Beyond Blame

Freeing yourself from toxic emotional bullsh*t

Setting Limits on Anger

Letting your partner know that tantrums won't do.

In my last Beyond Blame blog post I answered a woman engaged to marry a man who demonstrates a "hair-trigger when he gets upset." His father also an "explosive" personality, she worries she'll spend her married life dealing with her fiancé’s outbursts.

My reply described anger as our most powerful and dangerous emotion because its “causes” are subjective. What makes one person angry doesn't faze another. Some people stay calm when provoked, while others fly into a rage. The fact that anger is subjective is crucial to our discussion.

At the same time, some people are born with or develop highly reactive personalities, reacting strongly to situations with anger, fear or embarrassment. An innately shy person, for instance, will always feel uncomfortable or fearful about attending a party, and prefer staying home.

So given people’s differences in personality structure, what's the reader to do about her fiancé's "hair-trigger when he gets upset"?

The place to start is to remind ourselves of the fact that adults must be in control of all their behaviors. And since anger is both an emotion and a behavior, those subject to angry outbursts must set limits about which behaviors we will and won't tolerate.

We all make choices, and set limits and enforce them, in different ways. You, along with everyone else, get to decide what are behaviors acceptable to you, and what behaviors you will not tolerate. This is fundamental to all relationships, but especially to the long-term welfare of a marriage.

During my hundreds of therapy sessions with individuals whose spouses indulged in various behaviors they found unacceptable (alcohol/drugs/food/sex/work/sports/TV), each had a particular justification for accepting the unacceptable.

I would advise a different approach. Specifically, I suggest that you prepare a Declaration of Intent that goes something like this:

"I love you and want to spend my life with you, but I refuse to live in fear of your angry overreactions, as well as hearing your justifications for getting angry. You must find a way to control yourself, stop indulging your impulses and deal issues that arise more maturely. Ultimately, it is my responsibility to protect my future and myself. The next time you explode, I will not see you for a full day. If your behavior does not significantly change, I will have to re-examine my decision to marry you."

This is a very powerful statement about the standards of behavior you will tolerate in your life. And one that you must enforce.

Allow me to review the core behavioral issue lurking beneath this: if you don't enforce your own standards, other people will enforce theirs. This principle is parallel to that in the physical world in which vacuums do not long exist. Just as strong countries always dominate weaker ones, so do stronger personalities dominate less robust ones.

In that context, you are either proactive, taking this deliberate step toward caring for your needs, or you will find yourself reduced to being reactive to your fiancé/husband's outbursts. Better proactive than reactive.

The positive news is that a (real) man actually appreciates having a strong female partner. He may protest at first but will respect you for standing up for yourself. If he doesn't, your marriage will not thrive, and you would be wise to retract your commitment. If he does, it’s a good sign that the two of you can overcome whatever problems may emerge in your lives together.

 

Carl Alasko, Ph.D. is the author of Beyond Blame (Tarcher Penguin), and like his first book Emotional Bullshit, it has been published in five languages.

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