How should I react to my wife's bad moods?
February 9, 2017 4:34 PM   Subscribe

Mrs. Sockinger and I are having problems with our marriage. When composing this post, I was tempted to write a big-ol’ wall of text, but I ultimately decided to limit myself to one topic: How do I deal with my wife's anger?

My wife is a very emotional person (more so than I am). She cries during movies. She laughs easily and hard. She’s the life of the party. She has great empathy for those who are suffering, and she also acts upon those feelings: she does charity work and is generous to a fault. She is, in many ways, a kind-hearted person.

So, as I said, she’s emotional – but often the emotions swing in a different direction. She can be impatient, needlessly argumentative, irritable, intolerant of people’s weaknesses, and easily incited into fits of anger (though she is never physically violent). She's been like this from the beginning of our relationship ten years ago, but I think she's getting worse (and perhaps I'm getting more sensitive, too).

My mood instantly sours whenever my wife gets fractious. I don’t always respond to her in kind (though I admit that sometimes I do), but these episodes really chip-away at the bond between us. I don’t expect to change the way my wife behaves – she is the way she is. But maybe I can do something to prevent myself from getting so upset over it (and then brooding about it later). I need to let these incidents run off me like water off a duck’s back. How do I do this?

Are there any cognitive “tricks” or other techniques I can employ? Also, how should I react towards her when she directs her anger at me? I don’t want to escalate the situation, but I don’t want to be a doormat, either. Any other advice?

(Incidentally, we’re already in marriage counseling, but this particular issue hasn’t been discussed.)
posted by JD Sockinger to Human Relations (35 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
My personality used to be a lot like your wife's. It's taken a couple years (still in it!) of therapy to examine how I handle arguments and disagreements with my boyfriend, as my anger and emotions are usually disproportionate to the circumstances of the disagreement.

That said, the one thing my boyfriend did that would immediately defuse my emotion would be to leave. He wouldn't say anything to me, wouldn't yell, argue or even defend himself. He would just evenly say, "I'm going to step out for a while, we can talk when you calm down." With him no longer there to rage at, I'd have to calm myself down, and once my temper tantrum passed, the argument never escalated further when he returned.

Now I have a kid, and he's my reason for getting a handle on my emotions.
posted by Everydayville at 4:47 PM on February 9, 2017 [30 favorites]

I'd say it really depends on the context of her anger. Do these episodes typically follow a pattern or are they random/unpredictable? Does she have triggers with you specifically? Do they come with any sort of demands or accusations? I can't say it's healthy for you to numb your reactions to anger outbursts, but if you can get to the root of her anger maybe there is a way you can address it and shrug it off without allowing it to control you or by accepting/normalizing abuse.

As a note: My anger and impatience with others tends to heighten significantly and noticeably right before my monthly setback, which I've figured out and have since dealt with. Not trying to minimize behavior to hormones but maybe?
posted by Young Kullervo at 4:48 PM on February 9, 2017 [5 favorites]

Agree with Young Kullervo above that this is hard to answer without context. Does your wife act the same way with other people, or does she reserve this behaviour for you? Either way, does she see it as a problem, or just something you (and perhaps others) need to put up with? Have you told her that this is eroding the bond you feel with her? And if so, does she see that as important?

I don't think you should tamp down your own natural reactions to being treated badly. Your wife needs to value your relationship, too, and you need to work on making things better together.
posted by rpfields at 4:58 PM on February 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

I think there's a big difference between anger as a reaction/emotion, and anger that is directed at you.

Does she clarify what she is angry at? Or is it more, when she's angry, everyone walks on eggshells? If she can directly narrate 'I'm angry at (thing that is not you)' that might be helpful to both of you, and it's a reasonable thing for you to ask of her if she doesn't.

For anger directed at you, it is really best to step away, there are few good solutions that emerge from anger. It's also better if you can both agree to step away, rather than 'I'm going away until you calm down', which can come across as paternalistic, and increase anger.
posted by Dashy at 5:01 PM on February 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

Does her anger require a partner? By that I mean, if you were not there, what would she say or do? Is is an essential part of her "anger experience" to draw you in? Do you allow yourself to be drawn in? Do you feel that as her spouse, you are obligated to participate in her outbursts, opinions, etc.?

If so, she could be using those interactions as a strange form of proof of love. It's easy to show love when things are happy. But if you validate her anger events, you must really love her. Or perhaps she is unhappy and her outburst are manifestations of deeper issues, so when you play along, she is soothed somehow or the pressure is lessened, because she has transferred it to you. And then you suffer. A vicious cycle. (The person who said to just leave is on the right track. The match can't flare if there is nothing to strike it against.)

