What to Do with an Angry Spouse


Do you know what makes people angry? People — all people, not just husbands and wives and life partners — get angry when they feel they are being denied something they sincerely believe they have a right to.
When your spouse is angry…
Do you know what rightful thing or act you have denied your spouse? If not, try asking. Gently. Gingerly. Generously. As if you can’t possibly be hurt by the answer, because you know what to do with it. (Read on if you don’t yet.)
Do you agree it’s a right and that you screwed up? If so, try asking, lovingly, how to make your relationship right again. If you have an explanation for your actions, save it until things are good again.
Do you disagree it’s a right? Then you two need a Third Alternative. That’s an option that pleases each of you as much as what you’re asking for and not getting. The first step there is to let go of your first alternative and assure your spouse you have every intention of satisfying him or her, even if you don’t do what’s being asked of you.
Not on the list of useful things to do with an angry spouse? Arguing about whether what’s expected of you is reasonable or comes close to being a right. The cleverer your defense, the greater the distance you put between you.
Also not on the list of useful things to do with an angry spouse? Pretending you can’t tell the difference between the right your spouse is claiming and the specific situation. If you promised to bring home milk and you come home empty handed and the person who cooks your meals for you is yelling about not keeping promises, you don’t need milk or a Third Alternative for getting milk. You need a better way of handling promises.
What’s the difference between an expectation and a right? A few rights are demands, also known as boundaries. Ignore them, and your relationship falls apart. All the trust leaks out and there’s nothing left to hold it together.
Most are expectations. The difference between these expectations and the ones I suggest you let go of? They are not your expectations. You are not the one who gets to choose whether to let go of them or not.
Nonetheless, they create anger, which becomes resentment. The resentment makes it harder for your spouse to notice your loving acts or treat you lovingly. The anger and lack of appreciation makes it harder for you to be loving. You can go get a beer and let all that happen, blaming your spouse for causing it, or you can take action and fall back in love with each other.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • Hi I have been reason your posting for over an hour and decided to write because I respect the way you think and your response to difficult posts.
    I am on my way out of my 2nd marriage. I have 2 kids from a previous and 1 from the current.
    We got married after 4 mos because I was pregnant and he was good to my kids. He changed his lifestyle in order to be a good father and husband. When the baby was almost a year I found out he had been HEAVILY abusing cocaine and spent over 30,000 on drugs/alcohol. It has been almost a year and since have had to sporadically deal with abusive behavior from too much drinking. I am not a pushover by any means and am in fact quite the opposite. I can’t forgive him and now find fault in everything he does- his job, his loser coworkers that smoke pot and get fall down drunk. The fact that he falls all over himself to help people that use him and take advantage of him. I am so angry that it is affecting my parenting and beginning to affect my work. I don’t want to see my friends I really don’t want to do anything and am able to sleep for 12 hrs when time allows. I feel like I hate him but have not left because of my kids. The anger is eating away at me and I don’t know what to do. Do you have any advice for me? I would greatly appreciate it.

  • Dear Patty:
    I recently stumbled upon your blog. I have been reading it thoroughly. Many great life lessons I’ve found, which I am applying to my current situation.
    In my case, I’m not married, but I recently had a relationship fallout with a woman I was for 2.5 years. We argued quite frequently, and I assumed many of those disagreements came because of the age difference (I’m 33, she’s 26). Recently, she broke the news to me: she doesn’t want to be in the relationship anymore. After that she changed it to “I need some time to think”. Time passed, we talked, and we agreed to give it one last try.
    I’m leaving a comment on this particular post because one thing she has clearly stated is that she is angry and resentful about our previous discussions. That she needs time to believe I have changed, and that it is difficult to believe I’ve changed so much and for good in the just 19 days we were apart. She also told me that in her mind, we were over during that time; In mine, we werent. I literally took her request for time as a request for thinking things through.
    We’ve talked a lot, and one thing I’ve asked her (Calmly and lovingly) is to please make an effort to let the resentment go. That we can’t create new, loving memories if she still holds on to the past and hurtful ones. She says she knows what she has to do but it is not easy, and that she needs time to do it. That she doesn’t know how much.
    The thing that hurts and scares me the most is that in a recent talk, she told me that she doesn’t see us as a couple, even though she doesn’t see us as “friends”, either. That she sees us as 2 persons trying to get back a relationship together.
    I have many questions, but one I would appreciate your guidance is this particular one: should I try with all my heart to win her back, even if she is clearly saying that she doesn’t see us as a couple? How will I know how much time she needs to decide if we’re back together? As you’ve already told many others, I am assuming she loves me and she really hopes it works out, but she is just very hurt and resentful for past actions and events.
    I am just very afraid that I will pour out my heart and she won’t do the same. That maybe to her we are over and she is just giving me false hope in order to not feel bad.
    I would appreciate any advice very much. Thank you for all you do to help people.

