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Angry Outbursts

Letter #2

Dear Dr. Harley,

My husband and I cannot communicate! When I try to talk to him about a problem I have (and not necessarily a problem about him) he seems to get angry and I end up crying. I wish he could try to understand what I'm having a problem with, instead of defending himself.

For example I told him that I didn't think his family treated me very well and that it was hard on me when we were together. He became angry (even though he's complained about them HIMSELF). I ended up in tears. I wish he could just say something like "I'm sorry and I appreciate all that you put up with from them," but it never happens. I know this must be a common problem among men and women but when you can't talk to each other about anything it makes life real hard. Please help!

R. L.

Dear R.L.,

You've done a good job describing a problem that exists in a host of marriages. When you want to talk to your husband about something that's bothering you, he gets angry with you. It's a serious problem, indeed, because when you ask for his help, you're already feeling bad. But when his response to your appeal for help is anger, you're devastated.

There's no good excuse for an outburst of anger in marriage, although everyone does it. As far as I'm concerned it is a mistake that damages a relationship. But people think they have good reason to be angry.

In your case, I would guess that your husband's anger has a lot to do with the responsibility he feels about solving your problems. He wants you to be happy, and, when he isn't angry, he wants to help you with any problems you bring to him. When he's successful, and you appreciate his help, he feels terrific. But when he can't help you with it, he becomes frustrated. One approach he may take is to try to convince you that your problem is not all that serious, and you shouldn't feel bad about it. If that works, he's off the hook. But you may respond to this approach by feeling that he is not taking the problem seriously enough. Then he's in hot water.

Or, he may try another approach. He may try to convince you that there's nothing that can be done about it. If you can adjust to the problem, he doesn't have to solve it. Again, you may feel that he does not understand the pain you are suffering, and this approach may also make matters worse.

If he can't help you solve the problem, and he can't convince you that it's not serious enough, or that nothing can be done about it, he will then recognize that he's failed to do something very important to him, and he will be frustrated. Then he will make the mistake that leaves you devastated: He will become angry with you. Logically, it makes no sense, of course, but that's what people do when they're frustrated--they lash out at the nearest thing, and you're it.

Whatever the cause of his anger, I'm sure it has something to do with you being unhappy, and he feeling responsible for fixing it.

The solution is to tell him that whenever you are unhappy, you want him to help you, but the way he can help you the most is to avoid getting angry or frustrated. He may deny being angry, so you may have to call it "frustration."

In a sense, the solution is simple. But its implimentation may be quite difficult if he has a serious problem controling his temper. In that case, he should seek professional help.

However, if he knows how to control his anger, he should learn to help you when something bothers you without expressing frustration or anger. He should discuss alternatives with you and offer assistance in solving the problem. He should understand that even if he cannot help you, or cannot think of any solutions, you appreciate just talking with him about it.

Your husband is probably quite helpful to you in most matters, and it's only when he can't think of a solution that he gets frustrated (like what to do about his family). If he knows how to control his temper, I think the solution to your problem is quite doable.

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