Do you walk on eggshells around your angry spouse? Are you frustrated trying to get your spouse to understand how he or she makes you feel? If so, it’s time to learn to use boundaries to help your spouse be less angry, and to help the both of you have a closer relationship.
If you talk to a counselor about why your spouse gets so angry, you will probably get an answer about your spouse’s childhood. Even if that is true, going down that path won’t lead you to any effective solution. Counseling is heavy on understanding and light on solutions.
As a coach, I have little interest in your spouse’s childhood. The first thing I will ask you is, does your spouse get angry with everyone? If he or she does, then we know it is a personality issue not specific to your relationship.
If it is a personality issue, you have three choices. Either you learn the skills for dealing with a such a person, put up with your spouse, or leave your spouse. You are certainly not going to be changing your spouse’s personality. Most of the time though, a spouse’s anger is not due to a personality issue.
If your spouse is taking his or her anger out on some people, like you and your spouse’s family, but not on others, it is not a personality issue. It has to do with what your spouse can get and what your spouse can get away with with those people. Your spouse will not show his or her anger with others, because it won’t work with them. It would hurt your spouse’s job, your spouse’s friendships, or your spouse’s reputation. It would impact his or her income.
Dealing with a person like this means helping him or her to learn, through experience, that his or her anger won’t get anything from you, and that he or she will not be able to get away with it with you, either. You can apply these same principles to anyone.
Your spouse’s motivations for getting angry
Every emotion has a purpose connected with it. Sadness for example is connected to losing something or someone important to us. Frustration results when we are trying to do something, but not succeeding. And anger is a feeling we have when we want someone to do something and they are not doing it. Learning the motivations for the various emotions will raise your emotional intelligence.
If your spouse gets angry, and you do what your spouse wants to stop his or her anger, then your spouse will feel a sense of control and power. That is highly rewarding. Everyone likes to have a feeling of power and control. No one wants to feel a loss of control or to feel powerless. If your spouse’s anger not only gets what your spouse wants, but also gives your spouse a feeling of control and power, your spouse is not going to give it up just because you don’t like it. The very same principle applies to children.
Sometimes it may seem like your spouse gets angry, but doesn’t want anything. That is never the case. It’s just that you haven’t identified what he or she wants. Most of the time, if there is no obvious goal for your spouse’s anger, what your spouse wants is distance or space. If that’s what your spouse wants and he or she can’t get it by being a little angry, then your spouse will get it by being very angry or by avoiding you.
As soon as angry people get what they want, they calm down.
Why does your spouse take his or her anger out on you?
You may have become trained by past relationships to fear angry people, to do anything to keep people from getting angry, and to give in to angry control. It’s a strategy that works in the short term, but destroys relationships in the long term. It is a strategy for surviving, not for thriving.
When we consistently give in to anger, people use anger with us more and more. And, we become increasingly resentful as they become increasingly selfish. People who parent with a people pleasing style turn their children into monsters. Many men and women turn their spouses into monsters in the same way.
Angry people only have power with people who give in to their anger. They will not voluntarily give it up.
Explanations and discussion won’t help
Therapists encourage people to tell their spouses how their behavior makes them feel. Unfortunately, unless you are feeling something positive, that method won’t help . Telling someone how you feel, in order to get them to treat you better, will only work with someone who has high caring and low understanding. That is a rare combination. With everyone else you will just get blamed.
Most angry men understand very well that their wives don’t like their anger; most angry women understand very well that their husbands don’t like their anger. But an angry spouse’s solution to this will always be for the other person to comply with their wishes. It’s not really a solution of course. Even if you do what your spouse wants, he or she will still become angry about other things. There will be no end to what your spouse wants and you will constantly be on edge waiting for the next shoe to drop.
Repeatedly explaining things to your spouse will make you frustrated and make you eventually give up. That’s one reason why giving unwanted explanations is one of the eight major needy behaviors that damage relationships. It doesn’t create change, it leads to frustration, and it leads to giving up.
For the sake of your relationship, stop explaining what you don’t like and learn to take corrective action.
The solution to helping your spouse not be repeatedly angry with you
If you want to stop your spouse’s angry behavior, you need to make your spouse’s anger stop working. Most of what your spouse does with you is a result of what he or she has learned works with you.
How have you trained your spouse to be?
If your spouse has learned that being affectionate with you will get affection in return, your spouse will be more affectionate.
If your spouse has learned that being affectionate with you will get rejection in return, your spouse will become your roommate.
If your spouse has learned that talking with you will result in validation, your spouse will enjoy talking with you more.
If your spouse has learned that talking with you will result in criticism, your spouse will only talk with you when necessary.
If your spouse has learned that coming home and being with you is a good experience, your spouse will come home earlier and seek to be with you more.
If your spouse has learned that coming home and being with you is a bad experience, your spouse will come home reluctantly and in a bad mood, and avoid being with you.
If your spouse has learned that being angry with you will get your spouse freedom, independence, and compliance, then your spouse will be repeatedly angry.
If your spouse has learned that being angry with you will get your spouse less of what he or she wants and could lead to abandonment, your spouse will not be angry with you.
Although you are not responsible for your spouse’s behavior, you are responsible for how you reward or punish it. And that will greatly influence what your spouse continues to do.
