Handling a partner with anger issues

What you need to know:

  • Stay calm, or at least pretend to. Because the more attention you give to anger outbursts, the more likely they are to happen again.

Every parent knows all about tantrums. Toddlers have loads of them, because they’re so easily frustrated, have difficulty expressing themselves, and have poor coping skills. But even adults can have anger outbursts, just like toddlers, and for much the same reasons. Especially with their spouses!

If your partner often gets angry like that, you probably feel embarrassed and helpless, because anger’s scary and impossible to manage at the time. But there’s an approach which will gradually stop such outbursts. Basically the same way all mothers learn to deal with their toddlers.

That boils down to picking the right things to fight about, ignoring bad behaviour and reinforcing good.

Start by making your basic household routine as stable as possible, so everyone always knows what to expect. And watch for situations where your spouse tends to lose their cool. Such as when they’re tired or hungry. Try to spot what pushes their buttons, and if you sense an outburst might be on the way, try to ease the situation. If they’re hungry for example, perhaps offer a snack instead of waiting for the next meal. Try to offer them choices rather than insisting on what you want. And if you’re often saying no, consider saying yes occasionally if their requests aren’t too unreasonable.

While your spouse is angry, try to minimise your involvement. Either carry on with whatever you're doing or unobtrusively wander off. And don’t give in to their demands. Because that sends the message that anger gets you what you want. And so it becomes a way of life.

Stay calm, or at least pretend to. Because the more attention you give to anger outbursts, the more likely they are to happen again. If you do need to speak, keep your voice low. Anger is hard to ignore, but if you also get mad, you’re giving your spouse the attention they want. Which is just as rewarding as getting their way.

You also can’t reason with someone who’s in the middle of an outburst. Their brain is just too full of hormones to be rational. The ‘maybe-I-can-talk-some-sense-into-them’ approach just means everything lasts longer. But as soon as you see signs that peace is returning, give your full attention back to your partner and talk to them warmly. Because rewarding their calmer behaviour means they’re more likely to stay that way.

Once the outburst is over, you can discuss whatever started it in the first place. Make that discussion a good experience, because that’s the positive approach you want to be remembered and repeated.

Try to notice when your spouse is behaving well and comment on it. Because giving good behaviour more attention means it’s reinforced and becomes more common, while ignoring bad behaviour means it tends to die away.

So the basic rule is to show little to no emotion and not rise to the bait. That needs patience and determination to begin with, but once you’ve learnt the technique, it really works.