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Angry Spouse? Here’s How to Make Things Better

Walking on eggshells may stop an outburst today, but drain your love–without making things better. Here’s how to make things better and never walk on eggshells again.

get angry spouse to change
Your response to your spouse’s anger determines whether your spouse continues to have angry behavior or not.

While we must not intentionally try to make our spouses angry, we shouldn’t fear it happening. It happens in every relationship. Of course no one likes their spouse getting angry with them.

Trying to prevent anger by being careful creates two problems:

  1. It creates emotional distance, and
  2. Your spouse will be angry with you more often.

That’s right, being careful not to anger your spouse will reward the very thing you don’t want to happen. Anger is a way to control others and when it works, people keep on using it. When you are careful not to upset your spouse, it works very well–for your spouse! Your spouse will become increasingly angry with more and more things.

The solution is to learn how to deal with your spouse’s anger in a secure way rather than trying to prevent it. Then it will stop working for your spouse and you will get less and less of it. You will also get more respect, which will help your spouse to love you more. It is difficult for your spouse to love someone he or she does not respect, just as it would be for you.

Are you too submissive to your angry spouse?

While the Christian perspective is to submit to your spouse, we are not to submit to ungodly demands. That’s why first century Christians and many others since have faced persecution and death rather than to submit to ungodly directives. It doesn’t matter whether that source is the government or your spouse. The priority is always to do what God wants–not what we want–but what God wants. Because what He wants is always what is going to be best for us.

When you submit to ungodly behavior it is the same as rewarding kids for doing bad things. The bad behavior will get worse and worse. We discipline our children and that helps us to have a good relationship with them. That is required if we are to raise successful children and have good relationships with them. While we don’t discipline our spouses, we do have boundaries with them for the same reasons. It will help them to behave in a healthy way that promotes our relationship. The end result is good for them as well as us.

It is just as much a responsibility to have boundaries with our spouse as it is to have them with our children and for the same reason. That is what loving people do.

You are not to blame for your spouse’s bad behavior, but you are responsible to do something about it when failing to do so damages your relationship.

It takes two people to maintain a bad behavior: the one who does it and the one who puts up with it.

As long as we have choices we are responsible for both the actions we take and the ones we fail to take. Those who haven’t been forgiven by accepting Christ’s sacrifice in their place will be held accountable for both what they do and what they fail to do. Even Christians though, still have to face the consequences of our actions and inactions in this life.

If your spouse’s anger is damaging your marriage, you are responsible for your spouse’s sake, yours, and possibly others, to do something about it.

Having better circumstances requires you to do something about them.

What about physical abuse?

If you have a dangerous partner, you need to seek professional help before making other changes. Seeking professional help is your first step. Keep in mind that success only comes by taking the right steps in the right order. Using boundaries, making up, getting abused, and then getting professional help is the WRONG order. But, that is what many people do.

The first step is getting professional help. You have to have the power of the professional helping you because you don’t have enough to do it on your own. The professional will help you to evaluate whether you should try to improve your relationship or leave it. There are times when the best thing we can do for another person is to leave them. Regardless of what you decide, you will need to have help.

Rather than give you a specific resource, I encourage you to search online for the phrase: help for physical abuse victims on a device that your spouse will not be able to see what you are doing. You will find many resources.

(Please note that an online relationship coach such as me is NOT the appropriate place to get help. You need help from people who specialize in helping abuse victims).

I myself am a childhood physical and emotional abuse survivor. As a survivor, let me tell you that it harms children both to witness abuse and to experience it. Don’t try to stay with an abusive spouse without doing anything about it, thinking that you are helping your child.

Helping the angry, non abusive spouse

Anger is an emotion we have when we want someone to do something that they are not doing. Anger motivates us to use physical, emotional, or other coercive force to get what we want. It often works, but even when it only sometimes does, it causes harm to relationships. Threatening, shouting, and withdrawal can be used to coerce a spouse to spend more time together. However, it takes away the spouse’s desire to spend time together and worsens the problem.

As I have said elsewhere, spouse’s with poor social skills often use anger to get attention or affection. And while we must not allow our spouse to coerce these things from us, we also need to make sure that our spouse is getting these things when we are not being coerced. It is not hard to empathize with an angry spouse who does not get attention or affection otherwise.

Just as with a child, you must increase affection and attention when your spouse is not behaving badly and use boundaries when he or she is. The combination of those two actions will solve most anger issues in relationships.

Many people turn off their affection and attention with an angry spouse–increasing conflict and distance. In the absence of positive connection, boundaries only bring hatred. We need to help our spouse to enjoy us enough to care about our boundaries. Then we won’t be hated for them. Connection comes before boundaries when dealing with non abusive anger.

Talking about problems neither results in increased affection nor good boundaries and so maintains conflict if used exclusively.

How long does it take to fix a relationship with an angry spouse?

There are no quick fixes. Many people spend their whole lives looking for quick fixes rather than taking the time to do a good solid fix that takes a little time. Never expect a quick fix from me because I help people to make changes that last. On the other hand, the time required is much less than with counseling where things are rarely permanently fixed.

In addition, improvement for my clients is usually noticeable within the first week. Your results will vary depending on how well you follow the steps without reverting to needy behavior. Reverting to needy behavior derails any good method you may use. This is why improvement can’t be made until you stop your own needy behaviors.

