My Husband Has An Anger Problem

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 198 · Duration: 00:27:13

My Husband Has An Anger Problem

What do you do when you know your husband’s yelling is hurting the kids, but when you talk with him about it, he makes it your fault?Click To Tweet

We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast, My Husband Has An Anger Problem.

Today we’re hearing from Dianna from Rockville, Maryland and Dianna writes:

Dear Neil,

My husband and I have been married for 15 years and have two kids, a girl 13 and a boy 10.  Both are great kids and we love them to death.  Here is the problem; my husband is easily triggered and gets angry and yells easily. When things are going well, and he’s relaxed, he’s terrific. When he’s stressed or the kids are pushing the limits, often with devices, video games, etc. he gets loud and his tone is scary. He’s the same towards me.  When he’s stressed with work or the kids, he’ll snap at me over some minor thing.  When I call it to his attention, even after he’s cooled down, he won’t apologize. Instead, he justifies his behavior.  When I explain that he’s hurting the kids and alienating them, he tells me it’s my fault for coddling them and not supporting him.  

He does a lot with the kids, so I know he cares and is mostly a good father and husband; but his anger is wearing on me and taking a toll on the kids. I feel myself starting to withdraw from him emotionally and I’m concerned that will lead to more fights, possibly divorce and more stress on the kids.  Do you have any advice for how to get through to my husband before things get any worse?

Dianna of Rockville, Maryland

Now to Dianna’s question:

Thanks for reaching out, Dianna. There are a few things to look at here and then, of course, what you can do.

For starters, yes, what you describe in your husband’s behavior isn’t good for the kids. Being chronically yelled at hurts kids. It puts a shock in their nervous systems that’s actually traumatic. The impact can rewire their brains in ways that make it hard to ever relax and it’s emotionally hurtful and will injure self-esteem; make them feel not “good enough” or unworthy and put them in a position of needing to compensate for that in some ways.  As your daughter enters her adolescence, as she is, she will see her father yelling at her as “unfair treatment” and depending on her temperament and other factors, she will exhibit signs or symptoms indicating her hurt and resentment. Withdrawing, cutting, rebelling and being oppositional are a few of the possibilities. 

It isn’t good for you or for your relationship together either. In the same way that it hurts the kids with these chronic negative stimuli, it hurts you and undermines your ability to feel emotionally safe, vulnerable and invested in the relationship.  

Let’s ask the question, why does your husband behave this way?  Obviously, since I don’t know your husband, I can’t say exactly why he behaves this way, or why he yells when he gets frustrated or upset.  Somehow, he believes his behavior is appropriate for the situation; that letting his anger out on others is the right thing to do.  You’ve said that he invests in his relationship with the kids and with you, it’s just that he believes that unleashing his feelings on others is reasonable, and of course it isn’t. From my experience with guys who fit this description, they tend not to be aware of the world of emotional needs, others’ needs or even their own.  They tend to be on the black and white side of things, right and wrong, not much gray area.  The other is that they don’t understand the negative impact of what they are doing and even if they do, they don’t understand the degree of how negative it is.  So if you’ve told him it hurts the kids, hurts you and the relationship, his attitude can be that if it hurts, then people should learn to behave better so he doesn’t need to yell, without really understanding or empathizing with the degree of damage his yelling is doing.  He also may believe that others not listening is disrespectful to him personally, and not yelling is accepting that it’s okay for others to disrespect him and for that matter, if he doesn’t yell, then the undesired behavior is okay with him, he’s endorsing the behavior.  

Let’s summarize this a bit, what I’m saying is that there is clearly an opportunity for your husband to do some personal maturing here; to see things from others’ points of view, to grow empathy, to not take things personally, not see others’ behavior as about him.  

So now the next question, why isn’t he listening to you?   Why are your efforts at getting him to see this, not being effective? Something in your relationship isn’t working optimally. In general, when there is a problem, particularly between partners, there is a way to talk about it and resolve it. That’s a critical feature in relationships and it’s best when that is established early on. That way, whenever an issue comes up, a couple has the confidence that they can successfully address it.  It doesn’t matter if the issue is money, kids and parenting, home improvements, how much time a new job is taking up, division of labor; whatever the issue is, we have the confidence to successfully address it. 

