How I Stopped With the Hysterics

It took “I don’t respect you” to realize my impact.


photo courtesy of Alexey Kuzma

filed under Fighting, True Stories

He hated it when I cried like that. It flipped a switch in him, making him cold and unwavering. The minute the water works started, he was done dealing with me. His eyes would roll, his face would turn to stone, and he would continue to argue his point, whatever it was.

“You don’t care about me!” I would wail. “Look at how you are acting right now. Zero compassion. What is wrong with you?”

This would just make him angrier and the devastating spiral of destructive behaviors would begin. I would cry harder, he would get colder. The colder he got, the more desperate and hysterical I got. I begged for him to show some compassion, to buckle under the weight of my tears, to hug me suddenly and say “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry you’re so upset. Let’s not fight. There now.”

I tended to cry when I just couldn’t handle the fighting anymore, and the more the spiral of me crying and him shutting down occurred, the more I would convince myself that it was because he didn’t care. That he really just couldn’t give two shits about how hurt I was in that moment. That he didn’t respect me.

During one particularly bad fight, I was crying uncontrollably on the couch and he was stone-faced and stern, standing by the kitchen door. “Just admit you don’t respect me!” I was screaming at him. “How could you with the way you’re treating me?”

“Fine, goddamn it!” he finally snapped. “Sometimes, I don’t respect you. I don’t respect …”

I didn’t hear the rest of it. Everything came crashing down around me and I fell into a black hole of despair. I don’t know what your worst fear is in a relationship, but this is mine. Growing up in a house where my father would smugly cheat and drink and ignore the pleas to stop, every bone in my body quaked at hearing the words “don’t” and “respect” in the same sentence. What the fuck was I going to do with that?

I lost it, that’s what I did. I screamed and ran into my bedroom, slammed the door, and cried so hard I gave myself a panic attack. I silently begged for him to come in after me. He didn’t.

I was indignant for the rest of the week. I couldn’t stay in this relationship. How could I? He couldn’t love me if he didn’t respect me, and I couldn’t stay with someone who didn’t love me.

We had been going to therapy for almost eight months at that point, working through a lot of deep, dark issues. They bubbled up like gooey black globs that just wouldn’t stay in the cage we tried to build for them. They would eat away at our trust, our happiness, our ability to just be together. But, every once in awhile, we would trace the source of one of those globs. We would find its heart and usually just by listening to it, really listening to it, we could break free from it. So, overall, we felt like we were building towards something good. Like we were starting to make our way into the light after being lost in a dark forest.

This particular fight happened around Valentine’s Day. We never talked about doing anything to celebrate. I worried I was feeding his lack of respect by not simply walking out on him afterwards. “I’m so pathetic,” I would say over and over to myself. He went into a state of quiet and kind compliance. But I was waiting for some huge gesture, some demonstration of his love and respect to prove my worst fears wrong. It never came.

We finally had a chance to talk about everything in therapy. I was shaking as I told the story. I was really, really angry. The therapist listened, and nodded, and finally turned to Scott to ask for his perspective. (I really hate it when they do that).

“I didn’t say I flat out don’t respect her,” he insisted. “I said I don’t respect some stuff she does.”

What? I hadn’t hear that part during the fight. No, no, he’s minimizing it. He can’t do that. This is a really big deal.

“I have a really hard time when she goes into her hysterical crying fits,” he continued, his voice getting more desperate. “I find it really hard to deal with. I am only starting to learn how to accept and work with my own feelings. It’s just so much to process when she is so out of control.” He continued to talk about how he wished that I were able to take space when I got that emotional and also give him space when he needs it. “It’s like you want me to fix everything for you, but you are completely inconsolable. Nothing seems to help when you’re like that and I just don’t know what to do.”

My heart thawed a bit listening to his struggles. And all of a sudden I realized what was happening. It all hit me at once: the flashbacks to my mother hysterically screaming and crying, trying to get my dad to listen to her. The fits I would throw trying to get my parents’ attention. The awareness that I was deeply desperate for him to meet my every need and afraid that if he didn’t, it meant he didn’t love me. I was being selfish.

I knew then that this was mainly my glob to deal with. I needed to learn how to self-regulate my emotions. I needed to learn how to self-soothe. He couldn’t help me in those moments of hysteria. I knew it and he knew it. My demanding he continue to try to soothe me in those moments was causing him to lose respect for me because, why wouldn’t it? I was acting like a toddler.

It still took me a couple of weeks to really get over hearing the words, “I don’t respect you.” Once I was able to process everything and explain my fears and how hurt I felt, he apologized for not being able to express his struggles with my behavior in a more constructive way. He took responsibility for his own role in our spirals and promised to support me as I worked through my stuff. But, at the end of the day, I had to do the hard work of putting aside my ego and admitting that I was disrespecting him by prioritizing my emotions before all else. And so, I stopped. I stopped the excuses. You know the ones: If he wasn’t so … or if he didn’t do … then I wouldn’t … The thing is, he is not responsible for my behavior. He does not make me lose control. I do. And no matter what my intentions, my behavior was adversely affecting him. Relationships are two-way streets and living a life of radical responsibility means facing up to our impact on each other. We each have our weaknesses, our failures, and our areas for growth. The trick is maintaining a sense of humility and compassion, and unwavering support for each other’s struggles in order to keep trudging, together, into the light.

Anna Kawar is an improvement coach and writer living in Northern California.

  • Dr. Sheila Addison
    Posted at 10:56h, 18 November Reply

    This description of couple therapy pains me as a couple therapist myself. The author’s “hysterics” are an example of the desperate protest that occurs in an anxiously-attached person who is experiencing the withdrawal of their partner. His stonewalling is an example of an avoidantly-attached person’s efforts to maintain distance, which only increase her fear and panic. The solution is not for her to “calm down,” but for him to learn to come close, which will naturally soothe her and help her soothe herself.

    Dozens of process and outcome studies on Emotionally Focused Therapy have proven that the “conventional wisdom” of behavioral couple therapy, that pursuers need to just back off and self-soothe, is next to useless in actual couple fights, and does not produce long-term, lasting change in relationship conflict. It also supports a largely sexist narrative that women (who are more likely to be pursuers in heterosexual couples) are causing conflict by being “too emotional” and they just need to get “more rational” like their male withdrawing partners. John Gottman’s studies of couples finds that in fact theses stonewalling withdrawers are also emotionally dysregulated; they just hide it well, often even from themselves.

    EFT’s process research has demonstrated that both partners need to understand their part of the negative cycle they’re locked into, and improve their ability to listen for their own and their partners’ vulnerable emotions underneath the “hysteria” and the mask of cold rationality. But the critical change event is for the withdrawing partner to start to reach out and turn toward the pursuing partner FIRST, not to badger the pursuer to “calm down” and “back off.” The outcome research shows that following this model of change in couples leads to improvement in over 80% of couples, change which lasts through the 5- and 10-year follow-ups. The more traditional “you back off and maybe I’ll show up” approach advocated by behavioral and psychodynamic couple therapists shows that at 6 months, half of couples are distressed again, and at one year, the majority might as well never have gone to therapy.

Post A Reply to Dr. Sheila Addison Cancel Reply