My husband is emotionally distant and gets very defensive about absolutely NOT meeting my needs. He is sure I have terrible emotional problems because I don’t do everything in a linear fashion, micromanages me, and is very critical. Yet, at the same time, he cries about not having anyone to be close to. He has a huge anger problem, like the rest of his family, but always blames me or someone else for it. I am getting so frustrated and just plain frightened of him that I am getting very ill.
We’ll talk about how to respond to your husband’s anger issues, but first, it’s important to prioritize your health and safety. The stress and strain of living in an emotionally dysregulated environment is impossible to endure before something gives. Your heart and body are sending a wakeup call to help preserve your safety.
It can be scary to set limits with someone who won’t set their own limits. Even though you might have an idea of what you need to do, you have no idea how he’ll respond. Based on your experiences with him, it’s likely he’ll become reactive and angry. You just don’t know how far he’ll take it. This is partly why you’re so tense. It’s exhausting to stay self-protective so you don’t get hurt. You’re simply not designed to stay in constant fight, flight, freeze, or fawn states. It’s corrosive to your mental and physical health and requires a response.
It’s tempting to spend your energy trying to figure out why he’s so angry. It’s common sense to believe that if you can discover the cause, you can eliminate it. However, this bypasses the actual impact his unregulated anger has on those around him. This focus can convince everyone, including him, that he’s powerless and can’t help his response. While gaining more understanding about the cause of his anger is important for long-term healing, it’s not going to create safe conditions.
Lundy Bancroft, author of, “Why Does He Do That”, teaches that those who hold abusive attitudes often focus on their own feelings instead of their harmful behaviors. The path to healing starts with taking full ownership of his destructive behaviors. You can’t make him do this, but you can respond to the reality of your situation and get to safety. In other words, he can’t physically harm you if you’re not there.
I clearly don’t know the full extent of your situation and I’m not recommending you make any long-term relationship decisions right now. However, I am recommending that you put some distance between you and his abusive behavior. Please be careful as you do this, as your distance might make him more entitled and aggressive. It’s wise to seek professional guidance from a therapist who can help you weigh your options and respond in a safe way. I also recommend you familiarize yourself with local domestic violence resources so you can have a safety plan and resources available in case of an emergency.
Recognize that these unhealthy patterns might escalate when you begin creating boundaries and distance. It can trigger his feelings of abandonment which can then turn into aggression and control. It’s better to err on the side of safety and have a solid plan for how you’ll protect yourself and any other family members as you begin confronting these destructive patterns. For example, it might mean that you have a place outside of your home where you can find peace and security if his behavior becomes frightening.
Ideally, you would explain the impact his behavior is having on you and he would stop. Or, you would disengage from his abusive behavior, and it would help calm things down as he recognizes that he’s gone too far. While these scenarios sometimes happen, it’s more common to need a stronger response that interrupts the unhealthy pattern. It sounds like he’s not open to your influence, so you’re now facing important decision point of choosing to allow this pattern to continue or choosing your health and safety.
I recognize it can feel unkind to pull away from someone who is clearly distressed, hurting, and dysregulated. You can hold compassion for his pain while also expecting him to behave appropriately. Ignoring this pattern and allowing your health and safety to break down isn’t kindness. It’s avoidant and will only sow misery for everyone involved. You are not powerless to act. It will be terribly difficult and uncomfortable, but you can absolutely do something about your safety and peace.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at ge***@ge**********.com
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About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.