She may be trapped in a dynamic that I have often seen play out in relationships where one partner acts out against some perceived lack of power or agency. Is she fulfilled in other areas of life (work, friends, hobbies/interests)? If there is lack of acceptance or validation from those areas, it can cause pressure that leads to outbursts of the type you describe. And you, as her spouse, are pretty much the only person it's safe to burst out at. So you get the brunt and are left to clean up the emotional debris.

Emotional rollercoasters are exhausting. A dynamic that long in the making is soul-crushing. If this has been your life for 10 years, my heart goes out to you. Please try to work this into your counseling.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:02 PM on February 9, 2017 [17 favorites]

Either way, does she see it as a problem, or just something you (and perhaps others) need to put up with? Have you told her that this is eroding the bond you feel with her? And if so, does she see that as important?

Yeah, these parts are really important to answer.

If it's something she acknowledges is bad after the fact, you could try having a talk sometime when she isn't angry and be like, look, it sucks when we argue like that and I think it's hurting us, and I want to come up with a way for us to not fight like that anymore - and then maybe propose the 'just walking away' thing suggested above, I think that's a really good idea. And you could make it clear that you're not refusing to talk about whatever the argument is, you're just rescheduling it for when you can talk about it without yelling at each other.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:02 PM on February 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

It's totally normal to get upset when your partner directs their irritability at you, and if you're not used to addressing it head on (either in the moment or later), it's also normal to find yourself brooding over the incident(s) later. I think the key here is your own realization that it's dangerous to escalate, but even more fruitless to be a doormat. So, the next time she gets angry, I'd do the following.

First, say to her as calmly as possible, "You sound really angry right now. Are you angry at me?"

If she says no, or gives a non-answer, proceed to step two. "Okay. I'm going to step out/go to our room/whatever. Hope you feel better soon."

In step one, you're acknowledging her anger upfront and getting insight into whatever it is that's making her upset. In step two, you're giving yourself space so you can seperate yourself from her anger.

Later, come back and interact with her. "You were really angry about X earlier. How are you feeling?" Hopefully she'll be feeling better.

Even if she isn't, proceed to step four. "When you get angry like that, I feel stressed out/pretty terrible too because a) you're upset and I hate that, and b) it often feels like that anger is directed at me even if you don't mean it to be. It's really chipping away at our relationship, and I love you too much for that to keep happening. I'd like us to start working on this together at our next counselling session. [Therapist's name] will be able to help us find a way to lessen the impact your anger has on both of us."

This way, you're asserting your needs, acknowledging that your relationship is suffering, but above all else, that you love her and are committed to finding solutions with her. Hopefully that will resonate with her, and in the meantime, you can repeat steps one through three until you're able to start working on this with your counselor. YMMV.

PS: My dad is a lot like your wife, and it's taken him 30 years to start making major progress on his toxic anger. My mom and I let him direct his anger towards us way too much when I was younger. It was only when I started seeing a therapist that I started dealing with the baggage of having a loved one treat me that way. Then I started addressing my dad's anger head on. It involved a lot of screaming on my part. I wish I had been as even-headed as you about it. Maybe then he could have made progress on it sooner. Still. I feel for you. Sending both you and your wife good thoughts.
posted by Hermione Granger at 5:03 PM on February 9, 2017 [35 favorites]

Is she one of those people who comes home in a bad mood and needs to take it out on you or the nearest warm body in her vicinity? Is she personally attacking you or just being snappish in general?
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:24 PM on February 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was like this for a few years until my husband realized he was ignoring or reinterpreting every single thing I said. I was stroppy, and then indignant, and eventually super fucking hateful every time I was ignored. When I was finally able to identify his reinterpreting everything I said as The Problem, it took about two weeks of actively pointing it out to him in the moment for him to start catching himself. We are much better now.

That's too bad you have not addressed this in counseling. It's possible your wife is frustrated and neither one of you are aware of the dynamic fueling her anger? YMMV.

PS - a lot of this was my husband trying to be nice by helpfully anticipating my needs instead of simply limiting himself to my actual words. He thought he was being a nice guy! Instead, he was driving me nutz! If you are a "fixer" or used to using lots of shorthand in your marriage, you don't have to be a bad person to be driving the woman you live with to tears or worse.
posted by jbenben at 5:36 PM on February 9, 2017 [12 favorites]

I'm a lot like your wife. I'm a gay guy, married to another gay guy. We've been together for a decade. I'm a hothead; he's a glassy lake.

