My girlfriend often gets mad at things that I find petty or that I think don’t really matter. Is that me taking her for granted or is that her being unreasonable? – Anonymous, age 17
First off, “taking her for granted” and “being unreasonable” are not opposite ends of a spectrum, so be careful how you’re framing this. It’s much simpler than that. The question to ask is: Am I being unreasonable or is she? In other words, do I have the right to tell her that she should chill out or is that me being a dick?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned the hard way in my relationships with the opposite sex since I was in middle school is that whatever part of you feels annoyed at her behavior has to be heard somehow.
Let’s first discuss what the simple act of asking this question most likely reveals about your situation:
1. Yes, you do find her behavior unreasonable on some level. Otherwise, she’d get mad and you’d nod your head in genuine agreement and commiserate with her about how crappy the world is. Task number one: Admit to yourself that you don’t like her behavior.
2. You care enough about her that you’re worried you might hurt her if you speak up. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have an internal conflict about this and would just tell her she’s being “crazy” and go into the other room and watch TV. So, bravo for at least pausing and wondering whether you’re being unfair. Men are often accused of doing the opposite and just writing women off as nuts. Glad you’re not being that guy.
3. You don’t feel comfortable having a conversation with her about this yet. If you did, you’d just bring it up, and your wouldn’t be asking this question.
There’s basically three options for you when you don’t like someone’s behavior, and this goes for anyone in a relationship, not just dudes annoyed at their girlfriends:
1. Say nothing while continuing to think she’s acting petty. You stuff down what you really want to say and silently drive an emotional wedge between the two of you that could linger for hours or days. This will most likely result in feeling this weird, inexplicable resistance to her very presence every time she comes near you. Bad news.
2. Say something, but do it in a way that writes off her actions as ridiculous. This allows you to walk away feeling satisfied you were right and she was wrong. This will also drive an emotional wedge between you, but you won’t notice, because you were right, remember? Also bad news. She’ll be the one walking around with lingering resentment.
3. Say something, but do it in a way that leaves room for you to be wrong about it.
I hope you notice the third option is best. It’s the essence of mature, loving communication, and very few adults, let alone people your age, take the time and energy to learn how to do it well.
If you do your very best to express yourself while simultaneously taking responsibility for your judgments and admitting that they may come from a place that is distorting your perception, then you’ve done all that you can. If she doesn’t want to listen, or doesn’t notice the care and responsibility with which you’re expressing yourself, you may be with the wrong kind of girl. Actually, if she makes a pattern of dismissing your concerns, then you’re definitely with the wrong kind of girl. If it only happens every once in a while, then allow her to be imperfect. You are too.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned the hard way in my relationships with the opposite sex since I was in middle school is that whatever part of you feels annoyed at her behavior has to be heard somehow. Lingering resentment is a cancer in any relationship, not just romantic ones. Always do your best to express what’s bothering you as soon after the incident as possible. The only person to hear this is her. Do not get into the habit of venting to friends about your girlfriend’s behavior.
The problem in most relationships, it seems, is that people can’t express what’s bothering them without either taking the blame on themselves (“I’m being so unfair to you, I’m sorry I’m feeling this way”) or dumping all the blame on someone else (“You’re ridiculous and I can’t stand you.”) But there’s a middle way, one in which you act both kind and confident. Kind yet confident. Kind yet confident. Make it your mantra.
How might this actually sound, though? Something like this:
Hey, you getting pissed at ______ kinda annoys me because I just don’t think it’s worth the energy. But I may not be seeing everything and I don’t know exactly why you’re so upset, so let’s talk about it.
The skill that we all have to develop is knowing when we have the right to say that someone else’s behavior is upsetting us because it’s objectively crappy. Sometimes we’ll be right and other times we’ll be way off, but the important thing is that we say it, and that we’re in a relationship with someone who can take it, provided we’re expressing it in a way that’s fair.
As M. Scott Peck says in his book The Road Less Traveled:
“…the problem of distinguishing what we are and are not responsible for in this life is one of the greatest problems of human existence. It is never completely solved; for the entirety of our lives we must continually assess and reassess where our responsibilities lie in the ever-changing course of events… To perform either process adequately we must possess the willingness and the capacity to suffer continual self-examination.”
In the end, we reap what we sow and end up in relationships with people who act how we do. The more you can practice walking the line of expressing your disappointments with your girlfriend while also taking responsibility for them, the more she’ll hopefully be willing to do the same for you. And if she isn’t willing, then you know it’s probably time to move on.