Dear Thelma: My boyfriend hurts me when he loses his temper and it scares me

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Dear Thelma,

My boyfriend and I have been dating for eight years; we’re both 28. We started together as college students, stayed together in the same student flat, and we’re both now working adults.

Recently, we went out to a restaurant for breakfast. As we drove into the car park, I told him,"Remember to wear your mask when you pay for the parking later." I even held one in my hand so that when he needed to get down to pay for the parking, he could just take the mask.

After he had parked the car, the abang collecting the parking fee approached our car. My boyfriend did not listen to my advice but rolled down the window and proceeded with paying the guy, without wearing a face mask.

I got really annoyed and asked him why he couldn’t be a more responsible citizen, protecting himself and his loved ones.

He didn’t bother with my nagging but got out of the car and asked me to walk faster as there’s a queue forming at the restaurant.

My mood was completely off but I knew what had happened could not be reversed, so I walked behind him slowly and frowned at him to show my unhappiness.

He then walked towards me and grabbed my hand really tightly, and tried to pull me towards the restaurant. It was with so much force that my wrist turned red. I asked him to let me go and tried to use my other hand to release myself but he held onto my wrist with even more force.

He started saying “Please lah, can you walk faster? There’s a queue.”

I started tearing up as it hurt.

When we were seated, he said, “Can you not act like this? This is the only day I get to rest properly, without work and stress. What do you want from me? Can you stop being like that?”

My tears just rolled down my cheeks. Everyone in the restaurant was looking at me but I just couldn't hold back my tears.

I asked him why he had to grab me so tightly, and said that his action was abusive.

He questioned me back, “Did I hit you? I didn’t. I’m not abusive, I don’t think I did anything wrong.”

When I got home, I thought about the incident and imagined if my future daughter got treated this way, or if my girl friends were being treated this way by their boyfriends, is this even acceptable?

In the evening, my boyfriend apologised to me, and said he didn’t do it on purpose, he was just too hungry, he wanted me to walk a little faster as there’s a queue, and his intention was not to hurt me.

That reminded me of another incident that happened some years back that scared me very much. When we were still in college, we lived together in the same house. One night, I had such a serious stomach pain that I called up the emergency clinic nearby as I was afraid it could be appendicitis.

After the phone consultation with the nurse on duty, I walked upstairs to wake my boyfriend up and told him that I was in serious pain. He was half-awake and could only mumble something, then asked me to lie down and rest and everything would be OK.

Just then, the phone rang. It must've been the clinic nurse. I had left the phone downstairs. So I got up to answer the call, as I wanted to know what the diagnosis was.

At that moment, my boyfriend woke up and ran downstairs, pressed me down against my bed and asked me why I could run down the stairs if I was in so much pain, and insisted that I had purposely woken him up when I was actually feeling OK.

He shouted at me, and showed me that disgusting angry facial expression. I just broke down and cried.

I was shocked that he had turned into a monster and accused me of waking him up for no good reason. That was a nightmare and I never felt so alone before. After all his shouting, he went up to his room and continued sleeping.

I called for a breakup the next morning but he apologised and said he would not let that happen again. He said he has a very bad temper whenever he doesn’t get enough sleep. So, in the end, life went on. Whenever I recall the incident, it makes me feel really sad.

Another incident happened when we were overseas. We were in a cafe for lunch and had ordered some toast to share. When the waiter handed us the food, I was so excited that I took up the knife to cut it up.

My boyfriend lost his temper and grabbed the knife from me, then scolded me, saying that I was cutting it up the wrong way (it wasn't exactly symmetrical). He screamed and humiliated me in front of all the other guests.

I felt so ashamed when the boss of the restaurant came over and said, “If you like to finish that plate, then just finish it, and please leave the restaurant after that.” We left the restaurant without finishing that meal. Again, the ending of the story is always he apologised, begged for my forgiveness, and life goes on.

I am so confused now and concerned if he’s the right guy.

We get along well most days. But such memories haunt me sometimes, especially when we get into a fight and I would flash back those memories and ask myself if it is worth it.

We share many common interests. We both love hiking and throughout the years we have travelled to almost 20 countries together. We could spend the whole night planning our itineraries, talking about where we should hike next. His parents are very supportive of our relationship and my family too thinks he’s a good fit.

He would apologise and swear he'd never let the same incident happen again. I always forgive him but it does scare me a little. Now and then he would ask me if I love him, and I’m getting more and more reluctant to answer this question.

What can I do? No matter what I decide, I’m afraid I’ll regret it later in life.


Dear R,

OK, so you are in a car and you are telling him what to do. That's you trying to control him. He is passive-aggressive, ignoring you. You then punish him with frowning and walking deliberately slowly. He retaliates by physically hurting you.

This is not a one-off. In the past, you thought you had a life-threatening issue and he ignored it. Also, you had a screaming fight that got you kicked out of a hotel – over how you cut your toast.

Why do you want to marry someone who doesn't care if you're sick and potentially in danger of losing your life, and who has a history of exploding in violent abusive rages that also turn physical?

My advice is to leave. Now.

Get yourself some proper counselling from a mental health professional who is skilled in dealing with emotional and physical abuse. You need to address several issues, which include these standard points.

First, understand how abuse works. Usually, the abuser works a mix of intimidation and emotional abuse to wear the victim down. If the victim protests, the abuser uses gaslighting and points to stereotypes and privilege to justify bad behaviour. They also get other people, especially family, to tell the victim that the abuse is perfectly OK.

Second, repair your self-esteem and get to a good place for yourself. This will take time.

Third, you have picked up bad habits. This is to be expected, because when you live with toxic people, it's only natural to copy some of their behaviour. Figure out the bad habits you've picked up and work actively towards learning healthy behaviour.

Fourth, figure out why you didn't walk away the first time he exploded in rage. Or why you didn't leave when he didn't care that you were sick. If you understand what kept you in this awful relationship, you can avoid it in the future.

Fifth, learn healthy patterns and when you are ready to date again, actively look for and avoid red flags. Actively look for good partners. Take it very, very slowly.

Finally, I've said this before but I'm saying this again: do not go to couples therapy. Couples therapy is for people who respect each other, who look for win-win, and who want to address life issues. Abusers don't have respect and they want all the power and control. If you go to couples therapy with an abuser, they just hijack the process.

You cannot change your boyfriend. Your boyfriend has to figure out his own path. And if he decides to change, he needs to work on himself in his own sessions with his own therapist. You cannot be involved.

Typically, it takes effort and time to change, many months if not years. Also for many couples, there is no going back as the history of pain is too big a legacy to be overcome.

For this reason, the most common best-case scenario is that abusive couples split up, the victim heals, the abuser learns new ways, and they find new partners and go on to lead their own happy lives.

So please, get out, get help and work on yourself. You deserve happiness.

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