otherwise loving and fun relationship.

We are in our early 30s and have been living together for four years. The most recent episode happened when I told him, a week after it happened, how my brother had given me a thinly veiled insult, and included my boyfriend in it. I had not really thought about how it was an insult to him also, but was just complaining about how I had felt.

When I was telling it, my boyfriend started by asking me why I wanted to make him so angry (I had not even considered he would be angry), and then told me that he would never again go to any family event of mine where he would have to set eyes on my brother. I then got angry and upset, told him that it wasn’t really even about him, and eventually he said that he would turn up for things if they were necessary, but never speak to or acknowledge my brother again.

He then was deeply unhappy and unmotivated, would not go on the walk or watch the TV programme we had planned, and declared that his entire weekend was ruined, life is awful, and the only thing he will make himself do for the next week is go to work, which he hates.

I know from experience that this mindset of hating everything usually lasts about a week, and he will be unresponsive, unhelpful in the house, have little energy and be a ghost of a partner.

He claims that he is not able to recover like ordinary people, and always needs this time to recover his mood. He is also very extreme in his decisions at these times, and I have seen him absolutely cut people and activities from his life after something has made him angry, and this will have repercussions with my family this time.

I would like him to be able to bounce back more easily. If I try to bring it up, he says I am trying to change him because I don’t think he is good enough. He refuses the idea of therapy. I also feel quite lonely and as if I am walking on eggshells in the aftermath of these spells, but he says he can’t help it, this is just how he has to deal with things.

Advice

It seems that your partner is very unhappy and there are some telling statements in your letter, such as how he hates his work and how he resists change because he feels you might not think he is good enough as he is.

If he hates his work, he spends a large chunk of his life doing something that gives him no sense of value. He may then try to get his sense of value from his relationships with other people, and is perhaps oversensitive to comments that might come across as criticism.

Simply asking him to learn to bounce back faster might only scratch the surface in terms of what needs to be attended to in his life, but of course you must take opportunities to open his eyes to the need for change.

It appears that his confidence is at a very low ebb and he is reacting to any slights, no matter how distant. Of course, this results in alienating himself from those who might support him, and he ends up living quite a small life that creates insecurity and dissatisfaction for him.

He clearly lets you get very close to him, and even when you are angry he does not cut you off, so you are clearly a person he listens to and allows under his skin.

I wonder if you could use this position to patiently offer him a pathway out of this negativity he has found himself in.

Your partner is resistant to therapy, but he might be open to coaching or assistance to help him find a new and fulfilling career path.

In a relationship, both partners should get the support they need for personal development, and the couple should put the full force of their resources behind that person while understanding that the other’s turn for such support will come later.

If your partner continues in his current state, he could end up suffering from depression or isolation, so now is the time to tackle this issue. Could both of you attend a course on building resilience or managing change?

Could he make use of his employee assistance programme (many companies have this facility) and use four to six sessions to implement a new life plan?

In order for him to have the confidence to take this on, he will need to know that you are fully behind him and have faith in his ability to turn his life into something he values.