Valuable lessons we've learned have been mentioned above, but I'll put our spin on it. When my ever-present simmering nature starts to boil up, I can't diffuse it easily. It's not a switch I can flip, it's a wave that has to run its course. I deal with this in two ways: erupting and getting it all out, or avoiding and being silent and self-isolating until the wave passes. The former was fine when I was a single barfly slut, but it doesn't jive with a stable partner and kids. My husband and I had a long, steep learning curve about this, and honest communication has been and remains key.

Today, we have strategies. We have a safe word that I can blurt out, for instance ("palomino," from a cherished SNL skit), that at once puts a little winking humor into the situation while very seriously letting all parties know that I need to leave the room for a while--maybe a half hour--and that any cool-headed pleas to just tone it down won't register right now, and may make things worse. We got here because we grew weary of escalating tension and arguments. We had a bunch of conversations over the years about this--partly because I needed to make sure husband understands that I can't just flip a mood switch, and partly because he needed to know that I'd come back to earth if I got silent instead of brooding in what he used to think was the 'silent treatment.'

These strategies work for us because we talked about them frankly, and not in the heat of the moment. And thank heaven for it.

Be well.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 6:04 PM on February 9, 2017 [45 favorites]

I think my first question would be whether this is a relationship dynamic or whether your wife has an anger problem generally. Like ... if she yells at you but no one else, that is a bad dynamic with the two of you. If she yells at everyone she has an anger problem that maybe she needs to work on.

I'm an irritable person and I've worked on this with my partner who did not like it. I'm still me but the way I react to things has dramatically changed because... frankly, it wasn't working, to be angry. It not only didn't fix things but it actively made my relationship worse and I could see that and we talked about it and I did some things to work on it and my partner did some things to work on his end of it.

And that's part of it. You can't change her, maybe, but she can decide she wants to change the way she is with you if it's affecting your marriage. You can, also, change the way you respond to her to see if that helps. Here's a short list of things we worked on

- I do a lot more stress and anxiety management than I used to
- I try to say "I am feeling angry" and not getting snappish about things, if possible (my feeling is that I can't control how I feel but I can ABSOLUTELY control how I respond)
- I try to be very clear whether I've got stressors in my life that have nothing to do with my partner but that might affect my mood
- I try to be clear if my issue is with my partner or if I am just mad for other reasons

- partner doesn't make promises he can't keep (he has this sunny good nature and would often overpromise on things over and over with no clue he was doing it and it would drive me bonkers, he does that a lot less now once we teased out the issue)
- partner tries to remain non-defensive if there actually is an issue and not be like "Oh yeah well you've got issues too!" or whatever, that never helps.
- partner is supportive that I am trying and tries not to be perfectionist about me when I still sometimes get snappish and is really supportive that I am trying and its hard for me

And together we really try to set ourselves up for success. Not do things when we're likely to be not at our best (or at least feeling decent) and checking HALT stuff and checking in with each other before problems start. It's not perfect, but it's definitely better and I think both of us are very gratified to feel like we're both working on it, not that it's me with the problem and him the long suffering partner.
posted by jessamyn at 6:40 PM on February 9, 2017 [9 favorites]

You need to talk with her about what would work for her. I don't know if you should do this during counseling or not. Perhaps bring it up during a calm time, say that when arguments get heated and there is anger it really upsets you, and you'd like to work out a way for you to take a break when this happens. Ask her if she'd like to work out such a way now, or together with your counselor.

You might have to try several things. Much earlier in our relationship Mr. Nat brought up the safe word idea (after I had already expressed how much I didn't like my own angry habits)-- but it didn't work for me. Instead I just interpreted it as another form of "calm down" which was the best way to make me even madder. Clearly it works for some people-- it's just that you two will need to find what works for you.

For me, building better communication in general helped. Telling him if I am angry at something else also helps; he doesn't try to stop me from being angry then but knows it isn't him. (At first I yelled it- I'M NOT MAD AT YOU! I'd like to think I'm calmer now...)

And for him, he defends himself with food. I get super hangry, so he'll offer a snack/suggest we figure out dinner/etc. It works as redirection for me much better than a word did, because it is helping solve at least part of why I am upset. Maybe you can do something similar?

Whatever you plan to try, I strongly suggest talking about it with her (in or out of counseling) before you try it. If you get buy-in from her on how you are going to try reacting differently, then she'll know the changes are you trying to improve things.
posted by nat at 7:06 PM on February 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

A thing I learned from the film Inside Out (based on Paul Ekman's emotions research) is that anger is, at heart, a response to perceived unfairness. It sounds like your wife is passionate about the way the world ought to be and perceptive about the ways in which it falls short, and sometimes that comes out as altruism and charity work, and sometimes it comes out as criticism and anger. I offer this in case that reframing helps you see what is happening when she's angry.

