Gillian asked her husband to hang the curtains; she had been asking him for weeks. Each time, he had promised to do it, but it didn’t happen. When she asked for the fourth time, he angrily responded, “For Christ’s sake, how many times are you going to ask me? I heard you the first 10 times; it’s on my list. I’m not your puppet.”
Gillian stayed silent, and even though silence felt terrible, she didn’t know what else to do. She was paralyzed, stuck in a fight-flight-freeze state, frozen. The next day, the curtains were hung; however, her husband’s aggression went unaddressed.
While Gillian got her curtains hung (which she couldn’t do herself because of a bad shoulder), she felt angry and sad. She was also ashamed for allowing herself to be treated that way. She was disappointed in herself for not having the courage to stand up to her husband’s anger.
Olivia needed child care for her 8-year-old. She had reached out to many babysitters, but no one was available. She would normally have watched her son herself, but a friend was in town whom she really wanted to see. When she raised the issue with her husband, he said rather spontaneously that he would “take care of it.”
“Not to worry, I’ll deal with it; if I have to shift things around, I will," he said.
And so she thanked him and didn’t worry about it.
When the day arrived, it became clear that nothing had been arranged for child care. Her husband, noticeably angry, then accused her of being selfish, always doing exactly what she wanted to do and expecting him to rearrange his schedule to accommodate her.
“Why is the assumption that I will change everything around and you just get to do whatever you want?” he asked.
In Vince’s home, when one of the children dropped or spilled something or otherwise made a mess or when they were just being silly or loud or whining, his wife would explode. She would shout at the child and at him for condoning and creating the child's bad behavior.
In his words, “She was a grenade with a loose pin.”
Vince tried his best to keep the kids in line and quiet, to keep things under control. The kids also worked hard to “not make mommy mad.” But it was a losing battle, and the kids were starting to show signs of emotional damage, which is what brought Vince to my office.
What these three people have in common is that they all live with an anger bully: Someone who uses their anger to control and manipulate and as a weapon that keeps you silent and shut down.
Anger bullies come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and genders, and there are a lot of them. When you’re in a relationship with an anger bully—and usually you don’t need to Google it to know it—you live in fear, walk on eggshells, and carry an ongoing anxiety that you’ll be the target of the anger at any moment. Sometimes it's for reasons you know, and sometimes it's just because of the bully’s mood. Often, you also carry a boatload of resentment for serving as the bully’s punching bag and swallowing his or her anger with none of it being acknowledged.
The consequences of living with an anger bully are numerous and long-lasting.
To begin with, you live in a chronic state of anxiety; sometimes it’s at a low level, and other times it’s at code red. But it’s always there, a pit in your stomach, the knowledge that things could erupt.
You become hyper-vigilant to any small change in expression, tone, or movement that might signal the onset of conflict or anger.
You learn to scan for danger and monitor your environment in order to keep yourself safe. Unfortunately, this doesn’t just stop when you’re not with the bully; it becomes a way of being in the world that damages your confidence and sense of well-being and creates nervous system burnout.
Simultaneously, living with anger causes you to lose touch with your real self, your truth. You learn to manage, soften, and adjust what you say and do so as to not unleash the bully’s dragon; you become a master at how to behave to keep the peace.
As a result, your authenticity is stymied. This too doesn’t just disappear when you’re out of harm’s way but becomes part of who and how you are.
You also often experience shame for not having the courage or strength to stand up to your bully or just leave.
“I should be willing to confront him or her or leave the relationship. If it keeps happening it’s my fault for not stopping it,” you may think.
You and the bully are now in agreement; you're the one to blame!
The truth is, for most people, anger is just plain scary and incredibly difficult to confront or address.
There’s a background fear, too, when in a relationship with an anger bully, that confronting them about their behavior will lead to a rupture in the relationship, which presents another threat to your security. No matter how you slice it, how “used to it” you may be, anger is painful, disruptive, and hard to navigate.
So what can you do to help yourself with an anger bully if leaving the relationship isn’t what you want right now?
First and foremost, you can stop shaming and blaming yourself for not leaving and not knowing how to stop it just yet.
While it’s important to address anything in a relationship that feels hurtful, unsafe, or disrespectful and to set boundaries that protect you emotionally and physically, it’s also important to recognize that relationships are complicated. None of which is to say that you should excuse bad behavior, because you shouldn’t.
But we stay in relationships for many reasons, some of which don’t make “sense.” Because someone has anger issues doesn’t mean that you don’t still love and/or need them, that you don’t enjoy being with them, or that you haven’t built a good life together. If someone is an anger bully, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t many other wonderful things, too.
We tend to boil things down in our culture, either someone is good or bad; if they’re bad, you should get out and if you don’t there’s something wrong with you: You don’t love or respect yourself, you’re a masochist, you aren’t a powerful woman or man, and so forth. But in real life, human relationships aren't simple. They’re messy and contradictory.
People are many different things all at once and different things at different times. Staying in a relationship with a person who has anger issues isn't inherently something to feel shame or blame for. You can start helping yourself by telling your inner critic to get off your back about that.
There are some practical strategies that may help you feel more empowered, in control, and emotionally intact in a situation that can feel like it strips you of your power, control, and well-being.
When the bullying includes your children (which it never should), you can physically remove your child from the line of fire by saying things such as “Come on, let’s go do that thing in your room” or “Come with me, I don’t want you to be around dad when he’s shouting.”
