Journey through the sea of cultural dysfunction:

Dear Dr. Brilliant Cliché;

I watched The Burning Bed and I know how to recognize an abusive relationship in the extreme. But I am having a problem with my own situation and, as with most issues in real life, it just isn’t as clear and simple as in the movies.

I’m no angel myself. I have a temper, and when confronted with challenges, I tend to react more with anger rather than fear.  So sometimes my husband and I get into heated arguments. The problem is that when he gets frustrated to the point where he snaps, he will suddenly lash out at me with a rage that is totally disproportionate to the circumstances at hand. He will first hurl the most hurtful comments at me: “You stupid, ugly cow, why don’t you just f____ing DIE??!!!” And this is a toned down version. He will then begin grabbing nearby objects (coincidentally, never the ones that matter to HIM) and smash them against the wall. Upon occasion, he has slapped me, not hard enough to knock me out but hard enough that it really hurt, and left a mark. He always ends these displays by stomping out and leaving me to guess where he has gone to-  while I pick up the pieces.

When he finally comes home, he is always humble and contrite. He brings flowers or some other little gift and throws himself on my mercy. He says that he never meant to explode, but I pushed him to it. Knowing what a temper I can have, I always feel a twinge of guilt at this- why didn’t I just let the issue we were arguing about GO? OK, I’d been asking him for a month to take care of a task he’d promised to do and he kept blowing me off- but was it worth all this?

So I take him back. He promises he’ll never do it again. Until the next time. And there’s always a next time. He could easily cooperate with me in a hundred ways, but always

seems to make choices to leave me in the lurch… then he freaks out when I try to find out what the heck is going on.

Other than these fights, we have a fairly livable situation- we’ve been together for 10 years and I just don’t want to start over- what if someone else was even worse?

And what if it really IS my temper that is at fault here? How will my life even get better if I leave?

I feel trapped. Right now I don’t have a job, or any relatives, and I don’t have the resources necessary to just act in the moment. Any ideas?

Ida Knowell


Dear Ida,

If it feels wrong it probably is wrong. You are splitting hairs: “Other than these fights, we have a fairly livable situation”? This is plain silly. The two of you are in a toxic relationship. It is not about who’s at fault.  Only people with equal yet often opposite issues would tolerate being in a dysfunctional relationship.  If one partner is controlling, manipulative or threatening, the other partner has to allow themselves through rationalizations and fear to be controlled, manipulated or threatened.

Many of the lessons we are taught growing up in this culture just don’t work in real life. Some examples: love is redemptive; turn the other cheek; the greatest form of love is sacrifice… We expect that giving either ultimatums or second chances will change another’s behavior. We believe that there is a white knight in armor who will ride in and take care of us. We are certain that all our needs can be met by one person. These are all prescriptions for a horrible dysfunctional relationship.

If your partner won’t get into marital therapy with you, seek counsel to know what your rights are. There are laws regarding domestic altercations. I don’t advise that you wait to act simply because the violence has not escalated into outright war. Waiting to act will just prolong the inevitable. Violence in any form is wrong.

It would be very useful, at some point, to discover DBT- dialectic behavioral therapy. It is the form of treatment proven to be the most effective in preventing future dysfunctional relationships. In it, you will learn all the rules of life you did not learn growing up in our culture. It would also be helpful to seek a woman’s group to form the basis of support for both your self esteem and change.

You have been with your husband for 10 years but you have never had a relationship with him. In order to have a relationship it requires a skill set that neither of you have.  Please!- avoid the common trend to take Xanax rather than acquire relationship skills. Pills such as Xanax enable you to put up with the stress of a dysfunctional relationship, but this just prolongs the inevitable while the situation worsens.

In order for your life to improve you will need to go against the cultural grain. You may feel the urge to blame yourself, shut up, and zone out with the help of readily available pharmaceuticals. Instead, you need to invest in your future with education, information and support.

Good luck in your journey,


Dr. Brilliant Cliché


Granny says: the only thing worse than being alone is being with a partner who makes your life a toxic dump site. But if you believe that your own behavior might be playing a part in the disruptions, I understand your reluctance to just walk out and start over. There are women who simply hop from one toxic relationship to another. You don’t want to be one of them. And I’m guessing that you don’t want to spend the rest of your life alone either.

Every relationship has it’s rocky moments, so it’s easy to rationalize problems when your mind is not clear. But when abuse of any kind, emotional or physical,, is involved, the most important question to ask at this time is: CAN this problem be solved? If it can’t, then no amount of love is going to keep you from killing each other, figuratively if not literally.

If you truly love this guy and want to try to save the marriage, then get into counseling of some sort or you don’t stand a chance. People in toxic relationships CAN’T change themselves. There is no reference for it, only the same sad games being played over and over again. You need an impartial third party to help sort things out.

If you don’t love the guy and there is nothing that you want to save, then start taking some definite steps to change your life. If you can’t just walk out, right now, for whatever reason, then I have a very important piece of advice for you while you figure out your next move: YOU ARE LIVING WITH A LOADED GUN. DO NOT APPLY ANY UNNECESSARY PRESSURE TO THE TRIGGER. This means that you have to control your own behavior, even if he acts like a nasty jackass. What are the triggers that set off his anger? Your own anger? Control it. Does he explode after you have been “nagging him” for too long? Stop nagging. Immediately. No matter what the reason. From what you’ve said, your husband deliberately neglects promises in order to goad you. He might be an anger junkie. Some passive-aggressive people positively thrive on manipulating others into throwing anger at them. Don’t fall for it. Do the neglected chore yourself while you plan your escape in an intelligent manner. And if he comes at you, no matter your efforts, keep a can of pepper spray on hand. It won’t hurt him but it’ll keep him from hurting you.

And Granny has a question for Dr. Brilliant. Many of the women I’ve known who were in toxic relationships also had economic problems. One of the things that holds them back from getting help is that they can’t afford it. There are free support groups available, but a support group is not a substitute for something such as dialectic behavioral therapy. One might think that programs are available for people with low incomes- but I did some research a year ago for a friend and discovered that the only free psychological help available for low-income citizens was that of medication; no counseling was available because there wasn’t a budget anywhere for it. How does a woman without cash or insurance find behavioral therapy? This is IMPORTANT- because if a person can’t change their self-destructive behavior, their ability to have a healthy relationship won’t change either. In such a case, I really do understand how a person can feel that being in a relationship marred by occasional unpleasantness is better than having nothing at all.


Dr. Brilliant adds:

This is a good question, unfortunately if one is low income, but not low enough to qualify for state aid, then there is not a lot of help available. Many women’s shelters have social workers, as do many domestic violence programs. I would start there. These programs can direct you to many other free resources for help. Google for local and state free numbers regarding domestic violence hotlines.  Information is power; these are a good place to start.

RI Coalition against Domestic Violence

They offer many sources for help and info on abuse


About Dr. Brilliant Cliché

Dr. Brilliant Cliché and the Granny Dr. are a fictional web presence and advice blog. Together we offer a joint perspective that is deep but not academic, entertaining but not fluff, and educated yet street smart. By joining the internet community we hope to share thoughts and stimulate insightful conversation around pressing issues that affect us all. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts. (This is not a site for therapy nor does it intend to replace medical or other professional care. ) You can leave comments here or email The Dr. at and don’t forget to like us on facebook. Our facebook page is Dr. Brilliant Cliche
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