  • Hi Patty, I have been feeling like this for ages! I emailed this post to my partner and he has ignored it, now HE seems angry! What a disaster.

  • C, many relationships end because one or both parties are holding back on professing their love out of fear that it may be in vain. They don’t want to be caught in the vulnerable position of loving someone who will not love them back. But vulnerability is part of the package. As long as you are avoiding rejection, you are avoiding love, too.
    While I do not write only for married people, I would caution anyone who is not married to check whether love is the right assumption for their relationship. When people marry, they promise to love, and they promise it in front of family and community and, much of the time, God.
    It is not necessary to marry to make such a promise, but many who do not make the promise (and some who do) don’t believe they have any control over whether they love. They are convinced it’s just something that happens when they are with the right person. When it doesn’t happen, they decide they must be with the wrong person, and they move on. Given a chance to lose the resentment and rekindle the love again, they won’t do so, because they believe the feeling of love depends entirely on being with the right person, and loving actions without the feeling won’t work.
    If you think she would want to lose the resentment and love you, I recommend two things. First, don’t argue over whether you have changed. Instead, tell her how much her love means to you and ask what it would take from you to mend your relationship. Second, rekindle the emotion of love separately from the big heart outpourings. Just find every opportunity to share a positive emotion together. Tell her funny stories. Watch heart-warming movies together. Go visit a beautiful, peaceful place together. Pray together if you share a religion, or meditate together. Volunteer to help others together. Get out and roll in the leaves or stroll on the beach together. New research shows that our brains make a distinction between these feelings, the “in love” feelings and the feelings of commitment that outpourings are aimed at.

  • Susie, almost nothing I write on Assume Love is ever intended for your spouse. It is intended for people feeling pain and looking for a way out of it.
    My preferred way out of it is ALWAYS one you can implement yourself, because you are the one with the motivation to change. Asking your spouse to change just heaps one more expectation on your spouse. Every expectation is another premeditated resentment.
    Your anger surely makes your spouse feel criticized. For people with the male mix of hormones, respect is the very foundation of a relationship, so criticism erodes that foundation. The message that he could be handling your criticism (anger) better is more criticism.
    You might find this free ebook of mine helpful for clearing away some of the sources of your anger: http://enjoybeingmarried.com/pdf/SpringCleaning.pdf

  • AngrySharon, I apologize for the delay in replying to your comment. I write a lot about the expectations we have of our spouses, the ideas we have of how someone should love us that do not describe how the real person we married actually loves us. These expectations make us unnecessarily angry. I would put loser coworkers on this list. We don’t get to choose our spouse’s friends.
    But much of what you are talking about here are boundaries, boundaries your husband has repeatedly violated. You have a right to be safe from physical, emotional, and financial violence and the fear of violence. Your anger is legitimate. It is there to protect you. And because you are paying no attention to it, you are sinking into depression.
    If you lived in a neighborhood where people broke into your home and hurt you, I would urge you to do everything possible to move. If you had a bank that periodically removed large chunks of money from your checking account for no good reason, I would tell you to move the money to a safer account. If you went to work and got screamed at and picked on by people who know all your vulnerable spots, I would urge you to go work somewhere else.
    And I am not the only one who would urge this. So would any man who loves you. Which means either you are with someone who has no love for you or you are with someone who has managed to lose control over his own behavior (a mental illness known as addiction) and must deal with his shame every time he is the cause of harm he would never wish for you. Most deal with their shame by getting deeper into addiction or by blaming you for their lack of self-control.
    You are in a dangerous situation, dangerous for you, dangerous for your children, and dangerous for the self-esteem and mental health of the man you promised to love. You cannot love him from where you sit right now, and it would be completely inappropriate to pretend what he’s doing is okay, because he’s killing himself and he’s a danger to those he loves.
    And you cannot fix this yourself. You will need lots of help. Open an account where your money goes by direct deposit and can be accessed only by you. Pay your share of any bills directly. Talk to folks at Al Anon (the AA group for those affected by others’ drinking). Talk to a psychologist if you have access to one through your employment, your insurance, or a community mental health center: you need help with your depression and with organizing an intervention for his problems. Talk to relatives and shelters in your area about physical protection and housing if he is not convinced right away that he needs help. Talk to a lawyer or legal aid office about how to legally maintain some physical distance until he deals with the problems that lead him to lose control over his actions and his money.
    What is best for your kids is not just a two-parent household, but a couple of mentally healthy parents. And it may take a temporary separation to achieve this. I suspect that once you see this as a mental illness issue and deal with it, you may even find your anger turning to empathy.
    I am not a therapist, and I am dealing with only the information you have revealed here, so I urge you to find a psychologist or MSW who can help you find your way through this mess back to a marriage with few expectations but solid boundaries that won’t be crossed again.

By Patty Newbold

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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