Do you have an expectation of what it looks like when people have and express anger in a way you can deal with? You said, but often the emotions swing in a different direction; how often is this? Daily, weekly, monthly?

I need to let these incidents run off me like water off a duck’s back. How do I do this?

When I need to deal with an unpleasant situation, I remember: this, too, shall pass. It is finite. Each individual session of anger will pass. (But, of course, in the longer term, talking about this with each other and with a counselor is a good idea.)
posted by brainwane at 7:11 PM on February 9, 2017 [23 favorites]

The best marriage I know of, it's two really high-voltage people who did a *lot* of scraping up against one another in the early years of their marriage. (They've been married 30+ years.) Therapy saved them, and does save them; should any issue arise, either partner can say "Hey, we need help here." and the other partner is on-board, and they're in a therapist office together, no questions asked. They learned that years ago. In therapy.

Another thing that I absolutely love, which they also agreed to in the safety and comfort and support of a psycho-therapeutic environment: if either one of them is uncomfortable with how their partner is acting in the moment, the person who is uncomfortable reaches out and puts his or her hand on their partners arm. That's it. The whole show stops. No questions asked. The issue isn't dropped: if there's something to it they will absolutely talk about it. But not in the moment. Could be that Melvin is driving aggressively, could be that Myrtle is barking at Melvin or the TV, could be that either or both are barking about politics, could be that Melvin is drumming his nails on the sofa because he's impatient that the microwave popcorn isn't done yet, could be most anything. But if their partner puts their hand on their arm, everything stops.

It's really a great marriage. They really do well. Admirable people.


One thing that I learned from the one time that I was married: I absolutely will. not. fight. Not gonna happen. If there is a problem, well, hey, we can find a way to talk about it. And I'm all about that.

But arguing and fighting, it's not just ineffective, it's counter-productive, to boot. Words get said that cannot be called back, no matter how desperately you might want to get them back this side of your teeth.

Can you guess that I said very cruel things to that lovely young woman I was married to?

Can you guess how many years it took to allow myself peace after those words?

Never. Again.


Of the women I've been lucky enough to spend time with since that marriage, two really seemed to want to fight, to bicker; they'd poke, prod, try to light me up. I just never would buy any of it. Had they been at it all the time, we'd have split the blankets a lot sooner than we did, as it's a game I just won't play. They're not bad people -- these are wonderful women, these are wonderful people -- and I know that for some people bickering is common as rain in the tropics, it's a way of being in the world. But it just seems so toxic. Is toxic, to me.

No way could I do what you're doing. I'd be out the door in a heartbeat.

So. My take? Get thee to therapy. Get some help before your love and respect for her gets worn away. If she values you and the love you share, she'll gladly go with you. I damn sure hope she does.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 7:59 PM on February 9, 2017 [20 favorites]

One short-term solution is to just GTFO. In two crap relationships with angry people, as soon as I felt things escalating, I just left (or, if I knew I was going to come home to a blast, I stayed where I was for as long as possible). I had making it out of the place before they finished getting changed/showering/whatever down to a science, with snacks and books in my bag.

That's really pathetic that I was in those relationships, but at least hanging out somewhere else and letting them rage alone and not at/near me did a lot for my sanity until I could make a bigger change in the situation. Good luck.
posted by kmennie at 8:04 PM on February 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Totally agree with this:
"... a thing I learned from the film Inside Out (based on Paul Ekman's emotions research) is that anger is, at heart, a response to perceived unfairness. It sounds like your wife is passionate about the way the world ought to be and perceptive about the ways in which it falls short, and sometimes that comes out as altruism and charity work, and sometimes it comes out as criticism and anger. I offer this in case that reframing helps you see what is happening when she's angry...."

Sometimes I feel like I'm not heard when I'm sweet and compliant about asking for something that is, at its core, about unfairness. I hate escalating to expressions of anger and frustration. I feel I've let myself down because managing my emotions has been a work in progress for years. My partner thinks these expressions of anger come out of nowhere, but the sweet compliance requests or emotional labour I've put in over say, days or weeks, doesn't get heard. In the angry moments between us, he then feels self piteous, makes it about himself and the problem remains, because then we are diverted to talking about his responses not the *problem*

That said, there's work to be done by your wife. Because of therapy, I have gotten much better at figuring out what the triggers are and can call out the dynamic quickly and in the moment. Your partner needs to own the regulation of her emotional responses, and *maybe* you need to listen early and often to the sweet requests for something that resembles a request for fairness. Or just wanting to be heard on an issue.

