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Living With an Angry Spouse


My friend loves her husband, but ever since he lost his job, she doesn’t enjoy being around him because he’s like a time bomb that could explode any second. She has tried reasoning with him… shouting back… biting her tongue… apologizing… and avoiding doing any little thing that might set him off. She realizes that he isn’t really angry at her, per se, but she hates it when he takes out his frustrations on her. Though they’ve been together for decades, she’s not sure how much more she can put up with.

On my friend’s behalf, I contacted psychologist W. Robert Nay, PhD, author of Overcoming Anger in Your Relationship. He told me that anger is a huge roadblock to intimacy — and that it tends to escalate. “Typically, it starts with withholding conversation or affection. Next comes sarcasm (‘Oh no, you never do anything wrong’), then contempt (‘What were you thinking — or were you thinking at all?’) and name calling (‘You’re an idiot’).” If the trend continues, anger may turn physical.

Are you, too, living with an angry partner? If you are in physical danger, obviously you must remove yourself from the situation immediately. But if the problem is not that severe, Dr. Nay recommended trying the following steps to repair the relationship.

First, prepare yourself…

Keep an anger log. For several weeks, write down the details of angry encounters — who said and did what, plus how you felt. Review your notes, and consider which behaviors bothered you — for example, being ridiculed… yelled at… criticized in front of others. Your eventual goal is to establish new boundaries for your spouse’s behavior, but first you must figure out what you want those boundaries to be.

Consider how you “reward” bad behavior. Look at your log again, focusing on your reaction to your partner’s anger. Do you cry, shout, slam doors, treat him with kid gloves, apologize for everything from the economy to the weather? Your spouse may get perverse satisfaction from this — so if you stop delivering that payoff, he may become less interested in provoking you, Dr. Nay said. Remember: You cannot control his behavior, but you can control your reaction.

Next, when you are both calm and not distracted, initiate the “big conversation”…

Clearly explain to your spouse the problems you see. You might begin with, “I love you, but I’m concerned about certain behaviors.” Then get specific — for instance, say, “I do not like it when you insult me in front of our friends. It embarrasses me.” If your husband says that you’re exaggerating, your log can back up your statements.

Accept responsibility for your own behavior — but not his. Often an angry person passes the blame, saying, “If you would stop nagging, I wouldn’t get upset.” Acknowledge your role without buying into his excuses — for example, say, “I will work on finding better ways to remind you of things. Even so, it is not acceptable for you to ridicule me.”

Inform your spouse of your new boundaries. Say something like, “In the future, I expect basic courtesy from you. This means speaking in a normal voice, as you would to a friend or coworker — not shouting. When you are civil, I will be happy to discuss whatever is upsetting you. Otherwise, I will not be available to talk or do things with you.”

Then follow through…

Consistently do what you said you would do. Your actions must reinforce your words. Whenever your partner begins to violate your boundaries, remind him to communicate calmly — and if he does not, walk away. If you cannot leave the area (for instance, because you are in a car together), stop interacting with him until he calms down, Dr. Nay suggested.

Compliment improvements in his behavior. Instead of rewarding his negative behaviors with drama, reward positive actions with praise and affection. This may encourage him to improve further.

Urge him to get a medical and psychological evaluation. If the strategies above do not help, consider whether chronic pain, medication side effects, depression or some other condition might be sparking his rages. Once he gets treatment for that underlying problem, his anger may abate.

Be patient. You are likely to encounter some stonewalling (“I don’t deal with feelings” or “You sound like a broken record”), but try not to get discouraged. With all this discussion, your partner probably is doing some thinking and changing, though it may not be on your timetable. Dr. Nay said, “You set a new course and invite your partner to come along with you — and perhaps he will.”

Source: W. Robert Nay, PhD, is a clinical associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, DC, and a clinical psychologist in private practice in McLean, Virginia, and Annapolis, Maryland. He is the author of Overcoming Anger in Your Relationship: How to Break the Cycle of Arguments, Putdowns, and Stony Silences and Taking Charge of Anger: How to Resolve Conflict, Sustain Relationships, and Express Yourself Without Losing Control (both from Guilford).
Date: February 3, 2011 Publication: Bottom Line Health
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