Is Your Spouse Angry? 7 Ways to Calm Anger & End Arguments
© 2022 by Judith Kilborn, Ph.D., & Richard Chandler, MA, LPC, Licenced Professional Counselor for MN residents
Ways You Become Aware of a Spouse’s Anger
You may become aware of your partner’s anger when they lash out at you directly and obviously.
- They might yell at you for current circumstances or for something that’s happened—blaming you for something that you’ve done or they believe you’ve done. “It’s “the yelling, intense version that most of us think of when we say someone is angry” (Nay, 2010, pages 10-11).
- They might fidget or pace.
- They might become impulsive, physically aggressive, breaking or throwing things, slamming doors closed (Fleming, 2020, page 1), or slamming objects onto hard surfaces.
- They might threaten you or physically abuse you.
However, your partner’s expression of anger might be indirect and perhaps less obvious.
- They may be quieter and speak so softly that they’re hard to hear or understand.
- They may not look at you or, conversely, may make “intense eye contact” (Fleming, 2020, page 2).
- Perhaps they turn red or seem irritable.
- They might exhibit in other ways their fear, “anxiety and tension (e.g., clenched jaw or fist, rigid posture, fixed or tense facial expression, mumbling to self, shortness of breath, sweating, rapid pulse rate)” (Fleming, 2020, page 1).
- Perhaps your spouse “withdraws and withholds attention to express anger” (Nay, page 8). They might turn inward. They might leave your side or the room unexpectedly, sometimes even leaving the house.
1. Listen & Check Your Understanding of Your Partner’s Frustration
Show you are listening by repeating what your partner said to make sure you understood
Oftentimes, repeating is best because it doesn’t contain your interpretation. Your partner might calm himself or herself more quickly by knowing that he or she was accurately understood.
After doing your best to capture and repeat what you heard, add a follow-up question: “Did I hear you correctly?”
Demonstrate your understanding by paraphrasing your partner
Here you add your understanding, your particular take on what your spouse has said by putting it in your own words. You might begin with this sentence opener: “From my perspective, I am understanding what you said to be ________.”
- Paraphrasing like this forces you to pay attention to what your partner has said in order to recast what they’ve said as accurately as you can.
- This paraphrasing also provides your partner with an opening for saying whether or not you captured what he or she intended to say as well as for clarifying anything that you might not have understood fully or at all.
- This method of perception checking not only improves communication but lowers the level of anger and mistrust.
2. Link Your Partner's Angry Actions or Words to Your Response
Overtly connect what your spouse has said or done to your response. To do this, you might use the template "When you do/say X, I feel Y." This sentence construction emphasizes your reaction by making it the main sentence and downplays your partner’s action or words in the less emphatic opening to the sentence.
In any case, the link between their actions, words and your response is clear; clear too is your ownership of your feelings in the core sentence. In addition, using factual language that is as neutral as possible to narrate this connection helps to mute anger and to enable a concrete, productive conversation.
Learn How My “Transform Anger” Course can change behavior long-term.
3. Try to Differentiate Anger Caused by Circumstances Rather Than by Your Partner
Frequently, anger can be triggered when a person feels out of control. And that out-of-control feeling might be the result of circumstances outside of your relationship. Your partner might be angry about something at work, in a community organization, or with a friend/friends rather than something you’ve said or done.
It might be useful, then, to ask your spouse about the source of the anger. If you’ve done or said something that has angered your partner, let him or her know that you’d like more information so that the two of you can figure out how to resolve the issue. If he or she can name that trigger, you have a focus for your conversation.
However, if your partner is angry about circumstances that are outside of your relationship, you can have a very different conversation. You can talk about the particulars of those circumstances that made him or her feel out of control and what your partner might do to address or change those circumstances and regain control.
4. Calm Yourself First - Doing So Lowers the Emotions for Both of You
It’s difficult to calm someone else if you’re not calm yourself. Take a moment to do that.
- Take some deep, cleansing breaths—before you begin conversing with your partner, while you’re listening to them, before you respond, or during your response to give you time to focus and pick your words so that you say what you mean in a way that will encourage productive conversation rather than a blame game.
- Excuse yourself for a few minutes to calm yourself during a self-imposed time-out. You can step into a quiet room, even a hallway, to focus on relaxing and letting go of destructive emotions and responses the situation has triggered that might get in the way of a productive conversation. You also might use a few moments to stretch and work out some physical tension and loosen knots in your shoulders, neck, or back.
- Step out briefly to get a glass of water and then sip purposefully from time to time throughout the conversation to give yourself moments of thinking space before you respond to what your spouse has said.
5. Leave Physical Environments that Promote Anger or Aggression
Sometimes the environment you’re in might be contributing to your partner’s (and perhaps your) anxiety, anger, or aggression. Perhaps you’re in a noisy or overcrowded room or a lot of activity is going on around you. You can help to diffuse emotions by moving to a calmer, quieter, more private place.
You might think of this as:
- Giving yourselves the physical space to focus on your conversation and to hear what each of you is saying.
- Giving yourselves breathing space to focus on each other rather than worrying about what others around you might see, say, or learn how my “Transform Anger” Course can change behavior long-term.
6. Let Them Vent or Interrupt? Which is Best?
Although letting your partner take a few minutes to vent their anger works well for some couples, it has four downsides:
- Angry venting is disrespectful or even hostile to the listening spouse.
