Ask Amy: Advice for the Real World

Dear Amy: I have been dating a wonderful man for nine months. He is smart, funny and deeply charming, as well as being ridiculously attractive. On a normal day, I see a great future for the two of us.

However, every once in a while he will do something that I just can’t get past. We’ll be having a normal conversation, when suddenly, he’ll pretend to be mad at me (or invent that I am mad at him), and literally pick a fight, even though he knows that neither of us is actually angry to start with.

It comes out of nowhere. Growing up, my father was prone to out-of-the-blue rages, so my first reaction is terror, followed quickly by intense anger, once I realize what he’s doing.

I’ve explained that I find this behavior confusing and very upsetting, and he apologizes at the time, but it keeps happening.

I’m starting to feel that he actually is mad at me but doesn’t know how to express it properly, and that maybe he enjoys upsetting me in this way.

He’s not a great communicator, and I tend to avoid conflict, so I’m not sure how to address this, other than the way I already have.

I don’t want to leave him, but this quasi-gaslighting might be too much for me. What should I do?

— I Wasn’t Mad, but Now I Am

Dear Mad: I agree with your take on this, that your guy chooses this extremely passive but very manipulative path as a way of expressing his genuine anger over something unrelated.

I wonder if his parents taught him to suppress his honest reactions to things that upset him, and so he learned to gin up trouble at other times, when it was “safer” for him to do so. However, the reasons behind this don’t matter as much as the behavior itself.

You should communicate your concerns very clearly, during a time when things are calm. It might help you to write down your thoughts. Give examples of times when this has happened.

You should explain the effect this baffling behavior has on you, and urge him to try harder to express himself honestly in the moment, versus blindsiding you with an invented problem.

It takes work, but it is possible to change the way you each handle conflict.

If he is unable or unwilling to work on this, I agree with you that this is a deal breaker. In addition to the effect this has on you, imagine the challenge of raising children with someone who behaves this way?

Dear Amy: My 17-year-old daughter was invited by her boyfriend’s mom to go for parent’s weekend to visit her boyfriend at his college five hours away.

She was told that just the mom was going and that she would be sharing a hotel room with the mom. However, when they picked her up, the stepdad was in the car. It became clear that she would be sharing the hotel room with the mom and the stepdad. She was uncomfortable with this but did not want to rock the boat.

My husband and I felt the sleeping arrangements were inappropriate, and booked a room for our daughter for the first night. We weren’t able to get a room for the second night, and the stepdad stayed in the dorm room with her boyfriend.

Now my daughter is spitting mad at us for intervening and inconveniencing the stepdad. It has caused a real riff. Did we do the wrong thing? We don’t know the family that well.

How do we heal the relationship with our daughter? We are all so sad right now. She barely speaks to us.

— Sad Parents

Dear Parents: You did the right thing. Your daughter reported that she was uncomfortable, you were also uncomfortable, and you responded. Now she is embarrassed.

Your daughter might have wanted to spend the night with her boyfriend in his room; your intervention thwarted this.

Invite her to talk this through with you. If she refuses, let her stew, and love her anyway. She’s a teenager and is using silence to punish you. It’s up to you whether you will submit.

Dear Amy: Thank you for your response to “Not Sure,” who was worried about a possible toxic brew with college roommates. Please continue to remind college students that their resident advisers are here to help them with their roommate and housing problems.

— RA

Dear RA: College can be a very tough adjustment. RA’s are there to help.

Contact Amy Dickinson at: askamy@amydickinson.com.