Examples of needy behavior are criticism, arguing, and blaming, which are the top three. You are not about to be able to end your spouse’s anger if you are doing any of these. Get my book on overcoming neediness and work on yourself before attempting to deal with your spouse’s anger.

How to end your spouse’s angry behavior with you

Let me say first that telling your spouse that you don’t like his or her angry behavior is never going to help. Never. Your spouse will only feel criticized by you, resulting in defensiveness and increased anger from your spouse. Telling your spouse you don’t like his or her behavior only strengthens that behavior.

Reactivity rewards criticism, blame, and anger.

This does not mean that you passively take it or submit, as I said before. That is not loving and will only make things worse in the long run.

There are three things you need to do and in order:

  1. Stop your own damaging behaviors (even while your spouse is continuing to have damaging behavior),
  2. Help your spouse to enjoy your relationship by using behavior that helps your spouse to feel loved and important, and
  3. Use boundaries so that your spouse no longer benefits from angry behaviors with you.

These steps work, but only if you do all three. You will not stop your spouse’s anger if you make him or her feel unloved. Or if you contribute your own damage. Or if you don’t use effective boundaries. And of course, you have to be consistent.

None of these steps involve talking about problems, your feelings, or doing problem solving.

Handling an angry encounter with your spouse

There are different levels of anger and angry behavior. A generally irritable attitude should be ignored while you work on the three key skills for relationship improvement. An angry confrontation is a different story. You have to do something when that happens.

Before I tell you what that is, let me tell you what it isn’t. It is not:

  • defending
  • apologizing
  • explaining
  • arguing
  • blaming
  • promising

All of those are reactive and invalidating. As a result, they perpetuate the problem.

The correct response involves:

  • listening, and
  • agreeing

That is all. You listen, agree, and stop. You don’t say more. You don’t go on to explain, argue, promise, and so forth. You don’t include those behaviors at all.

Listening is something you do with your ears. Keep your mouth shut and nod your head. Don’t talk while your spouse has more to say.

Agreeing is finding something true about what your spouse is saying and affirming it. There will always be some truth to what your spouse is saying. If you can agree with what is true, without pointing out what isn’t, and stay relaxed, the situation will quickly de-escalate. Not only that, but your non-reactivity will not reward your spouse for being angry.

Let’s take an example:

Spouse: You never pick up after yourself. I have told you a thousand times that if you leave your dirty dishes laying around we are going to have cockroaches and then we will have to pay an exterminator unless you want to live with bugs crawling all over you while you sleep.

You: Yeah, I sure did leave my dishes in the living room again.

Even though your spouse may be on an obsessive rant, all you have to do is to find what is true and admit to it without any apologies, explanations, or promises. What you do next depends on what your spouse does next.

  • Suppose your spouse asks why: Why did you leave your dishes out again?
  • Then you simply answer honestly: Because I forgot.
  • Or your spouse criticizes you: You always forget what I tell you.
  • Then you just find the truth with that: I sure do.
  • Or your spouse expresses his or her feelings: Well, I’m sick of it.
  • Then you empathize: I don’t blame you. Most people would be sick of it.

If you can learn to simply agree, empathize, or answer questions without being reactive or defensive, you will change the pattern of your relationship to a better one. Notice also that you don’t jump to do what your spouse wants, as that is also reactive and will also make the anger increase.

You may also realize that your spouse has a good point in some of the things he or she is angry about. In that case, don’t jump to do it when you are confronted by his or her anger, but do work on it after that. Just because we shouldn’t let our spouse force good behavior out of us doesn’t mean we don’t work on self-improvement.

Reminder: You must be a desirable and loving spouse most of the time for your boundaries to be effective.

(I wrote a whole book on how to agree in many difficult situations. It is called Connecting Through “Yes!” It can make you feel very empowered to learn how to do this. Fighting will never empower you. Instead, you will end up feeling defeated).

What if you don’t feel like it?

Feelings are not good guides to actions. You can do whatever you feel. You might like to call that being true to yourself. But don’t confuse it with a relationship skill and don’t be fooled into thinking you will create a good life that way. Victims and people who live according to their feelings do not succeed with relationships. Work hard to have success and then you can enjoy your feelings after that.

Marriage, like parenting, requires loving for better or for worse. That means loving even when we don’t feel like it AND using boundaries when they are needed. Love is both of these things.

We help our spouses to overcome their anger problems. We don’t get revenge on our spouses for their problems.

You must have the right mindset to help your spouse with an anger problem

Loving parents don’t think, my child is bad. They think, my child has a problem. Loving spouses are the same way. They don’t think, my spouse is bad. They think, my spouse has a problem. Framing things this way gives us the right mindset to help our spouse and to continue to love them while we do so.

Your next steps to improving your marriage to a spouse with anger problems

Identify from this article what you are doing wrong and work to stop it. Stop apologizing, explaining, arguing, promising, and/or defending. These will make the anger continue forever. Identify what you need to start doing and do it. Start validating, looking for the truth in what your spouse says without jumping to fix things. Stop trying to fix things by talking about your feelings. That just adds fuel to the fire.

And, if you have done all these things, use boundaries to stop any remaining damaging behaviors your spouse has. If you have done these steps in the right order and you still need help, or you need help learning to do all that, work with a relationship coach. If other people can do it, that means you can, too.

As my Korean martial arts master used to say, He can do, she can do, why not me?

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