How to Deal With an Angry Spouse
John Gerson, Ph.D,
It is important to differentiate the spouse whose anger is a healthy response to various partner insufficiencies, such as lack of attunement, inadequate empathy, neglect, poor partner functioning -in short anger as a protest to loss of love and safety – and anger which is more characterological, i.e., independent of what’s going on situationally. The partner who is more characterologically angry obviously stresses the marital relationship, and can induce in his or her partner such coping behaviors as efforts to reach and reasonably deal with the angry partner, and/or such defensive behaviors as withdrawal and /or retaliation. Trust in the emotional safety of the relationship, the key ingredient necessary for partners to grow and for the relationship to grow and change, will be compromised, and the relationship may come to display rigid patterns of interactions in response to this problem.
When a spouse is irrationally angry, yelling, verbally or physically threatening, denigrating, in short displaying regressive behaviors more appropriate to a young child who is distressed, there are several responses to consider. The angry spouse, if he or she has some self-reflective ability, may be reachable with soothing. If this doesn’t work, it might be useful to let the angry spouse know that the behavior is unacceptable, and to forcefully say, “Stop yelling at me!” A mature partner cannot allow himself to be abused. If the tantrum continues, and especially if there is a physical threat, let the partner know that you are leaving the house and will return within a specified time frame. The act of leaving conveys that the behavior will not be tolerated, and also models the behavior of a healthy adult who will not tolerate abuse.
Psychotherapy is recommended for the angry spouse. If this individual has some self reflective capacity, it may be possible to locate the underlying frustration in past and/or present situations, and to begin, through the formation of a trusting bond with a therapist to unpack some of these disturbing issues and to deal with them more positively. If the angry spouse has more deeply ingrained characterological issues, and is therefore very unlikely to have self-reflective capacities, blaming will be the primary explanation for the anger. This person will be less likely to benefit from therapy, although softening the rigid blame stance is possible. There are some therapists who specialize in anger management on an individual and group basis; there is also a substantial literature to be consulted on the subject.
The most positive things a spouse can do when feeling angry involve cooling off, or down-regulating the distress. This can be accomplished by vigorous exercise, sleep, the careful use of prescribed medications, and by using language in a user friendly tone of voice that speaks about the anger rather than from the anger. This is a hugely important difference, as one may rightfully expect a spouse to listen, and to stay in the frame when a complaint is voiced in a non-threatening manner. When one speaks from the anger, with tone, temper, etc., then the message is never heard. The listener under this condition is motivated to achieve only one thing: safety. Empathic listening is impossible when one is scared.
For those who are always dealing with an angry spouse, and the steps I’ve outlined for the most part locate the anger as over-reactions to or even independent of what’s going on in the relationship, it’s important to discover the elements in one’s family of origin history that make living with an angry person somehow familiar, and what the underlying agenda might be for engaging in the ever present struggle for peace and understanding that such a relationship requires. Beware of notions that you have the power to change another person….
John Gerson, Ph.D.