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 that 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 actually be dangerous—regardless of how churlishly or cruelly your partner is treating you.
Whether the hateful, hurtful words they're hurling at you are right or wrong (and it’s safe to assume that at the least they’re highly exaggerated), raging people desperately need to be heard. So unless you’re so discombobulated by their tongue-lashing that you can’t think straight or emotionally tolerate their super-charged hostility—or, their out-of-control tantrum is scaring you out of your wits—it’s almost always best to hang in there and attempt to “take in” whatever they’re so vehemently 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 is likely to conclude that you’re not taking them seriously, that you’re not even willing to hear them out. And their 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. Or stalk you, as their highly agitated ranting continues to escalate.
There are times when walking away from your “assailant” can so further exacerbate the situation that what started out as verbal quickly turns physical. And such a truculent intensification—or confrontation—ought to be avoided at all costs.
Here’s the paradox embedded in all of this. You certainly don’t want to “take to heart” their insulting words—as in absorbing them—particularly since in most instances their words are distorted or completely without merit.
If you can contrive to keep yourself at sufficient emotional distance from such a verbal assault, you can listen to your attacker and manage to have their words penetrate 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 know how to 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 about a 45-degree angle from them. 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. That is, to see their behavior as a kind of “temporary insanity,” for it would certainly seem that they’ve taken leave of their senses, or utterly lost their grip on reality.
Which is to say that up to this point your partner—emotionally—has never had the opportunity to come to terms with, or lay to rest, their original upset. Despite your “triggering” your abuser’s 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 doesn’t need to be taken seriously—though when their animosity is so flagrantly aroused, it’s hardly a good idea to communicate to them that you see their outburst as brutal, uncalled-for, absurd, or ridiculous. For in such a regressed state it feels totally rational.
As counterintuitive as it might appear, their self-righteous rage is generally best viewed as a desperate defense, as unconsciously contrived to stave off far more painful—and vulnerable—feelings that may be coming dangerously close to the surface (such as feeling helpless, inadequate, rejected, ashamed, unlovable). So criticizing them for their blatantly irrational temper can, subliminally, be experienced by them as nothing short of a direct attack on their (last-ditch) defense of rage—typically prompting them to become even more enraged.
Besides, people who are already boiling over 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 disclaiming the authenticity, or legitimacy, 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 also need to seriously consider leaving the relationship, or at least issue an ultimatum that unless they admit their problem and agree to get 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 to first make them feel heard, and even (to whatever 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 done 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 well 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 ruthlessly upset with you.
As I like to emphasize to my clients, and 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 to come to an end.