Insight Is 20/20

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

How Men Bully Women: Bad Tempers and Tantrums

A man's bad temper can cripple—and destroy—his romantic relationship.

For far too long, men with so-called bad tempers have gotten away with uncontrolled expressions of anger and frustration, and society minimizes this immature, child-like behavior by chalking it up to silly conventions: “Boys will be boys,” or “That’s just how men are.” 

Research has shown that a nasty double standard exists when it comes to the expression of anger. In a study, for example, about how men and women are perceived at work, Brescoll and Uhlmann (2008) found that both male and female evaluators assigned lower status to angry female professionals than to their male counterparts. In other words, when men lose it, it's somehow more acceptable; when women do it, they're seen as difficult or incompetent.

In my clinical work with adults, I have found that far higher rates of men have a self-described "bad temper," while few women I've worked display a similar problem with anger. What's more, I have found that many of the men who have a bad temper unleash the worst of it on their girlfriend or wife, especially if they live together.

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Why don’t most men who have bad tempers change? It’s often because the people around them let them get away with it. In other words, there are often no consequences for his temper tantrum. The reasons why women—and many gay men—let their male partners get away with it is because they are often too afraid to confront him or hold him accountable. I have worked with male clients who struggle with bad tempers, and some of these men also display narcissistic personality traits. Specifically, these men are perpetually more focused on their own feelings and image of self-importance and power than they are focused on how anyone in a relationship with them feels. At root, a grown man who acts out on his bad temper is selfish. If he weren’t, he would get the help he needs (from a therapist, pastor, anyone open to helping) and do the responsible thing: Stop scaring the people closest to him.

Label the problem—it’s abusive!

Perhaps it sounds like a luxury for every woman in America to stand up to a man who bullies. Sadly, many women who are on the receiving end of a husband- or boyfriend-bully are also saddled with the responsibility of working and also caring for children. If these families are financially struggling, too, the women may feel trapped or unable to leave. The good news is that dealing with the problem—getting a man to stop with the outbursts and tantrums—doesn’t have to involve ending the relationship or leaving. Though the relationship could end one day, the first step for women in this situation is to acknowledge that his temper outbursts are abusive. No one wants to admit that to themselves, but it’s the only way for a woman to start healing from the extreme stress she’s been experiencing at home.

Draw a boundary as soon as you see signs that his temper is ready to erupt.

If you can change how you react to a man’s temper outburst, you can actually change the dynamic in the relationship. In relationships with a bad-temper abuser, here’s how the process often unfolds: Man blows up; woman tries to soothe him and make him happier, or she moves away from him physically in the house or apartment as if to hide. If you are on the receiving end of his nasty temper, understand that the man is one-hundred percent focused on his own feelings—and herein lies the problem. The next time he loses his temper, be clear and tell him how you feel with a neutral facial expression and speaking tone. Say, “You need to take your bad temper and go outside or go somewhere else because your temper makes me feel extremely uncomfortable.” If he refuses to leave, you should step out for a bit if you can. The clincher: When you return, don’t feel pressure to emotionally reunite with him. The greatest mistake couples make in a situation like this is to attempt to reconnect through sex. Instead, detach a bit from him for a day or two.

Don’t swallow your feelings—express them.

If you poll a group of women who live with a man with a bad temper, you’ll often discover that isolation is a major factor. In relationships with someone who doesn’t play by the rules and who can fly off the handle, the woman often isolates herself from friends and family because she is conflicted about telling people close to her the truth. Consider the fact that she is already stressed in her home situation, so who would want to add to the stress by listening to a chorus of friends or family members telling her to pack her bags and end the relationship? The key for women is to ask themselves what they’re feeling emotionally and to find two or three people to confide in—otherwise these women will go deeper into a state of isolation. If you’re worried about getting a lot of unsolicited advice, put that out there. Tell your friend, “I just need to vent for a few minutes, but I don’t think I’m ready yet for actual advice.”

Decide how much time you’ll give your partner to change.

It would be a mistake to expect a major change in behavior overnight, but it can happen in a matter of weeks or months if you’re consistent and vigilant in how you respond to his temper outbursts. If you’ve been putting up with your partner’s abusive temper for a while, you’re probably ready to put the problem to bed for good. Ask yourself how much (more) time you are willing to give him to change his specific problem behavior, and giving him a month or two to work seriously on his issues is a good amount of time. Explain to him that you can’t be in a relationship where you get mistreated and that you will give him some time to change the behavior. You don’t have to tell him the amount of time you decided to let him have to change; that information you can keep to yourself. If a few months come and go and he still has the occasional moment where he loses his temper and goes off on you, you may want to consider ending the relationship.

He has a lot of (mental) work to do.

A man with a bad temper can change—but only if he is willing to do the work. To change, he would need to understand what precipitates his outbursts, decide which new ways of coping he’s open to trying, and practice responding in a new way. Sure, I'm biased, but I think the wisest choice is for the angry abuser to seek out a mental health therapist. Please note that it is not the woman’s job or responsibility to play therapist and link him with services—you know, to research clinics or contact therapists for him. If you're dealing with a man like this, tell him you think he should talk to a counselor, join an anger management group, or read a book on the subject. Simply remind him that there are resources to help people deal with anger issues, and tell him that you hope—for the sake of your future relationship—that he cares enough to change his nasty behavior.

Reference:

Brescholl, V.L. and Uhlmann, E.L. (2008). Can an agry woman get ahead? Psychological Science, March 9(3):268-75.

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

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