Thank you for listening to today’s episode, “How To Support a Spouse With Anger Issues.” It is the sixth part in an eight part series on “How To Support a Spouse…” where the Relationship Helpers discuss how to help your spouse as they struggle with different mental health and/or relationship issues.
Anger issues are a common problem that Vincent and Laura work with, as therapists. Are these words common in your interactions with your spouse? “You never!” “You always!” “You…you…you!” Do you play the blame game?
We’re going to look at how to prevent escalation of arguments and how to stop seeing the other person as the problem. There is no marriage where only one person has an anger issue. If one person is aggressive, then the other person has an anger issue because they probably do not know how to deal with their spouse’s aggression.
Disclaimer: We are not suggesting that physical or emotional abuse is to be tolerated or that someone deserves it. We are only saying that anger issues are a SHARED issue whether you have the problem being an aggressor or you have to cope with an aggressive spouse.
Bear in mind that there are other subtle shades of anger that we have to consider, such as how a passive or passive-aggressive person manages their anger. The couple that “does not fight” or “never has conflict” can very well have anger issues as well because they bury their anger.
All of this and more in today’s episode!
1. Recognize how you respond to their anger/your anger style
How Are Your Responding To Your Spouse’s Anger?
Consider these questions to get a better understanding of how you handle anger:
Do you become aggressive? Do you push their buttons? Do you become sarcastic? Do you hit them where it hurts with your words?
Do you walk away from the situation? Do you become passive? Do you go out to the shop or go shopping? Do you escape or avoid conflict?
Do you talk to someone else about the problem? Do you get others involved? (This gives your spouse more reason to become angry.)
This person is demonstrative with their anger. They may shout, stand tall, intimidate. They say what they want, need or feel, but in the process they are putting the other person down, or dismissing the other person.
They often blame others for their problems. Someone who is aggressive may not always be loud; they may just be bossy, “talk over” people or talk fast.
This person does not say what they need, want or feel. They do not let you know if they disagree with you. Many people who are passive apologize often. Passive people often believe that they are to blame. Usually a passive person struggles with a sense of low self-worth.
Be aware that this can be a very subtle display of anger. Many times the person with passive-aggressive behavior justify their behavior. This person may not meet the expectations of others using “deniable” means. They have a lot of excuses.
A few examples of passive-aggressive behavior you may have not thought about: If someone makes you angry, you deny it when they ask, but you talk to someone else about it behind their back, which is gossip.
Complaining is about things is another form of passive-aggressive behavior. Being a “yes man” to everything, but not being able to get the work done that you agree to do is passive-aggressive.
A passive-aggressive person may seem very responsible by agreeing to help, but then you find that their help is not terribly reliable because they are over-committed and end up cutting corners and give excuses. (Not showing up on time and not following through with what you say you will do is classic passive- aggressive behavior.)
The gold standard for anger styles is assertiveness (not to be confused with aggressiveness!) Passive, aggressive and passive-aggressive behaviors are natural responses to situations that induce anxiety. It’s more difficult to be assertive because fight-or-flight mode kicks in when we are anxious. When this happens we fight (aggressive) or flee (passive).
Assertiveness requires intentionality. Being assertive means saying what you need, want or feel in a relaxed, calm manner. You realize others may not agree with you, but you don’t let that influence your behavior negatively.
2. Address your spouse’s anger issues at the appropriate time
As marriage counselors, we have to create an atmosphere conducive towards productive conflict. This means as therapists we have to stay calm and also set a mood or atmosphere in the counseling room. This is much like what a spouse must do when they are preparing to confront their spouse.
This is not addressing problems in the heat of the moment, but at a calculated time. They may be more willing to listen to what you have to say if you approach them when they have calmed down and are more comfortable.
Vincent finds that couples respond positively to conflict in therapy sessions because the therapist is able to create a calm environment, which is usually missing at home during arguments. He has had couples say that they have brought fights to session that have happened many times at home, but have been able to remedy it during session because they were finally “heard” by their spouse.
Establishing a location that is “safe” for conflict is important. Bringing up a contentious issue while with family or around others only serves to escalate the problem. Create a place in your home, in your yard, etc. that is neutral ground for you two to air your grievances.
It’s also important to establish the places that are off-limits. Don’t choose to stir conflict while in bed. Find a place where important conversations need to take place.