You can stop your spouse’s anger by showing (not by telling) that your spouse is not going to get compliance with his or her anger. You can refuse to be controlled by your spouse’s anger, thereby not rewarding it. You don’t do this by being angry back, but by using good boundaries. Although your spouse will not like your doing this and will temporarily be more angry, the end result will be a better relationship for both of you.
Action steps for helping an angry spouse learn to do better
First, you need to consider if what your spouse wants is reasonable to want or not.
Your spouse may be trying to get a reasonable thing in an unreasonable way.
For example, your spouse may be angry because you won’t have sex. Your spouse wanting to have sex with you is appropriate, though your spouse’s angry behavior is not. In this case you want to make sure that you do not let spouse’s anger work for getting sex.
However, since your spouse’s desire for sex from you is appropriate, you need to make sure to have sex when your spouse is behaving well. Make sure that is never within one hour of your spouse’ s having been angry with you. And, be careful not to have sex as a way to make up after a fight. That will just get you more fighting.
This principle applies to every reasonable thing your spouse may want. As long as you are continuing to use good connection and attraction skills with your spouse, this will work great. And, your spouse won’t need to use anger to get reasonable space from you because you will be giving that already.
Your spouse may be trying to get an unreasonable thing in an unreasonable way, like being angry with you
You will need to make sure not to give your spouse any unreasonable thing at any time, whether your spouse is behaving well or not. Your spouse must learn that he or she can neither sweet talk you or scare you into compliance with a bad thing.
If you give in just one time, it will be a long time before you can get your spouse to give up using anger as a tool for manipulating you.
You will need to use a clear and definite boundary
People overcomplicate boundaries. A boundary is simply what you will or will not do. Being wishy-washy and trying to soften your refusal only invites argument. It is far better to let your spouse be angry with your refusal than to teach your spouse that by arguing your spouse can get what he or she wants. Let your spouse be angry with your refusal in the short term in order to prevent your spouse’s anger in the long term.
Consider this example dialogue:
Spouse 1: “Did you think about doing what I asked you about last night?”
Spouse 2: “Yes, and I have decided that I am never going to do that.”
Spouse 1: “Why not? It will be fun.”
Spouse 2: “Because I don’t want to.”
Spouse 1: “Why don’t you want to?”
Spouse 2: “Because I don’t want to.”
Spouse 1: “I asked you, why don’t you want to?”
Spouse 2: “And I answered you. I have decided that I am never going to do that because I don’t want to. Is there something you don’t understand about that?”
Spouse 1: “Yes, why you won’t do that.”
Spouse 2: “Because I don’t want to. That is my decision and I have nothing more to say about it.”
Spouse 1: (angry, gives up, walks out, shouting and slamming the door)
Does this sound like a bad example to you? It is the kind of thing that needs to be done with a spouse who is used to getting what he or she wants with anger. It is a good learning experience for your spouse.
- the angry spouse did not get compliance, and
- the time in conflict was short, probably less than one minute
If I have a client who typically just gives in or has long arguments with his or her spouse, this would be great progress. I would want to make sure that my client was treating his or her spouse well the rest of the time–making his or her spouse feel loved and important.
The combination of loving behavior and reasonable boundaries creates good relationships that neither could do alone.
A spouse who refuses to give in to anger, but who also treats their husband or wife badly the rest of the time, is not going to have a relationship for very long. Just as with children, we must not give in to their unreasonable demands, but we have to be very sure to treat them well and make them feel loved the rest of the time.
“Is there a way to get my spouse to stop being angry without making him or her more angry?”
Sadly, there is no easy way to get someone to stop being angry. The only way I know to stop your spouse from using anger to control you without making your spouse more angry is to separate. In cases of severe anger, that will need to happen. Rather than make your spouse angry, this is likely to make your spouse scared.
Many people with severe anger problems will then work on their anger. I recommend you work with a professional before using this method. And, never threaten to separate or divorce. There is no place for threats in marriage or parenting.
“I can’t afford coaching, but would like some guidance. Is there a book you can recommend?”
In my book, What to Do When He Won’t Change, I offer women a 5 step process for stopping an angry presentation from their spouse and turning it into a way to improve their marriage. Many men have also found this book helpful.
“I think my spouse uses anger to create emotional distance”
Creating emotional distance signals preparation for leaving the relationship emotionally, physically, or both. It usually happens before affairs and separation and is a clear divorce warning sign. In this case, the most important thing is not addressing your spouse’s anger, but creating connection. This will not happen by your sitting down and talking about it. That is most likely just to create an argument or denial of problems from your spouse. Instead, you need to focus on using good connection skills to help your spouse be attracted to you, enjoy being with you, and look forward to being with you in the future.
Many of those skills are the same ones you probably used when you were first dating, but have long since stopped doing. I have a free download that can give you a refresher on how to build a good connection with your spouse.
If your spouse has become very resistant to all attempts to connect, I recommend you get coaching for reconnecting your relationship. This is something you do as an individual to learn to re-attract and reconnect with your spouse.
You can do it!
Although your spouse won’t work with you to end an anger problem, working together is not the best approach anyhow. By learning how to deal with your spouse’s angry behavior while using good connection skills the rest of the time, you can drastically improve your relationship. If you would like my help with this process, I invite you to take a look at my coaching package for improving relationships when you have a difficult spouse.