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Spouse is a Rage-Aholic

QUESTION: I can't have any kind of a discussion with my husband without him blowing up and going into a rage. Whether it is about money or raising the kids or whatever, he feels I am blaming him for the problem and just gets mad. I'm not talking just a bit upset here. I mean full-blown rage, and once he gets started he builds and builds until he gets himself into a frenzy. It has gotten so that I avoid even bringing up any subject that might be controversial. The kids feel the same way and are almost afraid to tell him anything about themselves for fear that he will turn on them. You might get the picture that he is a monster, but he is really a sweet guy who works his tail off for the family. He just has this thing about being criticized for anything.

ANSWER: Your "sweet guy" needs his spouse to effectively challenge his inability to accept criticism. If your mate fails to develop his ability to receive feedback from his loved ones, he will continue to lose intimacy with his children as well as you. Close relationships require honesty and two-way communication, both of which your mate is thwarting!

You have wonderful insight into his work ethics, and you clearly love him. But it is important to your marital and family health that you refuse to accept the rages. Let him know that you continue to love him but that he rages are damaging his relationships. Ask him to accept your help rather than push you away when he obviously must need you the most!

It is possible that the roots of his behavior can be traced to childhood. How did his parents solve problems in the family? Did one of them get his or her way through "rages" or "tantrums"? Was feedback accepted and positively given in his family, or did family members manipulate one another with guilt and expectations for perfection? Perhaps he is overreacting to feedback because of internalizing from an overly critical parent when he was a child. If so, individual therapy may help him release past resentments where they belong rather than onto current relationships.

Your spouse may also be experiencing depression based in part on his own unrealistic expectations for himself as a spouse and father. But that is no excuse for his destructive behavior, which will only lead to increasingly negative feelings about himself and continue a downward spiral. His own capacity to soothe himself and communicate his needs must improve if he is to be capable of listening to others with less reactivity. The sooner he is able to contain his rage and increase his ability to communicate his needs while considering the needs of others, the better he will feel about himself. It may be critical that his depression (low self-esteem) be treated so that a positive reinforcement cycle can replace the self-destructive pattern now in full tilt. Regardless, your spouse needs to replace rages with new communication skills in order to carry through on discussions instead of aborting them.

Don't let him "hog" the anger in the family. Search your own background for role models that allowed dysfunction to exist instead of standing up for healthy alternatives. Did your father or mother abrogate their responsibilities to check each other's blind spots? If so, you may be playing the role of the enabler to your spouse's "rage-aholic" behavior. Explore how or whether your own parents worked through their conflicts to solve problems. Books on marriage relationships, such as "The Good Marriage" by Judith Wallerstein, may be useful.

Use "I" statements, such as "I feel angry and hurt when you scream and yell to end an argument" and "I imagine that nothing I feel matters to you." Perhaps he will see that getting his way in the short run is at a high emotional cost to your relationship. Research shows that couples divorce because of unresolved conflict, not because spouses don't love each other. It is also true that when marriages do not dissolve, affection diminishes over time when partners do not feel "listened to" by their mates.

You are his partner, and it is your job to confront your spouse about his blind spots. You have a responsibility to require change not just for yourself and your marriage, but for the best interests of your children. Your love for your mate also cries out for positive action. Couples therapy could provide a safe framework to address this problem if you are unable to make progress on your own.

Do not reward your husband's rages by giving in to them! Instead, ask him to step up to the plate as an equal partner. Let him know that his rages have become bigger than both of you and you need his help to solve this problem together. Your inability to have discussions and resolve conflict is quick becoming the "monster" you allude to in your marriage. Ask him to be a part of the team to defeat this monster rather than falling victim to his tyranny.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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