Slowing down is a very important part of the process. Study your spouse. Are they calm? Are they in transition (just getting home from work, doing the most important task of the day, etc.?). Do they have time set aside or are they headed somewhere?
It’s important to consider these before approaching them over a problem.
3. Talk with them assertively about it
A gentle touch (when physical abuse is not an issue), like placing a hand on your spouse’s leg, may be a way to connect with them before you start talking about the difficult subject matter.
Reflective listening will be key to successfully discussing the problem at hand. If you summarize what your spouse is saying and they feel heard, they will respond more positively. If you are unable to SHOW THEM how they feel, they will feel more angry and distant from you.
Reflective listening offers the opportunity for you actually hear the other person and for them to feel heard. They will correct you if you summarize wrong and in the process you will gain better understanding of how they feel. Your openness to being wrong or misunderstanding will also help them feel less separated from you.
This type of listening conveys empathy. That means that you are showing the other person that you are putting yourself in their shoes and trying to imagine what their experience may be like.
4. Set Boundaries
If you would like a healthy marriage and your spouse is aggressive or passive-aggressive, you will need to address their anger issue and create boundaries. It may sound like something like this, “If you start cursing me or putting me down (on the phone) I’m going to hang up.” If it’s face-to-face you can say, “I’m going to walk away.”
This choice of words is important. Rather than just hanging up or just walking away, you have communicated clearly what you expect and what you are going to do. You are being direct and assertive. It leaves much less room for misunderstanding. Walking away or hanging up without communicating why you are doing it can be a passive-aggressive act in itself.
These type of boundaries are best established when things are calm between the two of you. You can initiate the conversation by saying, “I would like and I know you would like for us to have a good, healthy relationship. I want to be able to be vulnerable with you.”
Ideally you should begin this type of discussion at the lowest indication of anger to prevent escalation.
We highly recommend reading the Boundaries books by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend to get a better grasp of what boundaries you may need and what you need to do to establish them. You may find their book “Boundaries in Marriage” particularly helpful!
Be aware that setting a boundary is not a one time event. You discuss the boundary you are establishing, you put it into place, and you enforce it. In other words, having boundaries is an on-going activity. You don’t just say a boundary and then leave the topic alone and not do anything about it afterwards.
5. Hard Boundaries
When abuse is happening, be it physical or verbal, special boundaries must be in place.
Be aware that when someone punches the wall, throws things, damages property, THAT IS PHYSICAL ABUSE. Many people are confused about what defines physical abuse. When an aggressor punches the wall or breaks something that is a physical threat.
If you are being threatened, it is very important to have an exit plan to protect your safety. Ideally this should not be done alone. Getting input support of others will help you succeed in leaving the relationship more safely.
Others will be able to help you figure out the logistics of getting you and your kids safely removed from the situation and what to do next. The police department can direct you towards domestic violence groups in your area. They can tell you about the local shelters and resources available to you.
A therapist can also help in planning an exit strategy along with providing you with resources for your next steps in leaving the abusive relationship. Your therapist can also help you determine your strongest and healthiest supporters, which is important because leaving an abusive relationship can be tricky and you need people who will have healthy boundaries themselves to help you get out to lessen your danger. Some friends and family may not be the best support for you, and a therapist can help you see that.
Being connected with your church, pastor, bible studies, Celebrate Recovery groups, all of these suggestions can provide you the opportunity to be connected to people who may be able to support you through this time.
Be sure to listen to our episode where we interview Holly Ashley, a domestic violence survivor and survivor advocate. She provides helpful encouragement and tips for those struggling in abusive relationships.
6. Seek Individual and Couples Counseling
Through therapy, you can learn at greater depths about you and your spouse’s anger styles. Couples counseling can be helpful when the aggression has not escalated to the point of physical abuse. If both parties are willing to work on the relationship, there is greater hope. Going to a therapist who gives homework between sessions will provide the couple with tools to improve their communication.
Individual counseling my be indicated when there is physical abuse or one spouse is unwilling to go to therapy and work on the issues at hand. Be sure to check out our episodes on how to support a spouse who comes from a toxic family or our episode on how to support an alcoholic spouse if these issues contribute to your spouse’s anger issues.
We hope you’ve found today’s episode informative. Anger is often tied to other issues such as trauma, anxiety, or substance abuse. Visit our search bar on our website to find episodes on these topics.