- People who vent anger may escalate and get even angrier by speaking angry words. They ramp up.
- Venting habituates the anger pattern, grooving it deeper.
- Venting places the responsibility for getting out of an angry state on the spouse rather than the angry person. If listening to venting has been the usual pattern for a couple, when will the mad mate learn to take responsibility for their anger?
Is it Fair for the Listener to Absorb Their Partner's Anger?
Ask yourself this:
- Does it help you feel respect for yourself or enable your boyfriend or girlfriend to respect you if you function as a punching bag for your partner's anger?
- Does being the recipient of any degree of hostility bode well for having equal power in your relationship?
The answer is “generally not.”
Unhealthy relationship patterns become established and entrenched when neither of you questions how you have done things until now. But if you no longer want to stand and "take it," what alternatives do you have?
The 3 Things 'Not to Do' During a Partner's Angry Monologue
- Passively stay for minutes at a time absorbing it. Instead, note the time when they have started their monologue. At your first opportunity, interrupt and say that you are willing to listen to venting for up to ______ minutes and inform him or her that they have ______ time left to finish. Note: If they vent about you, have a shorter time frame and be ready to end it immediately.
Interrupt them if they attack you as a person (rather than a behavior they didn't appreciate), speak disrespectfully, or engage in name-calling.
- Defensively counter-attack. Bringing up something about your spouse's behavior when they are angry usually leads to an escalation of emotionally-driven arguing, followed by uncomfortable distance from each other.
- Become emotionally hooked, disconnecting from rational, objective thinking. By staying calm and intentionally staying connected to your thoughtful reason, you have the greatest opportunity to know your best course of action while dealing with your partner's anger.
In my couples counseling work, I have witnessed many instances where an angry husband or wife began to vent their anger, and that person's anger worsened. The longer they vented, the angrier and more agitated they became. Interrupting that person was the best strategy for ending the escalation of angry emotions.
Learn how my “Transform Anger” course can change behavior long-term.
7. Calm Anger & End Arguments by Walking Away
For the person who is experiencing anger
- Notice whether your frustration has escalated to the level of anger.
- Ask yourself if continuing to talk is likely to help the situation or to run the risk of making things worse, especially if you have had a track history of having to apologize later on due to outbursts.
- Consider if you can address the situation with more success if you do so at another time, a better time than now when you can calmly make your point. Might you give your romantic partner a future time to listen without defensiveness and resistance?
For the person who is the recipient of anger, ask:
- Are you losing your capacity to stay calm, neutral, and nondefensive?
- Are you feeling emotionally flooded? Are you beginning to shut down mentally?
- Are you feeling criticized unfairly, disrespected, or attacked?
- Does it appear you can improve the situation by letting things continue with anger present, or could a communication break make a resolution more likely?
Unless you have more certainty that continuing could result in the best outcome than declaring a break, walking away is generally your best way forward. Even a time gap of five to ten minutes can help.
5 Rules for Declaring a Break from Angry Communications
The best time to agree on the rules below is before you have disputes or talk where anger is present. Here is what to agree upon:
- Either one of you can declare a break whenever you perceive that continuing would not be productive.
- Speak no more words about the topic once the break is declared. With emotions running high, the angry person may press to continue talking.
- Don't follow your mate into another room. Pursuing behavior is not permitted.
- The person who declares the break takes primary responsibility for announcing a time to continue the discussion; claiming a break is not an excuse to avoid returning to the subject.
- Extend the break if either of you is not yet calm enough to resume the discussion at the agreed time.
Calming a Spouse's Anger & Ending Arguments: Concluding Thoughts
Note: If you have been subject to anger that has resulted in verbal, emotional, sexual, or physical abuse, immediately seek out professional and social services. Physically distance yourself so you remain safe and are not subject to additional trauma.
Although we do not want to imply that you are responsible for your partner’s anger, as he or she needs to be accountable for their own behavior, there are productive ways to think about the anger of a partner and things you can do that oftentimes can help.
One protocol is almost always helpful: Encouragement. Notice when your spouse addresses issues directly and without anger. Letting them know that you noticed how well they handled something can motivate and encourage them to pay more attention to ways of communicating free of wrath, even for more challenging conversations. This article from our website tells you how to skillfully encourage others.
Within a romantic relationship, you do function as each other's primary support person and friend, as well as your sexual partner. Therefore how you handle anger, reduce arguments, and feel safe with each other can strengthen your bond and enhance your happiness together.
Judith Kilborn, Ph.D. is a Professor Emeritus at St. Cloud State University of MN and a professional writer. Her keen interest in human relations and social equity aligns with RelationshipsCommunication.com’s mission of providing accurate and helpful insights to enhance communication in relationships.
Richard Chandler, MA, LPC, is a professional counselor in private practice specializing in relationship counseling with a major focus on marriage therapy and anger management. Information on his Transform Anger course is available here at this link.
Fleming, L. (2020, April). “Elsevier clinical skills: Diffusing anger.” Clinical Review. Elsevier, pages 1-6. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from http://repository.phb.ac.id/756/1/Defusing-Anger-Skill-COVID-19-toolkit_140420.pdf
Nay, W. R. (2010). Overcoming anger in your relationship: How to break the cycle of arguments, put-downs, and stony silences, Guilford Publications. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/stcloud-ebooks/detail.action?docID=690490.