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Dealing with a girlfriend’s punitive behavior

Carolyn Hax

Hi, Carolyn:

I am in a long-distance relationship and I recently had a birthday. My fiancee is working overseas, and on my birthday, she never got to wish me a happy birthday. She knew the date and didn’t forget. When I asked her about it, she claimed she was angry at a conversation we had the previous night, yet we had left off saying “I love you” to each other. She claims she was sad and angry the whole day of my birthday, yet she acknowledged working, swimming and going to a work party after.

I wished her a happy birthday exactly on her date and this was the first birthday I’ve had since we’ve been together.

The conversation that she claims got her upset was when I called her and she wanted to pass her phone to one of her work colleagues who I don’t know to say hi, and I refused. This was unsettling, given I need all her attention while conversing as we are far from each other.

She later apologized and sent me a birthday wish three days late. Please assist with how to go about this.

— M.

Have you ever watched a game where a play goes awry and spirals into a brawl, and the officials all huddle for so long the producers cut to commercial break while they sort it all out, and it takes five replay angles and multiple penalties before the spectators even start to understand all the pieces of what went wrong?


So: You’re bean-counting “happy birthdays” (how old are you?); she’s grudge-withholding one (how old is she?); you’re questioning the sincerity of her explanation (she “claimed” anger), and also bean-counting her conduct (one can’t swim while sad and angry, who knew); she’s handing you off during phone calls to people you don’t even know (so obnoxious), and she’s simmering for days over your objection to that (seriously?); and you’re saying you “need,” ugh, “all her attention,” which, unless she’s operating on your brain, you just don’t, so declaring you do is possessiveness unchecked.

If this were hockey, the box would be packed like a clown car.

Some irrational fears are to be … if not expected, then at least understood and put into perspective in long-distance relationships, because distance is difficult under the best of circumstances.

But this is more than “some.” And it’s not just that you’re both fighting petty; the battles you’re choosing are petty, too.

So my advice is, in ascending order of significance:

(1) Breathe. This relationship will either work or it won’t, and you’ll be OK either way.

(2) Release any and all specific expectations of this time apart. A mishandled birthday, an unsatisfying call, some unwelcome suspense, release it all. It can even help to make two fists, for real, then exhale and open your hands. Create the physical template.

(3) Ask yourself why she responds punitively when you try to assert yourself. You say no to her passing you around via phone = she fumes for days. You’re sad about the birthday snub = it’s on you for making her angry. Red-flag stuff.

(4) Ask yourself why you feel so insecure that you’re trying to micromanage things. (Also red-flagged.) If you’re just worried she’ll leave you, then keep this in mind: A bad breakup is pain from a onetime source, like surgery; a bad relationship is everyday and indefinite, like torture.

(5) Breathe. This relationship will either work or it won’t, and you’ll be OK either way.

People who are insecure and punitive betray both significant self-doubt and a reliance on external assurances to ease that doubt — a combination that’s toxic to a commitment. Intimacy demands honesty, and honesty is only possible when both of you feel safe telling each other your emotional truth even at your most vulnerable. That safety has two basic components: a trustworthy partner (honest, non-punitive), and trust in yourself that you’ll be OK even if something goes wrong.

Well, three components, if you include: trust that a relationship is healthy only if there’s room in it for both of you to be fully and freely yourselves.

“Maturity” is this trio’s collective nickname.

Withholding, controlling, fear and lashing out all compromise the safety from which intimacy grows, because all give people incentive to hold back, to protect their own interests, to act as individuals toward their own benefit vs. navigate life as a team.

Your fiancee’s absence is an opportunity. Use it to, again, release your day-to-day expectations of her and instead focus on yourself, on your foundation of personal strength, on being (or becoming) a person who doesn’t need any one relationship to last, and therefore can just be himself.

Recognize too that to live our best lives, what each of us needs is the self-knowledge to understand what fulfills us, and the courage either to go all in when we find it — or to walk away when we don’t.

Email Carolyn at [email protected], follow her on Facebook or chat with her online at noon each Friday at

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