This removal also gives you back some control in a situation that can feel so out of control. Sometimes it even serves as a wake-up call to the bully himself, reminding him that he's aggressing his children and that his actions have consequences.
Simultaneously, it’s critical to talk to your kids about your partner’s anger. If nothing is ever said about the bully’s behavior, the children learn to blame themselves and think that it’s their fault that your partner is so mad—and seemingly at them.
Children can twist themselves into pretzels to not make mom or dad mad and, in the process, become anxious and depressed.
So too, they come to believe that this kind of anger is normal and an acceptable way of treating people. Sadly, they often end up seeking out or creating that kind of relationship again. This is a cycle that you want to stop now, and you can do that by breaking the alliance with the bully as far as your kids are concerned and denormalizing the anger they’re witnessing and absorbing.
Talking about the anger with your children is also a way of getting the anger off of them, making it about daddy and mommy so that they don’t internalize it and make it about them. More than anything else, you want to teach your kids that the bully’s response is the bully’s problem; it belongs to the bully and isn’t something they caused, even if the bully says they did.
“You may have spilled the milk, but spills happen. If you can be more careful in the future that might help, but it also sometimes just happens. I spill milk all the time and I’m a grown-up. But daddy’s reaction to the spilled milk isn't OK; you shouldn't be yelled at like that, and this is daddy’s problem that we’re working on. You didn’t cause it; you can’t make it stop, even if you never spill milk again, and it’s not your fault.”
When it’s you being bullied with anger, one simple strategy is to hold your hand up, with the palm facing outward toward the bully, in a gesture that says “stop.” This can serve as a visual instruction, without needing any words (which aren’t available when you’re frozen). You can follow this by leaving the room or otherwise removing yourself. This is a concrete way of saying, “I won’t do this anymore; I won’t allow this to be done to me.” Once again, saying “no” in this direct manner sends a message that's often more effective than defending yourself while remaining in the line of fire.
If your bully is triggered (as many are) when you ask them to do something that they don’t want to do, such as hang the curtains, you can also start taking care of those tasks on your own. If you can afford it, you can hire a handyman or ask a friend to help you. While you might wish you had a partner who would happily help without getting angry, you may not have that partner. And so, if there’s a way to help yourself without their help, it’s often the path of peace, experience, and wisdom.
In doing so, you're effectively choosing the stress of accomplishing the task over the stress of potentially putting yourself in harm’s way. This isn't a defeat to take on the task yourself, as many people frame it. “But then I’m giving up on having a partner,” as I’ve heard it put.
To take care of yourself by hiring a handyman is a profound victory in fact. It’s stepping out of the fight with reality and resolving the struggle to be helped without potential aggression. To call the handyman is to choose your own well-being, your own peace, equanimity, and happiness, to honor what really helps you in the life you have. To drop the war and get on with the business of giving yourself what you really want—peace and equanimity—is a way of taking care of yourself at the deepest level.
A note of caution here: When you start taking care of yourself in this new way and taking away the opportunity to be bullied, you’re breaking the codependency cycle that has governed the relationship thus far. This may anger the bully further, as you remove yourself from their grip and take away their power to control you.
You're effectively addressing the issue of his or her anger while keeping yourself safe.
If you encounter backlash or pushback, you can simply acknowledge that you and your partner have different timelines for getting things done and preferences for how things get done, all of which are valid. So it makes more sense and makes things easier and smoother for you if you take care of things yourself on your timeline with your preferences. It’s a hard argument to challenge. On paper, that sounds like it should go smoothly and be easy, but I know that it’s not easy, and the response isn't usually just “OK.” So do the best you can and be kind to yourself in the process. It’s a place to start and an attempt to create change, all of which must be honored.
If it feels possible, you can also initiate a conversation with your partner about the anger, but only start that conversation at a time when the relationship feels close and intact and never when the anger bully is already agitated or looking for a cause for their grievance.
Before you have that conversation, write down some examples of times when you felt bullied and what you experienced as a result of it. If your partner becomes defensive and angry, it’s not a time to try and make headway. However, you can tell him or her that what’s happening right now between you and him or her is exactly what you’re talking about and trying to make better.
At the risk of repeating myself, I will: Anger is frightening and upsetting to be around and most certainly to be the target of. Chronic anger damages your sense of safety, security, self-esteem, spontaneity, authenticity, intimacy, and happiness. Anger triggers neurological changes and alters the chemicals in your brain and body; it dysregulates the nervous system. That said, you’re up against some real emotional and physical obstacles when anger is coming at you, obstacles that disrupt your ability to respond from your wisest self, or respond at all.
Finally, if you’re in a relationship with someone who uses anger as a weapon and if you feel shut down and silenced by that anger, it’s a good idea to seek professional help from a couples therapist or counselor. It helps to have another person in the room to create a controlled space where the issue can be safely discussed, understood more deeply, and hopefully helped. More often than not, you can’t do this alone. You didn’t cause the anger bully’s anger, and you can’t fix it yourself.
I’ve only covered a small slice of what's a gigantic topic: how to take care of yourself when you’re in a relationship with an anger bully. (I’ll be writing more about this in subsequent articles.) As you try these different strategies, be vigilant, most of all, about not adding more anger to the situation by getting angry with yourself. Stay on your own side. You’re in a tough situation; don’t abandon yourself here.