How to Deal with an Angry Spouse

From: Dr. Frank Gunzburg

It can be a very difficult experience to live with someone who acts out in anger. It is often emotionally disturbing, incredibly frustrating, and in some cases it can even be frightening.

If your spouse’s anger is leading to abuse (of any kind) it’s time to seek help. If you are facing this situation I suggest you seek professional help from a licensed psychologist, social worker, or counselor experienced in dealing with these matters. Abusive anger is beyond the scope of this book.

But there are a lot of expressions of anger that aren’t abusive, and I can help you with those to some degree.

Throughout this section I have been drawing a distinction between the feeling of anger and the expression of that anger. Understanding what your partner is going through when he acts angrily can be an enlightening experience, may help you see his side of it better, and in itself can be a healing process.

You cannot control your spouse’s feelings. And you can’t tell him whether or not he “should” be angry. Your partner has the same right to whatever feelings he possesses as you do. The feeling of anger in itself is not bad, and therefore we won’t address that. Let your partner have his angry feelings. They are his to have.

But you should be aware that angry action in a relationship can be destructive, especially if it is affecting either you or your children in negative ways.

Having said that, we have to remember that no one is perfect, and there are probably going to be times in your relationship when one or both of you become angry. That is inevitable and it’s natural.

The issue at hand is angry action that happens over and over again without any apparent attempts to control it. This kind of anger is a problem and can poison your relationship.

The truth is that angry action is the angry person’s responsibility. But, there are some things you can do that may help clarify your own expectations in the relationship and perhaps avoid unnecessary angry outbursts.

The first thing to do is have a conversation about his or her angry outbursts, if your spouse is capable of it. If you don’t think you can manage this, or if you think he can’t manage it without blowing up into an angry fit or becoming defensive, then you might need professional intervention. If you do think there is a possibility, though, talk with your partner about your frustrations with his anger.

This conversation should take place at a time when he is not tired, hungry, or already angry. In this conversation you should take a non-accusatory position (you may even express some understanding of the angry feelings if you do actually understand them), but at the same time you want to make it clear what his angry behavior is doing to you and that it is harming your relationship.

Go back to the section on forming “I” statements and review that material. Write down one or more “I” statements that get across your reaction with the least accusatory tone. Be as clear as you can about your expectations. Tell your angry partner specifically what in his behavior causes you distress.

If you offer a suggestion such as talking it over with you, then you have to be willing, under stress, to put yourself in listening mode to really understand what he is saying, without criticizing him if he is not telling you in a proper or good way. If this doesn't work, he might need anger management or domestic violence classes which should be available locally.

The other side of this coin is analyzing your own actions and making sure you aren’t doing things to unnecessarily provoke your spouse to anger. You aren’t responsible for his angry actions, but you are responsible for what you do and say. The following is important enough to warrant repeating:

In communicating with the spouse who acts out his anger your best chance of making a change in the pattern is for you to put yourself in listening and understanding mode as I explained above.

Dr. Frank Gunzburg is a licensed counselor in Maryland and has been specializing is helping couples restore their marriage for over 30 years.