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Advice: Am I in an Abusive Relationship?

 Just Ask Me, by Fran Dorf (Originally published on The Daily Muse.)

Dear Fran,

I’ve been dating a guy for almost two years, and lately we’ve been talking about living together, leading to marriage. We both have great jobs, love outdoor sports, and dogs (we each have one). He’s in finance, and I’m an account executive at an advertising agency. We seem perfectly matched, and I’m thrilled that we’re going to make a life together.

The problem? Last week we got into a fight about his older brother, who I can’t stand. My boyfriend wants him to be his best man and I can barely stand to be in the same room with the guy. He’s loud, uncouth, and I hate the way he talks to his wife. Anyway, I said some things I shouldn’t have said, and everything got heated and my boyfriend ended up pushing me against the wall. I hit my head, but I’m fine.

My best girlfriend says she thinks my boyfriend is “abusive,” even though he’s never touched me before. I do love him, but sometimes he can be stubborn, which drives me crazy, and I say things I know I shouldn’t say, which gets him upset, and that’s why he gets out of control. He apologized profusely, and the next day sent me beautiful long stemmed yellow roses.   

What should I do? I love him, but I really think I’m right—don’t I get to have a say in who will be the best man at my own wedding?

Upset

Dear Upset,

I’m sorry to have to rain on your parade, but I think you may be asking the wrong question. I understand that you love your boyfriend, but before you marry him or even consent to live with him, I suggest you get some serious couples counseling. In a way, I’m glad this pushing incident happened before you got married rather than after, because it gives you a chance to see if he’s so stubborn that he’s unwilling to address this very serious matter.

I have several reasons for saying this.

First, I agree with your girlfriend: Pushing someone—even one time—is abusive. What’s more, past behavior is a good indicator of future behavior, and unless he gets some help learning to deal more appropriately with his emotions, it’s likely that this abusive behavior will continue, and possibly even worsen.

Next, you say he “gets out of control,” as if it happens often. I suspect you mean that he becomes verbally abusive when he is frustrated or angry. It also sounds as if you do, too, since you admit you “say things you know you shouldn’t.”

One of the things you will learn (or should learn) through counseling is that “anger” is an internal state that everyone experiences. This is a different issue from aggressive behavior, which is a result of anger. Aggression is saying or doing things that hurt another person to try to control, humiliate, or get what you want. Frequent or intense bouts of anger, along with verbal, emotional, or physical abuse or aggression, need to be addressed in therapy, where you will not only discuss the root causes of this anger, you’ll learn some alternative behaviors to cope with it.

(As a side note: The fact that his brother is abusive to his own wife may mean that anger and frustration was handled this way in the household where they both grew up, and this is what was modeled for them. All the more reason that you should be addressing this in therapy.)

Now, it may make you feel better temporarily that he apologized. But unfortunately, that behavior is part of the cyclical four-stage process of domestic violence.

In Stage I, tension builds as the abuser becomes edgy and reacts in a more hostile or psychologically abusive way. Stage II is the explosion, represented in this case by pushing. And Stage III is the reconciliation, often called the “Honeymoon Stage,” in which the abuser becomes remorseful, sometimes overly so, apologizes for harming the victim, and assures her that it will never happen again. After the violence, it is very common for abusers to shower their victims with love and affection, buy expensive gifts, send flowers, and so on.

And finally, there could be the calm stage, in which the abuser really tries to control him or herself. But if he (or she) hasn’t learned coping skills and alternative methods to deal with anger and frustration, or faced the reasons and antecedents for the anger, conflicts will inevitably arise and the cycle will start all over again.

Look, it’s possible an incident like this will never happen again, and your boyfriend will be a model husband who never pushes or hurts you or gets out of control again. It’s possible, too, that you’ll be a model wife who never again says things she doesn’t mean. But my question is: Do you really want to take that chance? I am not saying you need to break up this man, but I am saying, again, that you need to deal with these very serious issues, and sooner rather than later.

As for your question about whether you have a right to a say in who the best man is at your wedding, I think it’s not a matter of whether something is universally right or wrong. In a healthy marriage, decisions are made based on mutual respect, compromise, and communication. You must be able to calmly discuss the conflicts that inevitably arise, and come to an agreement that works for both of you.

In this case, your boyfriend may learn in counseling that his brother’s behavior toward his wife is inappropriate. You may in fact actually need to say that to him, not because he can change his brother, but because you need him to know that you won’t put up with such behavior from him. Similarly, he needs to know that you’re going to make an effort to curtail your own inappropriate behavior. Maybe, once your husband sees how inappropriate some of his own behavior is, he may begin to agree with you about his brother.

On the other hand, it is his brother, and it may cause a lifelong rift in all of your relationships to take a stand on whether he should be your husband’s best man.

