Sometimes You're An Asshole

Yep. We've all been there!

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Have you ever noticed — whenever our partner behaves like an ass, we think they should immediately own up to their wrongdoing and apologize, preferably mounted on a plaque for all to see. 

That seems fair, right? I mean, we just want responsibility taken, a sincere apology given, and our needs finally met. Am I right?  So what's their problem?!

Meanwhile, when we act like an ass, we expect our partner to let it slide, cut us some slack, and understand the real hurt or insecurity we're trying to express beneath the behavior. Talk about a double standard!


And I'm as guilty of this as anyone. 

Sometimes in my marriage, when I feel alone and burdened, I react by being a blaming, criticizing, and disapproving ass to my wife. 

Sometimes it's so subtle I don't even realize I'm doing it. When my wife responds with (understandable) hurt and her own reactivity, I feel even more justified, and turn up the volume on my assholic ways.

Here's the deal. In the heat of a fight, we can ALL come across like an ass — even when we think we're 100 percent "right."

Maybe you blame and criticize because you feel neglected. Or, you shut down and withdraw because you worry your efforts are never enough. Chances are, the strategies you use to get out of conflict make you look like an asshole.


Don't worry, it's not just you. As we say in Ireland, "there's two of ye in it."

We're all doing the best we can to make love work and to communicate effectively. We react badly when we feel threatened, and those reactions often makes us look like a mean old jerk.

In the moment, when we're hurting, our reactions make complete sense to us. But when the tables are turned and we're the one receiving criticism or a cold shoulder, we realize that behavior feels like withholding love and care (and that it only triggers more reactions). It's a cycle that's hard to break, my friend.

We all long to feel loved in different ways. Reacting to your partner often stems from a deeper emotional need that existed inside you long before you two ever met. For example, if I judge someone as a bad listener, I typically have a desire to be heard. If I feel disrespected, I long to be seen or valued. If I judge another as cold, I want to feel cared for.


You get the idea.

Oh, and by the way, if you're thinking: I'm NEVER an ass when I fight — Newsflash: that's your biggest asshole trait.

None of us are above reproach. So, if you believe you're a saint and that only your partner needs to get their shit sorted out for everything to be right in your relationship,

So, what's underneath our ineffective asshole-ish behavior? 

Here's the thing, you're not actually an asshole. You just act like one. Or, I should say, you react like one. 

You're deploying strategies to limit the pain of rejection, abandonment and a felt sense of unworthiness — strategies you mastered over your lifetime to keep yourself "safe" from feeling vulnerable. 


Facing your mistakes, owning your inadequacies, feeling emotional disconnect ... all of it makes us vulnerable. And that feeling is painful and uncomfortable. Can you remember the last time you got in touch with the real vulnerable you? If not, you're not alone.

Most of us move at lightning speed from point A (the stimulus of our discomfort) to point B (our reaction).

And ultimately, nothing matters more than feeling connected to the one you love. So, it makes sense that you react negatively when you feel a threat to that connection.

But the thing is — when you feel the absence of love, care or understood from your partner you rarely show your sweet, lovable vulnerable side and how you need a wee bit of love and understanding. Rarely will you receive what you long for (not surprisingly) demanding accountability or criticizing your partner mid-argument, because most likely these types of reactions will leave your partner leaving an absence of love, care or understanding, too!


So what can you do when you're angry (a.k.a. feeling hurt and vulnerable) to express your honest emotions but not be a total ass in the process? Here are 5 steps to try: 

1. Accept your biology. 

Research has proven that humans are hardwired to emotionally bond with another. When anything threatens that connection, you experience undeniable inner turmoil. So, recognize that your reaction to feel panicked and threatened is normal. That doesn't mean it's OK to lash out just because you feel that way, but at the same time no one graduates to a completely reaction free life. You're just not built that way...biologically speaking.

2. Step outside yourself during conflict and observe what's really going on.  


Perspective is a powerful antidote to emotional drama. So, become the observer and witness your own emotional process. As the drama unfolds, step off the stage of your life and take a seat in the audience. Witness the scene you're a part of in its entirety.

Feel your own moment-to-moment experience AND seek to understand the point of view of the other actor in the scene (a.k.a. your partner). Notice that you're stuck in a negative cycle that you both create together; a cycle of hurt and reaction that you pass back and forth like a game of hot potato. 

3. Refocus on what your true goal is —​ connection

What you really want is connection (to be heard, seen, loved). And this need is important enough to you that when it's not met, you experience vulnerability, even if you're not conscious of it. When you witness yourself reacting, open up to the possibility that your partner's behavior is simply a catalyst for you to get in touch with your own vulnerability


4. Own your bad behavior. 

You're pissed off and behaving like an asshole. You thought "the problem" was your partner, but now you realize it's the pain you feel because you’re not feeling loved in the ways you long for. A sensitive spot inside you got bumped up against and you can’t continue to keep it unfelt and unseen. That's OK. That's valid. 

Even worse, when you try to stop the pain and protect yourself (by protesting or withdrawing), this rubs your partner’s sensitive spots, wounding them and causing them to react. Damn. Can you see how you’re contributing to your own pain and vulnerability being triggered?

5. Turn toward your partner. 


In this moment of hurt, you may worry your partner won't be there for you in the ways you need, and you may even feel you don't deserve their love and support when you're this vulnerable. It can feel terrifying (and trigger you to feel pissed you off all over again).

But what if you could feel the full vulnerability and turn towards it when you would normally turn away? Could you share this moment of vulnerability with your partner? Also, IS it possible to be a loving and supportive presence for your partner when they turn towards you with their own vulnerability? Doing so takes so much more courage than blaming, criticizing, withdrawing or shutting down. Likewise, take the risk, lower your defenses and give your partner a chance to be there for you. 

Don't be surprised if you find this ridonkulously difficult while it's happening.

Once you stop hiding behind a lifetime of reactive strategies, it's gonna feel uncomfortable. Just remember you're moving toward love and connection with your partner.


It took me some time, but, in my own marriage, I learned how to identify what I am really reacting to when I'm angry and acting like a jerk. And it's not a failure on my wife's part to meet my needs. No. I'm reacting to feeling alone in the world in some way. That deep-down sense of aloneness that lives inside me is too painful for me to sit in sometimes, and it was there long before I met my wife.

I came to understand that it is in those moments that I need my wife the most, that I long to be held within the embrace of our love and support for each other. How sad for me (and for both of us) that this is also when I'm most prone to act like an ass.

Speaking of your partner, please know that it takes both of you to make things better.

You can't do all of this alone. As I tell my clients, when you both recognize you're in a negative cycle that you create together (not my cycle and your cycle, but OUR cycle), and that you fight because your connection is important to each other, you can move forward to a better relationship.


Even an asshole like me can turn things around.

When I feel that loneliness creeping up inside me, I try to reach out to my wife from my vulnerability. I ask her not to give up on me, even if I act like an ass sometimes, because I love her and ... the truth is, I need her.

Fiachra (Figs) O'Sullivan is a certified emotionally focused couples counselor and the founder of Empathi, an online coaching program for couples. As heard on NPR's All Things Considered, Figs provides in-person couples counseling in San Francisco's Inner Sunset where he lives with his wife, daughter and doodle. If you're curious about your own relationship, sign up for Empathi to be the first to take Figs' Relationship Quiz and to get free, actionable and personalized guidance on how to feel more connected!