My partner's have done (as above) the cool walk away which in my experience, just makes things worse. And it brings on stage two frustration for me because it feels like repudiation and conversation terminating laziness. I shut down all feelings of affection, I withdraw and feel like packing up and leaving - i.e. big escalation.

Like others here, I don't know what she's angry about but what works for my relationship is when my partner acknowledges my emotions, imaginatively engages with their source and tells me he's listening.

My therapist suggested that he (or I, when he's having his moments, enacted differently but tantrums nonetheless) asks me kindly and calmly "what do you need from me right now?" Often my response (and his when he's having his moments) is to re-shape the possibilities of escalation towards self reflection. I usually ask to be heard. Usually I want him to see my point of view as valid, and worth hearing. i can ask for what I need much more when he doesn't just throw up his hands, get drawn into litigation or dismissivenss, or minimizing, or threats of abandonment during a distressing interaction.

We don't know the triggers for escalation in your relationship, so obviously YMMV. Just sharing my individual perspective.
posted by honey-barbara at 8:22 PM on February 9, 2017 [30 favorites]

You've gotten some good advice so far! As someone whose personality used to be like your wife's, I wanted to chime in and advise caution with some of the phrases people are suggesting you use.

"Hope you feel better soon" and "...we can talk when you calm down" are likely to read as patronizing and condescending to your wife. Particularly the first one. Like, I have put in a lot of work and no longer have this sort of explosive personality, but I would still bristle in a big way if someone spoke to me like this.

I think you would have better luck with a simple, "Let's talk about this later - I need to run an errand / take a walk now but will be back in an hour."
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:06 AM on February 10, 2017 [8 favorites]

Regarding "water off a duck's back". There are two ways to attain that state of complete calm in the face of an upsetting situation, like someone you love being wound up. They look very similar on the surface, but are very different on the inside.

One is to tune it out completely. Regard it as unimportant and not worth your attention.

Another is to be so centered and confident within yourself that you know you can be fully present and engaged, and still withstand anything that arises in the situation.

Might be helpful to make a comparison to some non-relationship situation. Like, the first might be the sour-grapes response of an unskilled athlete who shrugs off a poor performance in a losing game, and the second is the measured response of a seasoned pro athlete who faces a bad personal performance and a team loss with equanimity and self-examination.

The tuning out option is easier, in a sense, because it just refuses the conflict entirely. However, it's pretty much the dictionary definition of turning away instead of turning toward. It's a path of continued disengagement and portends poorly for your marriage. Men tend to use this coping mechanism a lot, since boys aren't taught the skills to be intimate. That translates into men who claim the privilege to flee.

The centered and confident state is much harder to attain and involves a lot of personal growth work. Learning where your own buttons are, how they get pushed, and how to grow so those pushes don't feel so hurtful and threatening. This requires in-depth engagement with one's own deeply upsetting feelings. It should be obvious that people who choose the path of avoidance can't get here.

Two different ways to get to "water off a duck's back". Two different paths, and, likely, two very different outcomes. Good luck.
posted by Sublimity at 4:26 AM on February 10, 2017 [9 favorites]

My partners have done (as above) the cool walk away which in my experience, just makes things worse. And it brings on stage two frustration for me because it feels like repudiation and conversation terminating laziness. I shut down all feelings of affection, I withdraw and feel like packing up and leaving - i.e. big escalation.

Anger is, at heart, a response to perceived unfairness.

For me, most anger I feel is frustration at how wrong something is, by which I mean unfair, hurtful, wasteful, poorly conceived, etc. And when I'm feeling something so purely, walking away is the surest way to amp up whatever negative feeling I'm expressing, because now I'm also mad at being ignored/dismissed/patronized for having what are, to me, important feelings.

What works for me is for my husband to walk right into my flailing anger and pull me into a deep, full body hug. It's a tremendous balm. It's instantly calming. If it's accompanied by a kiss on top of my head and an assurance that we're in this together, the energy reverses direction and it's all positive.

He did this for me almost never. We're divorced. He told me I needed to make myself attractive to him to get this kind of assurance. When I was pulled together enough to pull that off, I least needed his support. There was nothing I could say or do to get him to see that, as my partner, he had all the power in the world to fix things by not needing me to entice him, and instead to see that he could fix things with a simple gesture. He insisted that if he tried this, I'd just push him away and yell. I never, not once did that. Not once.

My message to you isn't to just barrel in and hug your angry wife. It's to ask her what she needs when she is angry. Is it the hug, the touch on the arm, the safe word? Does she want you to say, "I'm here, I hear"? Does she want you to just stop what you're doing and listen? Does she want you to go brew her a cup of tea, fold the laundry, help her find her running shoes?