I wish you the best, and thanks for asking,

Fran

Read more: http://www.thedailymuse.com/health/am-i-in-an-abusive-relationship/#ixzz2KqKQwD5L
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Just Ask Me: Uh-oh. Her love is probably headed for law school 3000 miles away

Originally posted in THE DAILY MUSE

Dear Fran,

I’m 23 and I’ve been dating my boyfriend for three years. We went to college together and, right afterwards, both got jobs in LA. We have an amazing relationship, I’m so happy, and I’m pretty sure that this is the guy I want to marry.

The problem: He just got accepted to law school—in New York. He applied to mainly California schools, but he decided to apply to Columbia and NYU on a whim, and he got in to both. It would be huge for him to go to a top 10 law school, but I can’t help but wish that he would stay here. I don’t want to hold him back from this amazing opportunity, but I can’t imagine life without him! 

Me moving there with him isn’t really an option either—I just started a Master’s program here. But the truth is, even when I finish it, I don’t want to move to New York! I love it in LA, all my family and friends are here, and I really see a future staying at my job.

What do we do? If he stays, I feel like he will resent me for missing out on a great opportunity. And if he goes, I’ll resent him for putting us in a long-distance relationship (not to mention, we’ll both be pretty miserable apart). How do we make the right decision for our relationship and for our careers?

In Love in California

Dear In Love in California,

Let’s get the only easy solution out of the way first. Did he also apply to a top school close by? Is going there an option?

If not, I’m afraid there is no “right” decision, partly because every option you have risks something. Assuming you want to remain a couple, all you can do is weigh the choices and try to take the least threatening alternative.

One possibility is to let him decide based on what’s best for him, vow to try not to punish him emotionally, deal with his choice (perhaps with emotional support from family, friends, even a therapist), and hope for the best. Or he could do the same for you.

But here’s my real answer. Long-term, mature, healthy relationships require at the very least the three “C’s”: communication, compromise, and compatible goals.

Your current goals may not be completely compatible, but keep in mind that couples do sustain long distance relationships all the time. You’ll communicate regularly through the magic of video technology, you’ll split the plane rides, and you’ll reunite in a few years.

Or you’ll compromise, which means one of you might have to take both an emotional and a career risk. Remember, it’s possible his career will be great no matter where he goes. And you could end up loving New York and having an even better career there. Unfortunately, this isn’t a science experiment with a control group that tells you what would have happened if you’d made the other choice. Which of course is why it’s a risk. And why it’s life.

This issue appears, however, to have uncovered communication problems between you. It strikes me that he applied “on a whim” to not one, but two practically must-attend schools 3,000 miles away. That’s some whim. Did he keep it a secret, or fail to mention it until he got in? Is that his M.O.? Or did he say, “I won’t get in, so don’t worry?” (And did you really believe this, given that he’s obviously smart enough to get into both?) Did he say, “I’m applying on a whim, but if I get in, I’m going?” Did either of you say, “but what about us?”

Analyze whatever happened for clues of his character, nature, maturity level, values, and commitment to your relationship. What does it say about him if he kept it a secret? About you if you’ve been afraid to express your concerns?

It’s possible your boyfriend loves you with all his heart, wants to marry you, and did this innocently. (I know he didn’t do it because he’s not very smart.) Perhaps he even believes that 3,000 miles won’t put a serious strain on your relationship.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that he seems to have set you both up for this, which may mean your commitment levels are unequal or he has underlying doubts, even if he can’t or won’t admit it, or doesn’t realize it.

The two of you must talk, talk, talk. Hash this out together, openly, honestly. Think about things you may not have previously considered. How will you feel if you invest years in this relationship, and he decides he wants to stay there, or he finds someone else there (a possibility that may increase when there’s such a distance)? It’s relatively easy to make promises, but is it realistic to think that a long distance relationship will satisfy your needs? Is losing him because of that a risk you’re willing to take? Does it outweigh your other concerns, such as your love of California and your job?

Also, law school is hard, especially the first year. Maybe you not being there will be a good thing and will help him concentrate. Maybe him being in law school in California would put a strain on your relationship, too.

And you say that you’re unwilling to move. But it’s possible that a separation may change your mind, and I’d encourage you to be open to that idea. In the film Going the Distance, Justin Long’s character eventually quits his job in New York to move to California to be with the lovely Drew Barrymore. There, true love wins out. But real life isn’t a movie. And I’ve found that women often feel they have do most of the compromising. (Readers, feel free to disagree.)

You two have a lot to discuss. If you do so honestly, eventually the path will become clear. Whatever happens, I do hope you’ve learned that in healthy relationships, communication and compromise are key, and that neither person ever makes unilateral decisions that are going to affect both.

I wish you (both) luck in your relationship and careers,

Fran