"I love Eddie, but I'm terrified of his temper," says 26-year-old Kristin. "When he blows up, I just fall apart. I don't know how to handle it."
Kristin knows her husband is upset about his future -- since their marriage two years ago, he's found it hard to get a job and can't make a decision whether to return to school -- but she has no idea how to get him to talk about his problems. "Either he sulks and paces up and down the living room, or he screams and tells me I'm just like my mother," she explains.
That's the worst thing anyone could say: Kristin has always had a stormy relationship with her mother. Faced with her husband's rage, Kristin feels like the frightened little girl who used to recoil from her mother's tongue-lashings.
"Eddie has plenty of chauvinistic attitudes -- he's from Madrid and we met when I was in grad school there. I suppose there's a lot of the macho man in him," Kristin adds. Particularly upsetting is that Eddie doesn't appreciate how much she's trying to help him. "I call all the colleges for brochures and applications, but there's always some reason why he won't fill them out. I clip want ads, too, but he never follows up."
Eddie, also 26, tells a different tale. "Kristin doesn't understand. She likes to think she's there for me, but she's there with me, if you see the difference." His wife treats him like a child, Eddie believes; he resents being told what to do. "I'm not ungrateful -- but she is like her mother." He feels besieged by Kristin's nagging: "Living here is such a culture shock," he says. "One day I'm happy, one day I'm depressed."
Dealing with a spouse's anger
"Instead of talking about his problems and trying to resolve them, Eddie withdraws for long periods of time, only to explode with a rage that terrifies Kristin and reminds her of how powerless she has always felt in the face of her own mother's anger," notes Arden Greenspan-Goldberg, a marriage and family therapist in New York. While Eddie needs help in dealing with his anger, it's also important for Kristin to know how to better handle his outbursts.
Therapists suggest these ideas.
* Learn to really listen to a partner's rage. It's not easy to do that, let alone empathize when faced with a barrage of anger -- most of us react quickly and heatedly with angry accusations of our own. This is especially true when a mate pushes our "hot buttons." However, when you take a deep breath and hear your partner out rather than cutting him off, anger de-escalates.
* If your partner insists "you don't understand," assure him you're trying to. Ask for specific examples to make the situation clearer to you. Don't say "you make no sense." That's provocative.
* Validate his angry feelings. Telling someone "You shouldn't feel that way," as Kristin does, fuels anger. You can't pass judgment on how someone feels.
* Take responsibility for your behavior in triggering the anger. You may be provoking (albeit unconsciously) a spouse's anger. Take steps to change your behavior. Kristin has to realize that Eddie's image of himself as a man who can solve his own problems is at stake.
* Think of a way to defuse a spouse's anger. For instance, instead of shrinking in the face of his outbursts, Kristin learned to say, "Eddie -- stop. Tell me in simple words why you're so angry." This gave Eddie a chance to calm down. Gradually, he learned to discuss his problems and solutions.
* Call a time-out if a partner is losing control. Tell him you refuse to be spoken to in such an angry way. Leave the room -- but make it clear you want to talk when he calms down.