New York Times bestselling author M. Gary Neuman is a practicing licensed counselor and ordained rabbi who offers a caring, no-nonsense approach to issues in marriage, family, and personal growth. He has appeared many times on Today, the View, NPR and many other programs. Oprah referred to Gary as, "One of the best psychotherapists in the world," on his final (11th) appearance on her show.

MY SPOUSE’S ANGER IS OUT OF CONTROL

Question:
My wife screams and curses at me. I’ve told her to stop for years and it never ends. Now she’s starting to do it to my children who are 10 and 7. I see them cowering and turning into scared children. We’re all afraid of her. She’s belittling and will often do this at a time when she’s nervous like having to get somewhere important on time. It happened last week as we were getting ready to go to her nephew’s wedding. My 10 year old was not ready (he never is and it drives my wife crazy) and he did everything he could to slow us all up. I suggested we just leave him behind with a sitter but my wife wouldn’t do it. She never hits but sometimes I think the verbal put downs and screaming is worse. We went to a counselor for two sessions but as soon as the counselor talked to her about what she was doing, she saw the counselor as being on my side and stopped going. There was no reason for me to continue. I don’t know what to do. I hate making her out like a monster. She does do wonderful things most of the time but I’m writing this letter because I can’t handle thinking about what it’s doing to my kids. I’ve had friends tell me to divorce but believe me, that will only frustrate her more and she’ll still be with the children and probably be even angrier without me to buffer. Is it hopeless?

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Answer:
Get yourself and your children to a counselor immediately (possibly even before you finish reading my answer). You were on the right track but when you stopped after your wife refused to return, you lost a crucial step in helping your family. You need to understand how you can help your children, yourself and your wife. It’s also possible your wife will return to counseling if she knows that you and the children continue to go on a weekly basis. She may return if only to be sure she’s not being talked about in a negative way but that still gives the counselor an opportunity to talk with her about making changes.

It’s probably best if you find a different counselor for your children than the one you choose for yourself and hopefully your wife. A separate counselor for your children will help that counselor keep her focus on the needs of your children and not be drawn into emotional territorial battles if you and your wife choose to get therapy from the same counselor. You don’t want your wife being able to say to the counselor that her opinions were marred by you. If the counselor only sees your children (of course, there will be a session for you to first go and explain the circumstances to the counselor and your wife should be invited to that) then the counselor’s opinions will be formed from her impression of the children and no one else.

It sounds like your 10 year old has found a way to go to battle with his mother. Through his inaction (not getting ready regularly), his mother gets angry at him. This is commonly known as passive aggressive, your child is being aggressive (doing something that pushes his mother’s buttons) through a passive action (not being ready, moving in slow motion as she’s trying to get out of the house to an event). Your child may be doing this as a backlash to his mother’s angry outbursts but your 10 year old doesn’t realize that this emotional struggle may be behind the tardiness. This is where a skilled child counselor comes in and is able to identify and find methods to change the family behavior. By allowing your 10 year old to have a “voice” and talk to the counselor, it may diminish the need to “get back” at his mother through making her late. The counselor will hopefully be able to help your children dialogue with Mom in the safety of the counselor’s office.

Keep in mind that your wife may have reason to get angry but not to demonstrate that anger in the way you say she does. This means that if the two of you are in joint counseling, your attitude should be one that looks at yourself and what you can do to minimize the pressure in your home. Taking some responsibility for your actions may help your wife take responsibility for hers instead of feeling that you and the counselor are ganging up on her.

Find a marital counselor who is experienced and known. You don’t get many chances to possibly get your wife into a counselor’s office. It’s the counselor’s job to confront your wife while making her feel safe and not ganged up on. It’s a skill that many counselor’s do not have so do your best to find the right one. You don’t want someone being so afraid of your wife’s attitude that the counselor won’t confront her at all nor someone who is so heavy handed that there’ll be “straight talk” that will chase your wife away. This counselor has to be sensitive to your wife as well as the rest of you and help her see why she needs to change for herself as well as for the family.

I hope others take heed and realize that you can be a wonderful person yet cause such distress in your home due to unleashed anger. Unfortunately, this anger causes those around you not only to be in pain during an outburst but it muddies every other second of life as people live in fear that at any moment, an angry outburst could occur. If you are having angry or violent outbursts, get the help you need. Take responsibility and find a counselor to help you learn practical techniques for change. Stop finding excuses. You may be right that there are good reasons to get angry but not good enough reasons for your angry outbursts to become a burden to your family. If you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of your anger, get help for yourself and those who are.

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