Does Your Partner Have Rage Attacks? Here's What to Do
When your partner “loses it," can you get the tirade to ricochet off you?
Posted Aug 20, 2015
For whatever reason—or possibly no good reason at all—your partner is blasting you. What do you need to do? Granted, many therapists would simply suggest you leave the scene. For, as a matter of personal dignity and respect, you’re hardly obliged to tolerate such abuse. But although such a response is warranted, it can be dangerous, too—and regardless of how churlishly or cruelly your partner may be treating you.
Whether the hurtful words they're hurling at you are right or wrong (and it’s safe to assume that at the least they’re exaggerated), raging people desperately need to be heard. So unless you’re so discombobulated by such a tongue-lashing that you can’t think straight or emotionally tolerate their highly-charged hostility, it’s almost always best to hang in there and attempt to “take in”—vs. react to—whatever they’re screaming at you for.
But first a crucial caveat: Neither you nor anyone else should repeatedly endure such abuse. And if it happens more than once or a few times—and seems neverending—then you definitely need to ask yourself why you remain in such a relationship, and whether you may need professional help to extricate yourself. Nonetheless, if this person who is prone to anger and rage can “own” their problem (vs. defensively project it onto you or blame you for provoking them) then—if they’re willing to undertake extensive therapy—their unacceptable raving behaviors may eventually become a thing of the past.
Again, no one deserves to be subject to constant abuse. But, if you look away from your assailant, or flat-out exit the scene, here’s the problem: Your verbal attacker may well conclude that you’re not taking them seriously, that you’re not even willing to hear them out. And their likely fragile ego, unable to handle what feels like outright dismissal—which may be far more painful to them than you might imagine, or that they’re even conscious of (or willing to admit)—may lead them to follow you as their agitated ranting continues to escalate. There are times when walking away from your “assailant” can so exacerbate the situation that what began as verbal becomes physical. And, if at all possible, such a truculent intensification obviously ought to be avoided.
But still, you certainly don’t want to take their insulting words “to heart”—as in "absorbing" them—particularly since in almost all instances their words are distorted, hyperbolic, or completely without merit. If you can contrive to keep yourself at sufficient emotional distance from your partner's verbal assault, you can listen to them at the same time you manage not to have their words puncture you. And what can be helpful here is taking several deep breaths and uttering to yourself the word “calm,” and maybe also a sentence such as, “This really feels scary but I can handle it." Moreover, it can be useful not to meet their glare head-on but—to better ward off their venomous energy—turn your body at a 45-degree angle from them. For such re-positioning can help you avoid what otherwise might feel like a “frontal assault.”
Remember, in all likelihood, the rage says a good deal more about that person and the gravity of their unresolved issues than it does about you. This is why it’s always useful to keep in the forefront of your consciousness the probability that your so-inflamed antagonist may hardly be reacting to you at all. Unconsciously, they may be perceiving you as some phantom from their past. So it's best to see their behavior as a kind of “temporary insanity,” for it would certainly seem they’ve taken leave of their senses, utterly lost their grip on reality.
Which is to say that up to this point your partner has never had the opportunity to emotionally come to terms with, or lay to rest, their original upset. Despite your inadvertently “triggering” their rage, it’s extremely doubtful that you represent its source. In their heated tirade against you, they’ve probably lapsed into their child self. So whatever they’re so stridently accusing you of, though it hardly needs to be agreed to, it’s nonetheless not a very good idea to communicate to them that their outburst is brutal, uncalled-for, or absurd. For in their seriously regressed state it may yet feel totally rational to them.
As counter-intuitive as it might appear, their self-righteous rage is generally best viewed as a frantic defense for them, as unconsciously contrived to stave off far more painful—and vulnerable—feelings coming dangerously close to the surface (such as feeling helpless, defective, rejected, ashamed, or unlovable). So in the moment criticizing them for their terrible temper can be experienced by them as nothing short of a direct assault on their (last-ditch) effort to protect their vulnerability, and so prompt them to become even more enraged.
Besides, people who are already boiling over emotionally can’t hear what you’re saying. So it’s not just a waste of breath to defend, justify, or explain yourself. In their super-aroused state, your doing so will only make them feel you’re totally dismissing the authenticity of their complaints.
It’s only after you’ve allowed them to fully express their rage without resisting it —which, frankly, is no mean feat—that it may subside. It’s only when their fury has worn itself out that they can be “restored” to their more reasonable adult self. Before then, whatever you say, and regardless of how you say it, your retort will probably only intensify their anger.
Yet I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that if—as rageaholics—they’re so disturbed that they meet the criteria for a full-blown personality disorder (narcissistic, borderline, paranoid, or sociopathic), it’s possible that, if their buttons really got hammered, they could rage for hours on end and still not cool down. And in such instances, you need to seriously consider leaving the relationship, or at least issue an ultimatum that unless they admit their problem and agree to get professional help for it, you will leave them.
But, in general, raging individuals are able to regain the capacity to listen and reflect on a viewpoint other than their own if you’re able first to make them feel heard, and even (to some degree) sympathized with.
Of course for you to truly understand what triggered them in the first place, you may need to ask them some questions and to do so with substantial tact and diplomacy. For if they experience your questions as “interrogations,” or as somehow patronizing, any remaining embers of their rage could get reignited. However, if you can accurately identify where their rage was coming from and convey this in a compassionate, non-threatening way, there’s a decent chance they’ll return the favor and hear you out the way you—so generously—have tried to do for them.
It’s certainly not always true, but most people do have a sense of fair play. So if you’ve been able to tolerate their abusive diatribe, they may indeed be willing to listen to, and appreciate, your experience—as well as validate the righteousness of your point of view toward whatever caused them to become so upset with you.
As I like to emphasize to my clients, as well as in many of my posts for Psychology Today, more than anything else people need to feel understood. So if you can figure out how to make them feel truly heard, their irrationally inflamed battle with you is likely—mercifully—to come to an end.