Do you find yourself asking, “Why is my spouse so angry?”
Learning how to deal with an angry spouse in these stressful times takes some inner work.
Thinking about this question makes me laugh. What’s so funny about an angry spouse? Nothing, really. I know all too well about anger these days.
Just this morning, my spouse asked me, “Honey, why do you seem so angry lately?”
And, in a text, I replied:
Because I’ve been stuck in this house for over three months. COVID is still raging and I know people who are sick and dying. The EU won’t let me into France so that I can visit my only grandchildren.
Our country is racially, politically, and culturally divided like never before. I don’t feel safe at restaurants, my hair salon, or the gym. I miss my friends. I miss singing at church.
I am worried that my elderly father and uncle might die before I see them again. I’m furious that my aunt’s funeral was on zoom. I hate this “sheltering at home” weight around my middle. And, frankly you’re starting to really annoy me!
Anger is on the rise for couples.
As a marriage therapist working on Zoom for the past four months, I’ve seen a lot of anger from many couples.
One of my colleagues, Lee Miller, LMFT, taught me that the times we are living in are called “V.U.C.A.” This term is apparently used by military leaders to describe the climate of difficult situations.
In these times, military officials must determine the best leadership strategy to move forward.
The acronym V.U.C.A. stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. As she points out, we are certainly living in V.U.C.A. times!
Our culture is angry.
You don’t have to look very far to see examples of anger in our culture. It shows up in the news as domestic violence, child abuse, and workplace disruption.
We are angry and stressed-out people who don’t seem to know how to control ourselves very well.
Other emotions are at play.
Mental health professionals see anger is a “secondary” emotion, an overlay for softer, more vulnerable feelings. Sometimes, anger is more energizing than the underlying emotions it tries to protect us from.
Soft emotions like sadness and fear can be debilitating.
V.U.C.A. — volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity — stir up fear, sadness, anxiety, and grief.
Life, as we knew it, has changed, and the changes have not been predictable. Each day seems to bring with it new developments and contradictory information.
The couples I work with are more irritable, sometimes with each other. Sometimes, they are just taking it out on each other.
Generally, we see anger as a predictable response to ongoing frustrations in our day-to-day lives.
It’s a cluster of emotions ranging from annoyance to blinding rage. Once triggered, it changes how we look, how we sound, what we’re thinking, and how we behave.
Like all emotional reactions, it comes from the “old brain” or the limbic system where our emotional memories are stored in the amygdala. They’re there in the service of survival.
If an old, hurtful memory is triggered by something in the present, reacting with anger can help us survive the reoccurrence of the painful event. This can get activated at any time, even when the original danger is long gone.
Frustration and annoyance can turn to full-blown anger when there’s no way to clear or resolve the challenges in the situation.
You can only control your reaction.
If we don’t have total control over the factors and situations that make us so angry, we should at least take a look at controlling our angry reactions.
In referring to V.U.C.A. times, the way our sadness, fear, and vulnerability turns to anger is because of increased stressors in our lives.
A good first step in managing anger is to reduce stress through self-care.
Try practices like breathwork, meditation, mindfulness, yoga, exercise, and journaling.
Through these types of activities, you’re calming your nervous systems and learning to resist the pull into the limbic reactivity that fuels anger.
It’s a good idea to examine your thoughts when trying to manage your anger.
We quickly label things that frustrate us and react as if that thought is gospel truth! Asking yourself if something is really true can be a simple step in defusing anger.
For example, the husband of a couple that I see in therapy recently became so angry at his wife that he upended a coffee table.
They were both shocked at his behavior and, as you can imagine, she was mad, hurt, and scared by it.
I helped him examine his anger when he had calmed down, and he admitted to “seeing red” when she criticized his decision to go to a recently opened restaurant with a friend.
By examining his feelings, he was able to see that the thought he had was that she didn’t care about him or his emotional health. That really made him furious after all he’s done for her and how much he cares about her.
He knew that despite COVID and the need to socially distance, he had been experiencing feelings of loneliness and isolation and really “needed” to see his friend.
He was furious when she questioned his judgment, because he thought she really must not care about him! Underneath the anger, there were deep feelings of fear and sadness.
When asked, he knew that the idea that his wife didn’t really care about him was not a true thought. He was able to name many ways in which she demonstrated her caring.
In an intimate relationship, it’s important to know and practice good communication.
This requires taking a deep breath to give yourself a chance to respond, rather than reacting to your partner.
Putting a pause between the event and the reaction gives you a chance to choose a more loving, empathetic response.
Anger drives more anger, but assertively stating your frustration and asking for what you need can actually calm the situation down and create more connection between the two of you.
In the example above, it would have been far better if my client’s wife had been able to express her fears about the danger of his outing, rather than criticizing him.
Barring that, he would have been better served by taking a breath and calmly talking about his need to go out with the friend and the fear that she just didn’t care about him.
The irony is that her critical statement was born from her deep caring and fear that he’d become sick. Practicing good communication could have helped them avoid the whole unfortunate situation.
Sometimes, you just need to take a time out and breathe or self-soothe until you’re able to respond from your cortical, mature brain, rather than from your reactive, emotional one.
From this place, it’s easier to remove negativity and express empathy for your partner’s softer, more vulnerable feelings.
As you navigate these stressful times, it’s important to recognize your anger and work to manage it in these 5 ways:
- Take inventory of your stressors and develop practices that de-stress.
- Pause to find the hurt, sadness, and fear underlying your anger.
- Examine the “truth” of the thoughts leading to the anger.
- Learn and practice effective communication tools.
- Focus on empathy, rather than judgment and criticism.
Remember that the goal is not to totally eliminate the experience of anger.
It’s human to get angry at times.
Your limbic brain relies on it to get you out of danger or perceived threat. Rather, you must all learn to recognize it and manage it when it occurs.
After my text to my husband, I spent some time realizing that there wasn’t much I could do to change the source of my frustration and annoyance.
I can, however, express it for what it is — grief, sadness, fear, and disappointment. I’ve also become aware that a little yoga and exercise wouldn’t hurt, either!
Anger is a powerful emotion.
Please reach out to a therapist or friend if you need help managing during these stressful times.
Mary Kay Cocharo is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in West Los Angeles, California. For more information, visit her website.
This article was originally published at Mary Kay Cocharo. Reprinted with permission from the author.