Ask her, and then when she tells you, trust her. Don't be like my ex and tell me that I am just wrong about what will work without even trying. Be like the man I needed him to be, and meet the needs she tells you she has. Not only will this diffuse the anger in the moment, but it will raise her threshold for anger, because she'll know she has a partner in battling the unfairness in the world. With that security, she will be less volatile, more productive. All this I know from deep experience.
posted by Capri at 6:44 AM on February 10, 2017 [18 favorites]

How do I deal with my wife's anger?

I guess on second pass I realize I don't understand the question enough.

"deal with" is too vague for me... I sorta wish for the wall o'text, because without it, there is just not enough to go on.

You can deal in many ways, lots of which are covered here already. Some apply only to you. Some apply to her, some apply to both of you. Depending on lots of factors that are not provided, it's hard to advise as I might like to. I hope you are able to get value from the responses.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 7:03 AM on February 10, 2017

I see you've marked a best answer, but I'll add:

I (a woman) was an explosive anger sort of person (I still am, but I have a much better handle on expressing it now). I would just yell and yell and be so.angry. The actual blind rage thing. Then it would just pass. And my husband put up with it once or twice, then he did as Hermione says above, more or less. He started leaving the room when I was being just really angry at something and yelling or otherwise just vibrating with The Angry. He did not say anything or try to validate my being angry. He just would turn and walk to another part of the house.

And once, shortly after, he said very calmly to me when I was not angry any more: "Hey, that's very awful for me; so I'm going to leave the room when you do that. It's not only horrible to be around that sort of anger, but I also can't help you when you're like that." And we talked about my anxiety (which is mildly medicated) and things that particularly get under my skin and what the outside edges of rational venting might look like. Why it was--in some ways--good that I felt safe at home and safe with him and felt safe to to let go of control but this behavior was actually an abuse of that safety.

And, I mean, he was 100% right--it's awful to be around that sort of frothing angry even if it's not directed at you, even if there is no actual threat of violence with it. And that's very important, anger is one thing; threats and violence are another. I never threw things or hit things or even stomped or flailed. It's weird because my parents are not like that; I did not grow up in a household where that kind of yelling, screaming or acting out was acceptable or common.

So I've managed to dial it way back now. I still feel that uncontrollably angry, but I don't behave that uncontrollably angry. It's not easy but it's important because he deserves to feel as safe and comfortable around me as I do around him. I'm incredibly grateful to have a partner who not only is able to say "I love you, but that's scary and I'm not going to sit here and experience it" but who also just is calm and lovely.
posted by LeeloDallasMultiSocks at 7:11 AM on February 10, 2017 [9 favorites]

If you:
Go stoic
Say patronizing things like "I hope you feel better soon"
Generate less emotion as she displays more

This could all do more harm than good. As a woman who has emotionality, a fairness button, and a history of angry outbursts, I can tell you that leaving, distancing emotionally or physically just adds fuel to those fires.

What tempers the temper is staying, listening, taking me seriously. My husband's stonewalling, invalidating and distancing behavior is precisely what has caused me to develop more severe anger problems.

Also, emotionally focused couples therapy might help here. See if you can find a professional trained in that.
posted by crunchy potato at 7:12 AM on February 10, 2017 [15 favorites]

I'm just like your wife. The only thing that finally helped me was realizing that irritability on that scale was akin to a form of anxiety, and then getting on anti-anxiety meds. I've been taking Welbutrin and another SSRI (currently Lexapro) for over 10 years now. I cannot live without them, especially now that we have kids. Xanax is also a huge help in situations I know will be super stressful, like visiting the in laws.

If she has ever taken a xanax and asked herself, "where have you been all my life?", an SSRI would probably be in order. Xanax itself is habit-forming, so don't rely on that. And don't be ashamed, either of you, for requiring medication. You cannot WILL your brain chemistry to be in proper balance. While she may be able to eventually find ways to behave when she feels this way that are not "toxic" for her relationships, the shitty thing is that she is still feeling that way. The SSRIs would make those angry/irritable feelings literally go away.

As for you dealing with her in the moment, you need to flat out ask her during a calm time what the best reaction you could give would be. She probably has enough insight into herself to be able to tell you. For me, what I usually am after is a quick validation and then redirection to a topic that doesn't rile me up. Just ask her!
posted by wwartorff at 7:22 AM on February 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Could she be depressed? Depression can manifest as irritability and anger.
posted by orsonet at 8:27 AM on February 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Don't own this issue. Be in charge of your behavior and expect her to do the same, but you may be able to help her see and understand the issue and how it affects you, and her, if she is on board with that. She sounds like a person whose emotions are volatile and intense. You can help her to understand that. I have volatile and intense emotions; it took time and effort to understand that, and to learn that the emotions can be experienced, they will pass, and I don't need to act on them.

