Ways to Deal With an Explosively Angry Partner

Robert Taibbi

This article is based upon my years of clinical experience and does not reflect any particular individuals.

Marley admits that she is sensitive, is good at reading people’s emotions. She can tell when her colleague is depressed or irritable, or her mother is having a hard time. But she struggles with her partner, Andy, who can go from 0 to 60 in a nanosecond. He explodes, he makes threats, and she'll have no idea what set him off. Sometimes she gets angry and pushes back, which only makes things worse. Other times she tries to leave, but often he follows her, yelling and chasing her down the hall. She is feeling like she is always walking on eggshells. She is getting fed up.

It's an understatement to say that living with an explosive partner is difficult. It’s all too easy, like Marley, to push back or run away, to perpetually walk on eggshells, or obsess about how to avoid triggering the other person.

You may even blame yourself. If you grew up in a family where a parent was explosive, where you always felt unsafe. Not only do you walk out of your childhood being hypervigilant but the child's natural tendency to blame themselves lingers as well. If Marley grew up in such an environment she automatically can feel that she is responsible for Andy's explosions, and no doubt he reinforces this notion by blaming her as well: If she only didn't do x, if she were more careful or did what he expected, the problem wouldn't arise, his anger would be prevented.

The anatomy of explosions

There can be several causes for Andy's explosions. He too, may have grown up in a violent family and is hypervigilant, but rather than blaming himself, he identified with the aggressor and he copes with his anxiety by adapting a fight response. Or he may have PTSD from past traumatic events, igniting a physical reaction that bypasses his rational brain. He may be a person who internalizes his problems and reactions, bites his tongue until the pressure builds, and under stress, or drugs, he blows up. Or he is completely disconnected from his emotions and can’t tell how he ever really feels until some emotion, even an emotion like sadness, reaches some high point, and by then it is too late, and he's unable to rein in. Or, though it is rarer, he is in fact pathological: he lacks empathy and has learned to use his anger as a manipulative tool to intimidate others to get what he wants.

The explosions are by-products of these underground problems, and to end them it is these problems that need to be addressed, to deal actively with his PTSD, to not bite his tongue but learn to speak up, to learn to recognize his emotions and use them as information to tell himself and others what he needs or what bothers him, to solve problems rather than sweeping them under the rug, and to tackle his underlying anxiety.

Easier said than done. Instead, what commonly happens is that Andy does none of the above. He continues to blame, explodes, feels bad after, makes up, acts nice, but goes back to holding back and sweeping under the rug, which eventually fuels the cycle again.

What you can do: First Aid

Say to yourself that this is not about you

To help you counter the emotional assault or blame coming at you, tell yourself that this is not about you but that the other person is struggling within themselves. If it helps, think of your partner as being like a tantruming child rather than the bully or angry parent that they seem to be. This will not automatically help you feel better, but it will allow you to step back and re-engage your rational, rather than emotional brain. With practice, this will get easier.

Don’t feed the fire

The problem in the moment is likely not the topic you are talking about but the background emotion itself. Anything you say is like throwing gasoline on the fire. Instead, your first line of defense is to be quiet and talk about the emotion: "You are upset, tell me why?" Let the person do their rant, think about the tantruming child, be empathetic rather than aggressive. Again, you are trying to put out the fire; it doesn't mean giving in.

Leave the room

Calling your partner out on their anger and listening to them doesn’t mean you need to stay and be emotionally abused. If it feels abusive, say aloud that you need to take a break and will come back in an hour. Set a timer to let the other person you are coming back and then do whatever you need to do not to re-engage. Lock yourself in the bathroom or get in the car and drive away.

If it gets violent, call the police

If your partner is pounding on the door of the bathroom or car, call in reinforcements. This is about protection.

What you can do: Prevention

Get the topic of anger on the table

When the other person is calm and not angry, prone to try and make-up or sweep the incident under the rug, this is the time to speak up. Talk about how you feel, about anger itself. Avoid getting into the weeds of the situation—who said what and who is to blame and arguing about whose reality is right—but instead let the other person know that anger is the problem and not acceptable.

Yes, this can be difficult if you grew up with this and/or tend to blame yourself, but you need to get out of your irrational, childhood brain and into your rational adult one. This is about being assertive, doing now what you couldn’t do with your parents or past partners.

Work out a signal

While you are able to tell when the other person is beginning to get angry, they often cannot. Here you want to talk to them about agreeing on some non-verbal signal to let them know that the conversation is starting to deteriorate so they can hopefully stop before it gets explosive.

Solve the problems

Next, you need to solve the underlying problem that is getting swept under the rug: chores, lack of sex, whatever. Again, this is the rational brain taking over and dealing with the triggers and drivers.

Stop walking on eggshells

Continuing to believe that the only way to avoid these explosions is for you to be better, to be evermore careful is little-kid magical thinking that not only will drive you crazy trying to figure it out, but will fail to make the other person accountable for their reactions, perpetuating their already distorted thinking.

Get couple and/or individual counseling

Couple counseling can be a safe forum to address all these issues. The other person usually needs individual counseling and/or medication to help them learn to regulate their emotions. Get individual counseling if any of the above steps seem too difficult for you to do independently.

If you have done your best, tried all of the above to no avail, or if the person truly is manipulative, don’t continue the magical thinking, the false hope that things will somehow get better. Define your own bottom lines and make plans, so you don’t feel trapped. Get out.

Don’t be a victim.

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In my 45+ years of clinical practice, I've always found myself wondering: Where do individuals, couples, families get stuck running their lives, what do they struggle to do that gets in the way of their solving their own problems. Sometimes it is about communication skills, sometimes struggling with regulating emotions, sometimes being triggered by old wounds from the past. My writing focuses on concrete behavior -- what you can do to break old patterns, apply positive skills, and override those stuckpoints in your life.

Charlottesville, VA
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