Are you being careful not to upset your angry spouse? Like giving in to a bully, that will only encourage your spouse to use anger to control and manipulate you
Many people take the approach of trying to anticipate what will make their spouses angry and try to prevent that. This walking on eggshells approach is never completely successful. Being careful as a coping strategy creates emotional distance in your relationship in two ways: 1) it will make you be on guard and this guardedness will block your loving feelings toward your spouse; and 2) your spouse will lose respect for you, not treat you like an equal, and lose attraction for you. By learning how to deal with your spouse’s anger in a secure way, you will no longer need to be guarded, and your spouse will come to respect you again. It can be a difficult transition to make, but one which will greatly improve your marriage.
Are you too submissive to your angry spouse?
Some men and women deal with their spouse’s anger by giving in. For people who are used to giving in, it makes sense because as soon as they comply with their spouse, their spouse’s anger dissipates. Being submissive and backing off will help you to delay getting hurt by a dangerous person, but it will not build your marriage because you won’t gain any respect. You will stay at a level lower than your partner and for most people, that is very unsatisfying. While the Christian perspective is to submit to your spouse, that applies only when your spouse is submitting to God. If your spouse is loving you the way God wants him or her to, I’m sure submitting would be a pleasure. I will gladly submit to any one who is behaving in a godly way, because that would be the same as doing what God wants..
Are you being physically abused?
If you have a dangerous partner, you need to seek professional help before making changes. Staying safe is priority one, but there is more to life than staying safe, and a professional can help you to do more than just protect yourself. If you are not safe from your husband or wife (men can be abused, too), I recommend you get help from a local counselor or at least call an abuse hotline (Google “abuse hotline”). I do not work with victims of physical abuse, although I strongly support abuse victims getting help. I am a physical and emotional abuse survivor. Allowing your spouse to continue abusing you is no more loving than allowing your spouse to drink and drive. Sometimes we have to take actions that our spouses do not like in order to help them and to protect our relationship. Love your spouse enough to put an end to his or her abuse for your spouse’s sake and yours.
Spouses who are angry but not dangerous need your help, too
If your spouse is not dangerous, then learning and applying some other ways to respond can improve your marriage by getting you respect, helping your spouse to get what he or she wants in a more loving way. This will also put you and your spouse on an equal level–partners rather than parent and child. That is something your spouse is probably is not used to, but which your spouse will enjoy as well once the relationship is improved. Angry people are often insecure people who fear what will happen if they don’t get their way. But, angry people don’t enjoy being angry and it comes as a great relief to them when you can help them not to need to be that way anymore. Many angry people have repeatedly tried to suppress their anger, but have not been successful because they needed their partner’s help. Giving in to, or fearing your spouse’s anger will not help him or her to overcome it.
Fighting to be right is not a good alternative to being submissive
When you have an angry spouse, what you need most is a way to calm them down while still maintaining good boundaries. Simply giving in will calm them down, but it won’t maintain good boundaries, so the problem continues or gets worse instead of getting better. How can you deal with such anger in a way that doesn’t keep you a victim and which builds your relationship with your spouse? In my book, What to Do When He Won’t Change, I lay out a five step method for stopping the anger and improving your relationship permanently. Essentially, you first help your spouse to be heard without submitting to what your spouse wants. Then, you introduce structure (e.g., scheduling, or problem solving) to help your spouse transition to a more effective and cooperative way to get what he or she wants. Over time and repeated practice, the anger is replaced by a cooperative approach that makes your spouse more effective while preserving your relationship.
Even small changes can make a big difference in whether the anger escalates, continues, or stops
Is someone is upset, which of these do you think would be more calming—“You shouldn’t be upset.” Or “You have a right to be upset”? The fact is, as soon as you start agreeing with someone, they start to listen rather than just to argue, shout, give reasons, etc. I never teach my clients to allow themselves to be the victims of physical or verbal abuse, but I do teach them how to help their partners calm down. One of those methods is this type of agreement. Agreement is not the same as compliance. It is simply finding some truth in what the other person is saying. Often we become so focused on resisting what our spouses want that we automatically become resistant to them. What we need to do is to validate their ideas and feelings while standing firm in our boundaries. If you need help with learning to validate your spouse, I recommend my book, Connecting through “Yes!” People who maintain strong relationships are constantly validating their spouses.
Submission is weak; agreement is strong. Case Example
I remember one woman I worked with who was afraid of her husband’s anger about her imperfect bookkeeping. Usually, she would try to defend her reasons for not being able to keep the records well and then her husband would continue to be angry and blaming. I asked her if she was a good bookkeeper. She admitted to me that she wasn’t. Then I suggested that the next time her husband complained to her that she was doing a lousy job with the books, that she agree with him, but without defending herself, without apologizing, and without promising to change. She soon got her chance. Her husband went to her and said very angrily that she was doing a lousy job with the books. She told him he was right, that she wasn’t very good at it. To her amazement her husband helped her to become better at it and they actually had a good time in the process. Agreement can also be used to deal with many other kinds of issues involving anger such as jealousy and selfishness. Note that this is not submission, because their is no attempt to change, no promise to change, and no apologies. The point is, there are ways to respond to anger that are better than others and that they way you respond can help the both of you to have a better relationship.. There are effective and loving ways to respond to blame, too.
With an angry spouse, instead of fighting or giving in, consider these three goals:
- Helping your spouse to calm down, without being submissive.
- Connecting with your spouse by finding some part of what he or she is saying that you can agree with, and
- Getting to cooperation and problem solving because that is collaborative and fosters equality.
If there is any part of these three steps that you don’t know how to do, or if you don’t know how to do any of it, then get help. As a coach, it is my job to help people to take what seems like a confusing and overwhelming mess and work step by step to re-connect with their spouse. Getting help with an angry spouse doesn’t mean checking into the hospital, forcing your partner into counseling, or years of psychotherapy. It can be as easy as learning a few skills on your own with relationship coaching that you will then use with your spouse. I have never seen anyone regret learning to do these things. If your spouse is particularly difficult to love, I have created a difficult partner coaching package just for you.