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Lion Taming

May 9, 2009 | by Dr. Meir Wikler

How to deal with your spouse's anger.

If your spouse has a quick temper, you face a formidable obstacle in your quest for marital harmony. Your spouse's short temper is certainly not your fault. Nevertheless, there are a number of steps you can take which may help you tame your roaring lion.

In order to deal most effectively with your spouse's loss of control, you need to address this problem in two stages: during the explosive episode and after the dust has cleared.


Your spouse has lost control. (S)he is shouting at you. You are wondering how long this will last. And you are hoping that your spouse's hostility will not escalate any further. You recall the last episode and pray that that should not be repeated.

Your entire body is tense. Your throat is getting dry and your heart is pounding. You want to press a button to end this episode.

While there is no magic button, the following is a list of first aid measures to take whenever your spouse loses control.

1. Do not attempt to quiet your spouse. Any attempt to calm or quiet your spouse will be counterproductive. It will enflame his or her anger even more. Just as you cannot douse a fire with gasoline, so, too, you cannot put out the flames of hostility by asking your spouse to lower his or her voice.

2. Do not retaliate. Whenever we are attacked, we often try to defend ourselves by counterattacking. When you are confronted in anger by your spouse, your initial reaction may be, "Hey, I have complaints, too. You are not the only one in this marriage who is dissatisfied." While you may feel prompted to lash out in retaliation, this must be avoided.

Just as it is advisable not to retaliate, it is equally important not to raise your own voice when your spouse is angry. As the wisest of all men, King Solomon, put it, "A soft reply turns away anger" (Proverbs 15:1).

Richard had been begging his wife, Rosie, to curb her generosity and extravagance when buying gifts. One day, Richard lost control when he received the monthly credit card statement.

"How many times have I told you that we cannot afford such expensive gifts?!" Richard bellowed at the top of his lungs. "You are spending the money I earn with my blood, sweat and tears on unnecessary extravagances!"

Rosie replied by leveling her own hostile counterattack at Richard. "So, all of a sudden we 'cannot afford' to buy gifts, huh? But last week we had plenty of money when you wanted to have cable television installed so you could watch your stupid sports!"

It should come as no surprise that Richard's outburst was not exactly calmed down by Rosie's challenge. She most certainly had a legitimate point to make. It was her timing and tone, however, which were completely out of place. By responding in kind to Richard's rage, she managed only to enflame his temper, insuring that the fires of this episode burned hotter and longer than they otherwise would have.

3. Do not become defensive. This is an extremely difficult guideline to follow. Most people are incapable of avoiding defensiveness whenever they are being criticized, especially if they are being criticized in anger. In spite of the difficulty entailed, however, avoiding defensiveness in such an extremely effective strategy for defusing hostility that it must be tried at all times.

If your spouse is angry with you and you do become defensive ("I did not do it"; "I did not mean to do it"; "What is so terrible if I did do it?" or, "You do it, too, you know"), then your spouse will probably increase his or her resentment towards you. (S)he will raise his or her voice even louder.

4. Try to empathize, not criticize. Yes, if your spouse has lost his or her temper, (s)he is being unreasonable. (S)he is blowing something out of proportion and getting much more excited than is warranted. Criticizing him or her for the loss of control, however, will definitely not be in your best interest.

What is called for now, is plain, old fashioned empathy. What that means is that you must try to let your spouse know that you acknowledge how hurt (s)he feels right now. Understand that the tantrum is a desperate attempt to express emotional pain, albeit a very immature and ineffective method.

Instead of trying to come up with excuses, Max tried to empathize with his wife's hurt feelings.

Ruth flew into a rage at her husband, Max. It was the couple's 18th wedding anniversary and Max had neglected to acknowledge that special day in any way. In previous years, Max had purchased a card, a gift, flowers, or all three. This year, however, as a result of unusual pressure at work, he had completely overlooked the occasion.

Instead of trying to come up with excuses, Max tried to empathize with his wife's hurt feelings. As soon as Ruth stopped to catch her breath, Max acknowledged her feelings as follows:

"I see that I have caused you a considerable amount of pain by forgetting our anniversary this year. It makes you feel demeaned and put down that I did not even buy you an anniversary card.

"You are probably thinking that I do not forget business appointments because they are important to me. So if I forgot about our anniversary, it means to you that I just do not care, that our anniversary is simply not that important to me."

Max's little speech completely knocked the wind out of Ruth's sails. Nevertheless, Max clearly succeeded in achieving a cease fire, which was his immediate goal at the time.


How long do you have to wait until you can bring up the most recent example of your spouse's loss of control?

In most cases, 24 hours is a good, ball park estimate of how long it takes to clear the air. Some people, however, may calm down much sooner -- while others may need a few days until they have returned to normal. When addressing the episode, you should bear in mind the following guidelines:

1. Do not deny the episode. Your spouse has returned to his or her regular, more composed nature. In fact, it may even be difficult for you to believe that (s)he did lose control.