Or I can act to relieve underlying stress, anxiety and/ or depression with a walk, music, playtime with the dog or whatever. Depression causes irritability. Anxiety can be under all sorts of difficult behavior. Anger is much harder to manage when the person is tired, hungry, drinking.

Don't feed the beast. Don't engage with behavior you can't tolerate. Label unacceptable behavior. That was unkind. Please speak quietly.

In some cases, and in my marriage, sometimes I just wanted to sound off at the end of my day. My husband assumed that if I was complaining, I must have a problem that needed a solution, and he wold argue and try to solve my work problems. It's okay to ask if she's sounding off or if she wants you to hep problem-solve.

Read the Shamu article; some behaviors respond well to behavior modification.
posted by theora55 at 10:41 AM on February 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

"This could all do more harm than good. As a woman who has emotionality, a fairness button, and a history of angry outbursts, I can tell you that leaving, distancing emotionally or physically just adds fuel to those fires.

What tempers the temper is staying, listening, taking me seriously. My husband's stonewalling, invalidating and distancing behavior is precisely what has caused me to develop more severe anger problems.

Also, emotionally focused couples therapy might help here. See if you can find a professional trained in that."

I can't nth this enough!!!!!!!
posted by jbenben at 11:41 AM on February 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

My husband's stonewalling, invalidating and distancing behavior is precisely what has caused me to develop more severe anger problems.

I cannot disagree with this more. There is absolutely nothing you can do that makes you the cause of another adult's anger management problem. You can choose how to respond in a way that appeases her in the moment, or in a way that gets you away from her, or whatever feels safest to you. But however you respond, know that if she gets angry in response, that is not her fault, and you are not the cause of her anger. It is not your responsibility to manage her anger; it's hers. And any claim on her part that you are making her get angry, or that this is your fault, is not only false, it's manipulative.

I think you need to make this issue the subject of your next marriage counseling session, because this is an emergency. (If I were you, I would have left this marriage years ago, but I understand that people want different things out of their relationships, and I certainly don't judge you for making the choices you've made.) You're describing a partner who frequently directs anger towards you in a way that upsets you, and who you describe as getting worse. That's an emergency, and I think you need to start talking about it now. This type and level of anger is toxic to a relationship, and needs to be addressed as soon as possible. You might also consider, in addition to marriage counseling, individual counseling for each of you. You seem like you need someone to talk to. And, assuming she doesn't want to keep behaving this way towards someone she loves, she'll need help with that from someone who isn't also loyal to you.
posted by decathecting at 9:04 PM on February 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

Is your wife depressed or worried about something? Having a short fuse and seemingly over-the-top emotional reactions indicate to me that all is not well and that there's something she's bottling up.
posted by intensitymultiply at 3:41 AM on February 11, 2017

decathecting, I did not say he was "making me angry." I said that his response to my effort at communication made my anger problems more severe.

It is fair and reasonable to want to be heard in our relationships with others. As previously stated by another MeFite, my requests always start calm and sweet. Being disappointed and let down repeatedly, being shown through actions that my needs and interests are not important enough to pay attention to and remember, that isn't fair. So I lodge a complaint about it.

It is reasonable to want to be heard in a close relationship and stonewalling is not hearing, by definition. So it is normal to be angry at a thwarted desire, and it is normal to find that anger increase when not only was the original concern ignored but now my effort to feel understood in this dynamic of being treated like an invisible person is also being ignored.

The whole argument that everyone is responsible for their own feelings is valid but sometimes it is used as a cop out for people who want to avoid emotional labor.
posted by crunchy potato at 7:13 AM on February 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

One thing that helps is if you can both understanding what is underneath the anger - if she is more aware of it, it might help her express it differently and if you understand it might help you respond better. Similarly, she is undoubtably getting triggered by her interpretation of something that you do. If she understands you better, she might see if differently and if you understand how your behavior is seen by her, you might be able to modify it.

I recommend you get a copy of Hold Me Tight, 7 Conversations for Love by Sue Johnson. She walks you through the process of having these kinds of conversations. If it is too hard to talk about without getting upset, then get a marriage counselor to help you. You find people trained in Emotion Focused Couples Therapy (Sue's method) here. The good thing about EFT that is there is really clinical research demonstrating that is effective on real couples.
posted by metahawk at 11:41 AM on February 11, 2017

Decathecting, you presume that the OPs wife is directing her anger *at him*. Reread the OP; nowhere does he say that. He writes:

She can be impatient, needlessly argumentative, irritable, intolerant of people’s weaknesses, and easily incited into fits of anger

This is an important distinction, actually. Is he the person she is impatient and intolerant of? Is the anger directed at him? May be, probably is. But I notice that the author specifically does not say "she gets angry about things I do". He describes her positive emotional intensity about things in the world around them and my read is that she gets upset about things in the world around them too.

