Dear Neil: I can feel my husband’s anger, although he doesn’t say anything to me about it. But he is cold and dismissing toward me, has ceased to be affectionate and spends very little time with me alone. I know something is disturbing him, but I am clueless as to what. We have been together 10 years, and twice before he has held in angry emotions until they burst out of him in an exceedingly angry, hostile, raging way that left me devastated for months afterwards. I fear the same thing is about to happen again. Is there any way I can defuse these emotions before his next explosion?
Scared of His Anger in Denver
Dear Denver: There is an alternative to gunny sacking/stuffing emotions or declaring an all out war in a relationship. You can help your husband learn to express his feelings, needs, wants, hurts, fears or wishes in a way that’s respectful—and that builds, rather than destroys intimacy.
In order to do that, you must be willing to assist your husband in expressing his feelings clearly and effectively. The secret is to attempt to help your husband understand the cause of his anger and what he needs to in order to defuse it.
The following questions are modified from John and Julie Schwartz Gottman in their book Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage (Crown Publishers). You can use these as a way of constructively dialoging with your husband in order to (hopefully) build greater degrees of trust, openness and closeness—and to defuse angry tension between the two of you. Ask your partner the following questions about his anger:
- What are you angry about?
- What are your needs here? What do you want to see happen? What are you trying to accomplish?
- What does this issue mean to you?
- What are your feelings about this situation?
- What is so frustrating for you in this situation?
- What do you see as the obstacles to getting what you want? What’s standing in your way?
- What’s painful about this situation?
- Is there something about this that seems unfair or wrong? Are you needing an apology or an acknowledgment of wrong doing?
- Has anything worked in the past to solve this problem? If so, could you (or could we) do it again?
- What could you do differently?
- What would you like me to do differently?
- Are there any other ways I can help you?
If you decide to use these questions with an angry spouse, the Gottmans caution you remember that understanding must come before advice. In other words, it’s better to let your husband get out all of his feelings—and for you to do your best to understand those feelings—before you begin problem solving or exploring what to do.