Insight Is 20/20

Exploring the pervasive, and unperceived, patterns that govern our lives

Loving Men With Bad Tempers: Why They Get Away With It and How to Stop Them

An adult having a temper is no different than a toddler having a tantrum.

Believe it or not, some adults are stuck in childhood to the degree that they occasionally have what I call an adult temper tantrum. People typically describe an adult with this problem as having a "bad temper," but the truth is that they have temper tantrums just like little kids do. In society, it seems to be more prevalent and accepted that men have bad tempers. Ever wonder what all the women do when society says it's not okay for them to turn over a table or scream all over the house? In a nutshell, women are more likely to internalize their feelings.

Recently a client of mine told me about what happens in her house when her husband loses his temper. In short, everyone gets scared and walks around on eggshells until her husband gets his mood under control. My client loves her husband but is afraid this trait will never change. What's more, I know that she is but one of millions of women who live with someone with an anger problem. These environments slowly chip away at the victim's self-esteem to the point that he or she starts feeling hopeless about the future or things ever getting better. 

Why would anyone — man or woman — still engage in temper tantrums as a grown adult? There are actually a few reasons, but one reason is particularly important: The people who engage in this behavior do so because they are able to get away with it without suffering serious consequences. Far too often, the loved ones tell themselves that the one with the temper can't truly change. I explain consistently with my clients that people can't necessarily change their personality but can certainly change their behaviors.

Having a temper tantrum as an adult reflects behavior that can be changed, as opposed to the more severe diagnosis of Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED). In case you're not familiar with it, individuals with this disorder have anger problems, but the anger is so severe that it causes the individuals to be physically violent toward themselves, others, or property. With inidividuals who simply have bad tempers, they blow up, lash out, and scream, but they are often careful to avoid violence.

What should you do when the person you love has a temper? Let me be clear when I say this: If someone in your house is guilty of adult temper tantrums, you must say "No more." You must create a "No Tantrum Policy" to protect the peace of your house and environment. Everyone must learn how to manage their feelings, and there are countless better outlets for getting rid of frustration when someone feels overwhelmed than to have an infantile mood implosion.

The most important thing to do if someone in your life has tantrums that affect you is to sit the person down and seriously describe how the tantrums affect you. Explain that you are willing to work together with that person to help him or her find better ways to cope when he or she feels overwhelmed. Have a mental time limit in your head of how long you are willing to give him to change, and stick to it. Force yourself to come out of the closet and let your closest friends and family members know that your partner has a problem and that you have set a time limit for the change to occur — no more protecting the one with the temper and hiding the truth from others. Honestly, you need to say certain things out loud to others to hear yourself admit that there's a problem, and you must enlist their support for the potentially rough road ahead.

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

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