Dianna, for whatever reason, that critical ability to address difficult issues hasn’t been worked out in your relationship. Maybe you’ve resolved certain issues successfully. You must have or you wouldn’t have gotten this far.  Where you’re going to live, how money gets spent and saved, how we spend time together, etc.  But the issue of how we deal with our negative feelings within the family has not been successfully addressed and of course, that’s a big one and all the other issues I’ve mentioned are affected by this issue. So, what’s holding this back?  

The critical question for you to think about Dianna, is what are you doing that maintains the status quo?  How are you supporting the problem instead of supporting a new way of managing feelings within the family?  

Dianna, I know what you’re thinking, “Neil, you don’t know my husband. I’ve told him plenty of times and all I get back is that it’s my fault. It seems all I can do is make him angrier or just avoid the subject and deal with it.”

Dianna, there is more you can do, let me explain.  When you dated and then married your husband, what was your attraction?  My guess is, unlike the other guys you had gone out with, your husband showed initiative, he had energy, he knew where he was going. You found his strength of character attractive. You may have realized that he emphasized getting things done and doing important things over communication, listening, addressing emotional needs.  But he loved you and did nice things for you and you believed he’d learn to soften up and slow down over time; that you could influence him in that direction. In fact, he did seem to love the fact that you brought some of that out in him; the slower, sweeter side.  What could be bad, right?

Then over time and particularly when you had kids together, his quick temper was a problem, and it was harder to find that slowed down sweeter side of him.  You were stressed and he was stressed and finding that side was more and more difficult and talking about it always led to things being turned around on you, for instance, you not supporting him with the kids.

I’m going to take a leap here Dianna, and if I’ve got it all wrong, I’m sorry but I’ll be amazed because what you’re describing is a dynamic I see very frequently. The guidance I’m offering is important to all those folks I’ve seen and so I hope some of it is helpful to you and everyone who can relate to your dilemma. The model of your husband being the strong one with the initiative and focus on getting things done and getting things done right and you being the kinder, more nurturing and emotionally communicating partner is too rigid and needs to change. It is now time for you to do your own growing, and not simply wish that your husband would do some growing.

Change is always a disruptive process and in some cases it takes more effort than others.Click To Tweet There is a certain amount of rigidity in your relationship. Your husband is hard-headed. 

Change has been slow in coming but you can do it. I believe that's true because your husband shows lots of investment and caring and you are very dissatisfied, dissatisfied enough to do some growing.   

Getting frustrated and angry with your husband, arguing with him, or withdrawing are not going to get it done. All of those responses of yours are reactive. They are not adult communication. They are part and parcel of a negative dynamic between you and your husband.  

So what do I mean by adult communication?  First of all Dianna, be clear about what you want for instance;

  1. You want to yell at the kids. Specifically, no yelling to get them to do something or to stop doing something. You want limits to be established and enforced without verbal violence. Excellent, that's a very reasonable thing to want. 
  2. Also when you communicate to your husband about something you are upset with, you want him to respond in a way that is not defensive or blaming others or of you. You want a calm, respectful, caring response.  If you are simply talking about your feelings, such as, “when you snapped at me this morning because the tea kettle was whistling and I had left the kitchen and didn’t turn it off quickly, it hurt my feelings and upset me for several hours.” You would like him to care and perhaps even apologize, something he rarely if ever does. 

Dianna, are these the things you want to be different?  Okay then, you must be clear that these are musts, non-negotiables, and you expect him to listen and care about what you are presenting, and you need to present it, not as a complaint, or in the context of an argument, simply as things that must be addressed.  You will need the same, intelligent, positive compassionate approach that you would like to see from your husband. Let me see if I can show you what a conversation like this might sound like and I’ll call your husband Erik.  In order to have this conversation go well, you need to set it up to go well.  Let him know that you want to go for a walk together for an hour or so to talk over and resolve some of the chronic tension in the house and get on the same page together.  

Now that you’re out of the house on your walk, here’s an example of how a conversation might go;

Dianna: Erik, I need some important changes in the communication in our family.  I’m unhappy with the yelling and it feels like talking about it only leads to arguments and I need for us to be able to talk about this productively.

Erik:  I’m Always happy to talk about things.  

Dianna- I’m glad about that. Sometimes when we try to talk, your tone overwhelms me, and I give up.  I need you to listen without getting defensive so that we can make some progress.

Erik: Agreed, go ahead.

Dianna: I know the kids are glued to their devices and it’s not healthy.  This quarantine year has been horrible for them and everyone and we and everyone else have struggled with the new reality and devices being the main way kids learn and connect. Getting the kids back into more limited use and healthy activities is important but the yelling is adding to the pain we’re all experiencing.  

