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‘My boyfriend has temper tantrums and verbally attacks me over chores’

Ask Roe: We’re mostly very happy and we’re very much in love, but things are sometimes tempestuous

Dear Roe,

I hope you can help me with this. My boyfriend and I are together over four years. We’re mostly very happy and we’re very much in love, but things are sometimes tempestuous. I moved in with him about a year-and-a-half ago after a divorce. Lately he’s been excessively critical of everything I do, especially my approach to laundry (yes, it’s true). He freaks out if I put a load on at the wrong time or dry the clothes out in the wrong way and literally has temper tantrums if I don’t comply with his house rules (which I respect and keep to always but sometimes he misreads things and overreacts).

I know that his behaviour is crazy but I find his outbursts really upsetting. He accuses me of being selfish and inconsiderate about such things despite my efforts and willingness to do as he wishes. Am I going mad? What should I do? For the time being I’ve started to take my clothes to the local Circle K laundry machines to avoid his tempers.

Allow me to let you into the world of the advice columnist for a moment. The formal limitations of the advice column can often be what makes it interesting; I only have one short letter to base my answer on, but the contents of the letter are often deceptively rich and ripe for analysis; the descriptions of people and dynamics, the absence of certain descriptions, the unsaid, the personal bias, the assumed attitudes around relationships, gender and sex that can come into the letter in ways that are both subtle and not; the decisions that letter-writers have already made; the questions that they’re asking; and often, the ways they’re just asking for someone to see them and validate them. Sometimes trying to fit all of this analysis, understanding, empathy, validation and advice into one single column is difficult, and I’m fighting against the word count to capture the nuance of a situation.


And then sometimes, all I want to do is write the words “dump them” and leave it there.

The white space of the page could become a visual metaphor for all the excuses I could give for someone’s disrespectful behaviour, all the nuance we could try to inject into a situation where someone is being utterly unreasonable, all the ways the letter writer has already mentally tried to justify their partner’s actions all while knowing that this is wrong – and instead the white space would be us choosing not to. The blank space could represent how we are no longer spending our time excusing ridiculous, immature, disrespectful, controlling behaviour from people who claim to love us. The white space could be all the time and energy we are reclaiming from these bad relationships and the freedom and possibility that life offers without them.

Some day I’ll write that column, and let the experimental restraint say more than I ever could.

But for now, dear letter-writer, let me expand upon why this situation is not just madness but genuinely alarming, and you should be seriously considering packing up your clean and dirty laundry and leaving this man to his own angry, controlling devices.

You have been together for four years, you have lived together for 18 months, and you say that you still feel the need to “comply to his house rules”. That is not a sentence, that is a red flag composed of words. You live together. You are meant to be in a loving and equal partnership. There should be no “complying”, no such thing as “his house rules”.

You should have shared ideals for how you want your household to run, an agreed-upon and equal distribution of chores, and a huge amount of understanding, co-operation, patience and teamwork when your best laid plans go awry. If one or both of you have particular quirks about household maintenance then you figure it out together, deciding where to put in more effort and where to surrender some control. You also figure out how to check in with each other and communicate respectfully when the mental load and execution of chores isn’t feeling equal, sustainable or being fulfilled the way you agreed upon.

None of this is happening. Instead, your boyfriend is referring to your shared home as “his house”; he is referring to his preferences as “rules”; he is throwing “temper tantrums” and attacking your character whenever you do a chore differently; and he is literally making you afraid to do basic household chores in your home because you fear he will punish you. This isn’t “tempestuous”, this is deeply alarming. Couples squabbling about chores is normal. A partner inventing “rules” then having repeated, angry outbursts where they verbally attack you is not normal, it’s the beginning of a controlling relationship.

He is criticising small things you do to make you feel on edge and like you are constantly in the wrong while trying to exist in your home. He makes very specific rules to make you feel like you’re not an equal in your shared home and to have an excuse to criticise you when you “break” them. He is having large, repeated outbursts of anger over small issues but calling you selfish and inconsiderate to make you believe that you are the issue, not him and his behaviour. He is intimidating you so much that you do not feel safe existing in your home. The issue is laundry – now. What happens if his rules start extending to other parts of your life? What other rules is he allowed to invent, what other ways is he allowed to criticise you, how volatile is he going to get when you disagree on something more important than washing?

You say this has started recently and maybe there is something larger going on, like stress or mental health issues, that is making your boyfriend lash out – but then he must acknowledge and address that, apologise to you for his behaviour, and take immediate steps to work on his emotional regulation. He needs to see a therapist, to come up with strategies to help him cope when he feels stressed or anxious, and he needs to commit to treating you as a respected equal in your shared home. But I need you to know that this is not normal, and it could easily escalate into even more controlling and aggressive behaviour, and that you need to seriously consider leaving him.

I need to flag that when you are dealing with or choosing to leave a partner who has a history of controlling behaviour and angry outbursts, you have to consider your safety, as people with control issues often lash out when they sense they are losing control or about to be left. If you want to give him one single chance to change his behaviour, have a friend on standby if you need to leave in a hurry. If you decide to leave, make sure your support system knows and that you have someone present with you when you pack up your things.

In your letter, you don’t mention any good things about your partner or what you like about this relationship. You say you are in love but let me tell you: love is not enough. You need respect, trust, good communication, safety, care, kindness, shared values, compromise, a sense of being on the same team and tackling problems together, instead of fighting each other. None of this seems to be present. You’ve been through big life shifts before, you will survive another. If I had written ‘Dump him’ and nothing more, what other, more loving, respectful and free possibilities would have emerged in the white space?