Your spouse may be feeling guilty for yesterday's episode. In fact, (s)he may even be treating you with more respect, consideration and affection than you usually receive. In general, (s)he is acting as if the explosive outburst never took place.

When this occurs, your spouse may be trying to avoid taking responsibility for his or her tantrum by ignoring it entirely.

This, in turn, puts you in the following dilemma. Should you go along with this denial and act as if nothing unusual happened yesterday? Or should you confront your spouse with the inappropriate nature of the outburst and share your feelings?

If you deny the incident, you will be spared the discomfort of any confrontation. After all, why rock the boat? If you go along with your spouse's denial, however, you are also guaranteeing that (s)he will repeat the verbal abuse you received yesterday sooner or later, and most probably sooner.

On the other hand, if you bring up the episode from yesterday, you may trigger another angry tirade. Is it really worth the risk, you may be asking yourself, just for the slim chance of getting your spouse to control his or her temper?

Unless you do address the issue with your spouse, there is absolutely no chance at all that you will see an improvement. Although there is some risk involved, the potential gain is more than worth it.

Joe had a quick and violent temper. Most of Joe's verbal assaults were directed towards his wife, Hannah, in the privacy of their home. Friends and neighbors never saw the hostile side of Joe's otherwise affable personality. In fact, Joe was well known in his community for being friendly, soft spoken and easy going.

After more than 25 years of a most stormy marriage, Joe and Hannah finally managed to bring themselves in for marriage counseling. On more than one occasion during the roller coaster ride of their therapy, Joe lost control in the midst of a counseling session. Although his anger was directed at Hannah and he never even left his chair, his bone chilling screams still echo in my ears now, many years later. I was terrified.

What must it have been like, I wondered, for Joe and Hannah's children to watch and listen to outbursts like that? Although I never met their children, I did eventually learn from Joe and Hannah that more than one of their offspring had turned to drugs.

Looking back after years of eventually successful marital therapy, Hannah acknowledged that her initial decision to collude with Joe's denial was partially responsible for the fallout she and her children suffered as a result of Joe's violent temper.

2. Focus on process, not content. When you raise the issue of yesterday's episode, you can approach it from either of these two vantage points: content or process. If you bring up the content of yesterday's explosion, you will most certainly end up in a heated debate, at best, or a repeat performance, at worst.

What would be much more effective would be for you to raise the process of yesterday's incident, namely the shouting. Do not get sidetracked.

You should begin by stating your feelings. Tell your spouse how it made you feel when (s)he was screaming at you. Say what was on your mind at the time.

If your spouse tries to shift the focus of the discussion to the content of the episode, tell him or her that you are perfectly willing to discuss that at another time. Right now, however, you want to address your spouse's loss of control of his or her temper.

3. Remove the pot before it boils. If you warm milk for hot chocolate, you'd better remove the pot from the stove before it boils, otherwise you will have quite a mess to clean up after the milk bubbles up and over the sides of your pot.

In a similar vein, you need to keep an eye on your spouse's temperature whenever you bring up the subject of his or her temper. (S)he can heat up quickly and go from cool and calm to hot and furious in a very short time. As a result, you need to monitor your spouse's reaction to what you are saying.

As soon as you notice that your spouse is crossing that thin line which separates his or her controlled state from that of being out of control, you must stop. Change the subject. Walk out of the room. Postpone the discussion.

If you see that your spouse's pot is about to boil over the next time you bring up the episode from yesterday, repeat the same procedure. And do so as often as is necessary until your spouse gets the message that loss of control is an unacceptable method of marital communication.

Should you succeed in getting your spouse to sit still long enough to hear how his or her tirade made you feel yesterday, you are still not finished. There is one final step you need to take to insure that such incidents are not repeated.

4. Present clear alternatives to tirades. One of the main reasons people tend to lose control of their tempers is that they feel helpless, frustrated and wholly ineffective in communicating their feelings. Just as young children will resort to hitting when they are incapable of asserting themselves verbally, so, too, adults will resort to temper tantrums when they feel they are not being heard. And one of the primary reasons they are not getting their needs met is that they have not learned how to express themselves clearly and directly.

If you are married to a spouse who loses his or her temper too often, then you can help by pointing out exactly what (s)he could have done differently. You need to be very clear and very specific in order to be effective.

For example, "The next time you feel that way, why not let me know right away, instead of trying to hold in your feelings and avoiding the subject. If you make an effort to be more expressive, I'll make an effort to be more responsive."

Excerpted with permission of the author and publisher from, Ten Minutes a Day to a Better Marriage: Getting Your Spouse to Understand You, by Dr. Meir Wikler (Artscroll/Mesorah, 2003)


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