I think it's one thing if the anger is directed at the OP, about issues in the life they build together, and is getting in the way of resolving disagreements. It's another thing entirely if the OP is just generally unable to cope with his wife's strong emotions of upset about external issues and as a result shuts her out and invalidates her. In the latter case, the strong message that sends is, We are not a team, The things that upset you aren't important and don't concern me, You are on your own. Those messages stoke the fear and vulnerability that is often beneath the spiky, self protective armor of anger.

You are correct that her emotions are hers to own, but his are his to own as well. I don't think the scenario is as cut and dried as you make it out to be.
posted by Sublimity at 9:13 AM on February 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

I need to let these incidents run off me like water off a duck’s back. How do I do this?

Hey, I am kind of late to the party but as a person who has a temper much like your wife's, and whose mother was even more "emotional", I don't think this is a good idea.

I hope I don't offend you, and I am trying to phrase this without sounding victim blamy (because it's really NOT your fault), but looking at my mum and the Truman-show-esque degree of emotional gymnastics everyone does around her, I really think "learning to live with it" is not the path to happiness here.

Because us "irritable" people are self absorbed about our own behavior, and we will never know our loved ones are bending over backwards to accommodate us until some brave soul clues us in. If our behavior is masked in social justice of unfairness, it's really easy to fetishize anger as a sign moral superiority (I've done this too). If it weren't for my husband, I would have never realized what an imposition my behavior was on those around me. I truly never knew. I just thought we had heated debates about politics or whatever because I cared, but in reality I was kind of bullying my husband about stupid shit that wasn't even his fault or small mistakes that really weren't that big of a deal.

but I think she's getting worse (and perhaps I'm getting more sensitive, too).

Your only duty here is to be assertive and stand up for yourself. Calmly point out to your wife how her behavior feels to those around her. You call this "being emotional", or "being irritable", but I recognize this as an anger management issue. Like sure it's not a physical violence situation (until she escalates to throwing stuff when she's "frustrated"), but this lack of self control is the same problem only in a milder degree. If you don't address this it's very likely to get worse. Please don't think I am saying your wife is a monster. You can be a perfectly decent human being and just lack the skills to cope with stress like others do. However, I do think you are mistaken in thinking it's you who needs to adjust, because I think it is much more sensible (and fair!) for her to learn coping skills than for you (and her friends, and her colleagues, and anyone around her really) to learn to take her unpleasantness in stride.

Once you say your piece, it is 100% reasonable of you to expect your wife to seriously work on it (counseling). You deserve kindness and respect, and if she is as good a person as you think, she will agree. She needs to make an effort to remember that things won't always go her way, and that she is has as many weaknesses as anyone around her. In fact, the very fact that people can set her off by making mistakes is a really significant weakness in itself (I also have it though not nearly as much as I did before).

All I am saying is this problem has a solution, and the solution is that your wife needs to work on controlling her frustrations in a way that doesn't hurt those around her. It's work, but it's completely worth it.
posted by Tarumba at 8:09 AM on February 14, 2017 [6 favorites]

You know how you get angry when you stub your toe? (I'm assuming because I've never seen anyone not get angry in that situation.) Someone else in the room might cringe, ask if you are okay, say, "that sucks", or maybe even offer you some ice. But they won't get angry with you. WHy? Because they don't need to. It won't help or make any difference whatsoever.

This is what you need to learn to do. Learn to NOT let it affect it because it's just useless.

However, as Tarumba wrote, you do need to have a conversation with your wife. She needs to be made aware that while her behavior might feel like a lovely outlet to her, it is a burden on you. She might have no idea how much of a burden. And she needs to work on it.
posted by Neekee at 10:03 AM on February 14, 2017

This may seem totally out of the blue, but you may want to consider having your wife's thyroid checked. Hyperthyroidism causes mood swings, and isn't uncommon. The fact that these are getting worse as she ages made me think of this. (It's a fairly common disease, especially in women, and usually starts in your 20s-40s.)
posted by nosila at 4:14 AM on February 15, 2017

My wife has struggled with low-grade depression her entire life, and you have described her quite closely. It got much worse during menopause.
posted by craniac at 12:13 PM on February 18, 2017

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