Erik: I’m not sure what to do then!  We can’t take their phones away because they need them, but I can’t get their attention any other way.

Dianna: I understand that. I see that and I need you and I to take responsibility for setting that up. Somehow, that’s how the kids know we’re serious.  They know I’ll stretch the limits and you’ll yell when you’re serious.  That’s on us and we need to change that.

Erik: I’m glad you see that in yourself.  That’s why I end up yelling, I don’t want to negotiate all night long, the limit is the limit, and they need to know that.

Dianna: I mostly agree with that, but I don’t accept yelling as an acceptable way to enforce the limit.  It is damaging our kids, and our relationships with our kids and our relationship with each other. I need that to stop.  Also, Heather is now at an age where she needs and deserves flexibility and to feel trusted and supported, that she is more important than an arbitrary time limit. 

Erik: So we don’t set limits anymore with her.  She just does what she wants?

Dianna: Erik, you’re speaking sarcastically with me, and I need us to talk more productively and respectfully than that. Of course she still needs limits. I get your concern that if limits are too soft, the kids won’t honor them at all. I disagree with that.  If limits are rigid and enforced with yelling, they will be seen as negative things and resented.  If they are explained and enforced with a more positive tone, and the family vibe is more positive, and you and I are off our devices and are warmer with each other, I think the kids will respond better.  

Erik: I need to see it to believe it, but I’ll try anything.  I’d love it if you were warmer to me.  I’m tired of being the “bad guy” with everyone.  

Dianna:I can understand that.  I’m sad to see you in that position.  Heather was always such a Daddy’s girl and her pulling away and you and I feeling at odds has got to feel bad.

Erik: It sure does.

Dianna: I want you to know it hurts me too. And you being snappy with me as well makes it tough for me to feel like I want to be close with you.  And I miss that.  

Erik: It just feels like everything I do is wrong.  All I hear about is what I did wrong, what I said wrong. You’re critical of me all the time and then it’s my fault for us not feeling close.

Dianna: What you’re saying is a huge deal in our relationship for me and us. When I tell you my feelings, particularly about something you did or didn’t do, you feel judged and I don’t feel heard. Every couple are going to step on each other’s toes from time to time.  If they can’t say “ouch” when it happens without the other person saying it’s your fault or why are you criticizing me, they can never get past it.  A simple, “sorry, I didn’t realize it and glad you told me”, would go a long way. I have no interest in criticizing you. I do have an interest in being able to talk with you without you being defensive. I’d love some empathy when I’m upset.  

Erik: I can work on that.  

Dianna: This is a long pattern in our communication, so I realize it isn’t going to change after one conversation.  But if you understand that it absolutely needs to change, that’s the main thing.  If you are trying to be a better non-defensive listener, to me and the kids, and be committed to talking without the anger, the snapping, the yelling, that would be great.  We need to keep working on this so this can’t be the last time we talk about it.  

Dianna, do you get the idea?  You need to stop making this about your husband and make this about how you and your husband have established a pattern that neither of you want.  Your husband uses anger to communicate his feelings and you give that power over you and see yourself as powerless.

By being clear about your standards and values, and communicating those in a way that is consistent with those standards and values, you will raise the maturity level of everyone in the family and will once again enjoy living in your own home.Click To Tweet

So parents, therapists, and folks who work with families.  We certainly don’t want yelling as a primary way to set limits with kids. Nor is yelling at one’s partner when upset a good idea.  And we don’t want to endorse defensiveness when things get talked about. Yet, it’s too darn easy to just come down on the yelling parent or spouse. Therapists should not be relationship cops. We must of course be clear about the impact of certain behavior, but when it comes to making change, we need a model of change.  In Dianna’s situation, like so many I see, the opportunity for growth and change starts within the family. It’s our job as therapists to tap into that potential.

Thanks for tuning in today listeners and special thanks to you Dianna for sharing your situation with us.  Before we end today, let’s try our breathing exercise again. Take a slow deep breath, hold it for a few seconds, and slowly exhale. Let’s try this now; inhale through your nose………hold…….slowly exhale from your mouth.  Try it again, Inhale through your nose………hold……. slowly exhale from your mouth.  Excellent!  It’s just amazing how such a small thing can make such a big difference?  And it’s weird how knowing that, we so often neglect to do it. As I’ve said many times and I’ll say it again, this parenting business ain’t easy so self-care is essential; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.  Bye for now.

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