When I was arrested for domestic violence, I knew I’d done something wrong. But I also knew I was not the only one creating problems in our relationship. The fact that I was the only one in trouble and the only one expected to change didn’t seem fair. If you have a difficult partner who causes or worsens the conflict between you, then this post if for you.

All your fault?

Maybe you’ve heard that “Abuse is never the victim’s fault.” Wait, I thought when I came across that statement. I know first-hand that my (now ex-) wife can be a pretty difficult partner. How can all of this be my fault, while she is systematically cleared of any wrongdoing?

I know first-hand that my (now ex-) wife can be a pretty difficult partner. How can all of this be my fault?

I did more than my share of things that hurt my wife and damaged our relationship. Those actions need to stop. And, I get that I shouldn’t beat my wife up for accidentally burning dinner. But how should I handle her screaming at me, calling me names, or kicking me in the groin?

Here’s the truth: none of us are perfect. All of us are flawed: you, me, your partner, and mine—every human being. To pretend that one person is ever totally innocent while the other is totally at fault is not the real world.

When someone paints domestic violence situations as having a pure victim and a pure villain, I know they are not living in my world. I wish organizations and experts would stop portraying it like that because it just hurts their credibility. How can I trust that their guidance is good if they don’t start with reality?

Every partner is a difficult partner

The truth is that everyone will be a difficult partner at times. They will behave in challenging, unfair, and sometimes hurtful ways. In other blogs and on this website, we talk a lot about why people do this. In short, we say that hurting people hurt others, and this applies to our mates as well as you and me.

The degree to which an individual is a difficult partner varies. Some people are easy to get along with, while others are more challenging. Each of us will find particular personality traits that are hard to accept, but that is as much about us as them.

No matter what our significant other does, an abusive or violent response is never okay.

How we respond to our partner, however, is our responsibility. No matter what our significant other does, an abusive or violent response is never okay. It’s not in our best interest, either.

The mildly difficult partner

Remember that just because someone’s words or actions feel hurtful doesn’t mean that they are. We frequently misinterpret situations by passing them through our own filters. Then, we get upset because of our distorted thoughts rather than the other person being a difficult partner.

What can we do about our beloved’s imperfections? Often, we try to change them, but this strategy seldom works, even if we’re right and our intentions are good. Attempting to reshape another is dangerously close trying to control them—which is the kind of behavior that we’re working to stop. It’s far better for us to let them take the initiative for their own growth.

Also, be careful not to assign intent. Most people don’t try to hurt the person they are with in a relationship. They might be preoccupied with their own life, unaware of how their actions affect others, or careless in their choice of words. That’s different than them intentionally trying to hurt us.

We justify retaliating by assuming the other person meant to cause us harm, but often that’s not the case. Getting revenge on an innocent person is unjustified. It’s also a quick way to become the one who is doing something wrong, which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid.

Gently share how your partner’s words or actions affected you and check with them to find out what they meant. Be empathetic to whatever is driving their behavior and show them some grace. Tolerance is required to maintain any good relationship.

This approach is the one most likely to resolve the conflict while preserving the close, loving relationship we all want. It keeps the focus on the issue. When we escalate the conflict, the attention turns to our bad behavior and our original complaint is lost. I’ve found, too, that I feel better about myself and my relationships when I communicate with gentleness and grace.

Mutual abuse

At the other extreme are those difficult partners whose words and actions directed toward us could be considered abusive or violent. Responding to them with similar treatment does not solve any problems and only makes a good outcome less likely. When I demand “an eye for an eye” for something you’ve done, the only thing that happens is that we both end up blind.

Nearly 40% of domestic violence happens in mutually abusive relationships.

Here is a little-known fact: studies show that nearly 40% of domestic violence happens in mutually abusive relationships. This is where both parties are using violence on each other. That number doesn’t count situations where one party is using emotional abuse and the other responds with physical abuse.

If you find yourself in this situation, the first thing you can do is to stop contributing your half. The changes you make to your reactions may positive affect how your partner acts. Violence and abuse often happen as the result of escalating tensions, so stepping out of it breaks the cycle.

By setting an example and working on your emotional control, you may inspire him or her to do the same. It’s important to let them decide that for themselves, however. Don’t push them into it.

On the other hand, you may determine that your life is never going to be free of excessive conflict as long as you stay together. It took me a long time and was painful, but that was the ultimate outcome of my previous marriage. You’re only going to be in a position to make that decision after you’ve done the necessary work on yourself, however.

Our responsibility

A danger of saying our partner shares responsibility for our conflict is that it’s easy to focus on their part and not our own. I did much wrong in my former relationship and those things caused a lot of problems. I needed to heal, change, and stop my hurtful and abusive actions.

Think of your partner’s deficiencies as good practice opportunities for improving your emotional control. Make it your goal to respond to your partner in the most constructive and compassionate way possible. Having the ability to respond well to a difficult partner or any other challenging person is a badge of honor worth seeking.

Here’s a good rule to keep in mind: if our action could hurt our loved one emotionally or physically, then it’s not okay. If we feel hurt by their slight, hurting them back accomplishes nothing. Yelling at someone who has raised his or her voice to us isn’t the best strategy. If they strike us, it’s okay to defend ourselves but not escalate the conflict.

There are always better, more productive responses than getting even.

There are always better, more productive responses than getting even. Those responses require good emotional control so we don’t just react, but rather we stop and think through the best alternative. We should plan our words and actions so they preserve a loving relationship, protect our partner from harm, and perpetuate our good character.

By focusing on our own actions and healing, we’re concentrating on the part of the relationship we can control. It’s the only hope we have to make our life better, whether the relationship lasts or not. I would have missed the chance to improve myself and would have carried my garbage into my next marriage if I concentrated on my ex’s part.

Faith note

A Bible passage that most of us have heard at Christian weddings provides a standard for what we are to do in our relationships:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. – I Corinthians 13:4-7

We’re to show patience and kindness. We’re not to be jealous, demanding, or irritable. And, when we’re wronged, we shouldn’t keep score or hold a grudge. God gives us these instructions for our intimate relationships because he knows this attitude will be necessary for them to survive and thrive.

God knows our partners, you, and me aren’t perfect, yet he loves us anyway. That’s called grace. Once we realize how amazing God’s grace is for us, it becomes much easier to show it to others, including our difficult partners.