it's complicated

Being Hangry Almost Destroyed My Relationship

Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to itscomplicated@nymag.com.)

My fiancé and I didn’t fight every day, or even every week, but we did fight often enough it always happened in a specific pattern: get up, work, make dinner, argue. I could always feel it coming, and it always started when I was hungry.

Or, to be more specific, when I was hangry, that specific emotion of feeling angry at everything — including the person you love most — when you’re hungry and your blood sugar dips. All my life I’ve dealt with what my mom calls “the shakes.” My hands literally start shaking when I get too hungry; my mood plummets, I can’t focus, and without energy to process my thoughts into niceties, I start snapping at whoever is nearby. My mom taught me to combat this by always carrying peanut butter crackers in my purse, and my best friends gently suggest snacks if I cross a line without realizing it. But in my romantic relationships, there hasn’t been an easy fix.

In college, my ex-boyfriend would insist I not snack and ruin my dinner before we went out, which often meant I’d spend the few hours before the meal in utter misery. Our worst fight happened in a restaurant, where he and a few friends delayed us from ordering because they were getting a drink at the bar. I was furious. (Obviously, we broke up, though it took a few months after that.)

My fiancé and I had our most irritating fights when we were cooking dinner or, worse — because it meant dinner was even further away — when we were figuring out what to eat. In my impatient hangry haze, I would snap quickly and fiercely, and in his own low-blood-sugar state, my fiancé wouldn’t be able to let it slide. Every few weeks, this same fight would begin again: We couldn’t decide what to eat or how to make it, and things would escalate.

What the fight was actually “about” depended on the day, and the fact that I can’t specifically remember the reason for any one of them now should indicate how unimportant they really were. But if I had to choreograph an example, it would go like this: We’d struggle to figure out what to eat. Once we started cooking, the fire alarm would go off, because it always went off if we turned the oven above 400 degrees. He would declare he didn’t even want dinner anymore. I would start yelling about that being irrational and why couldn’t he just eat what we were making. He would then say the whole night was ruined. I would say the night wasn’t actually ruined, he was just being unreasonable. This would repeat until I cried or we ate dinner.

Like any couple, we did have real fights sometimes, the kind that involves an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. These fights were not that. These fights were exasperating, idiotic conflicts where I couldn’t help but lash out and I didn’t have the capacity to see beyond the moment. Meanwhile, my partner would overreact because when he was hungry, everything was a crisis. We never really addressed anything, and our reasons for fighting were never clear.

Marriage and family therapist Sharon Rivkin warns against settling into these patterns of argument. “Once you get into that cycle of getting triggered and going with it,” she says, “you’ve built so much hate and resentment for each other that it’s sometimes not able to repair it.”

Our cycle of fighting could have continued forever — or until we broke up — but luckily, something changed.

That something would be me. I’ve been to therapy on and off for years to deal with depression and anxiety. In my latest round of therapy, I went in prepared to complain about these hunger-induced fights, and ready to blame my partner for them. I just needed some tips to fix his attitude.

My therapist, as you can probably guess, did not indulge me on that. It took a while, but slowly, I started to understand what should have already been obvious: that I actually contributed to these fights, quite a bit, and that instead of accepting his feelings, I would just push back and tell him he was wrong. It wasn’t just him being irrational and grouchy. It was me, too.

Though you probably wouldn’t be able to tell if you had seen us in action, I actually hate conflict. I am not comfortable with discomfort, and my instinct is usually to try to fix situations and moods, even when I shouldn’t. So the biggest breakthrough I had during these therapy sessions was the realization that it was okay for my fiancé to be frustrated when we were hungry. If I sat with my frustration over being hungry and anxious, and allowed my fiancé to feel his own feelings about it, then we both could work through them and move on — hopefully with dinner and without an argument.

In turn, my fiancé did his own work to stop these cycles: As I tried to be more patient and accepting, he tried to stop lashing out and overreacting. The kitchen, which had once been a battleground, began to feel more like a refuge, where we could cook together and enjoy each other.

Of course, having conscious thoughts about your actions is easier when you’re not so hungry that you want to lie on the kitchen floor and not get up. (Which, I’m sorry to admit, I’ve done more than once.) It sounds counterintuitive, but it took effort for me to do nothing when I was hungry — to sit with discomfort instead of channeling it into anger, to understand that the discomfort would pass and my partner would still be there for me. It sounds so obvious now that my stomach is full and my mind is clear, but such is the nature of being hangry: It blinds you to common sense.

I was surprised to see how much this new attitude began to bleed over into other aspects of our relationship: In all our conflicts (including ones that took place outside the kitchen), I began to look inward more regularly, to see if I was making things worse instead of better. And each time, I learned a little better how to differentiate between what was actually important to me, and was wasn’t.

“You don’t want to let go of something that is really important to you, because then you’re going to resent your partner,” Rivkin says. “But there are many things that you get triggered by that really don’t fit into the core issue, what’s driving you.” Most of the time, whatever we were fighting about when we were hungry wasn’t something that really mattered. What mattered was that I wasn’t listening to my partner or respecting his feelings. Once I started doing that, my hanger shifted into simple hunger.

I don’t think we were ever in real danger of breaking up during these fights. But I do think that if we continued that pattern, it could have eventually led to irreparable damage. Fixing my own hanger-related issues meant I’m finally able to decide what’s important, and let the rest go — even when I’m hungry.

Being Hangry Almost Destroyed My Relationship