Why Does My Wife Have These Explosive Episodes: Intermittent Explosive Disorder?

Reader’s Question

I have been married for 3 years and 2 months. My wife and I have no children. My question is about anger issues that my wife appears to have.

Just how much yelling/screaming/swearing is normal in a marriage? My parents argued, but they almost never raised their voices to one another. (I can only remember one shouting match in the 27 years I have known them.) My wife, on the other hand, has a flair for flying off the handle and will explode over what I consider relatively minor things. I’m proud to say I have rarely even raised my voice to her and have never directed a swear at her. When she has her “episodes” (she used to say they were “mood swings”) all bets are off. She’ll explode at something, begin screaming random curse words or hurling insults, then ignore what the other person has to say and run off or continue to cry, scream, swear, or slam doors. Then she might give the silent treatment for hours or the rest of the day. She’s never gotten physical, although she has thrown things at me three times. Sometimes she directs her anger at the dog (by shouting obscenities at it), and I’ll take the dog to sit quietly in another room until she calms down.

My wife’s episodes have happened at awkward times such as when she’s driving the car, during sex, or other odd times. She’s done things in front of others, but it usually happens when we are alone. The outbursts seem to occur in cycles.

Looking back, I realize there were some episodes when we were engaged. I remember one outburst directed against her mother where she had a screaming fit and retreated into her bedroom and I had to calm her down. I saw one directed against an ex-boyfriend/long term friend. I feel like an idiot for missing these warning signs. I also only recently began to realize what’s been making me so unhappy for awhile. It’s these crazy outbursts.

I care about this woman very much but these episodes have had a terrible effect on me. I feel tired, irritable and have started to worry about our relationship’s future. I find myself fantasizing about and seriously considering leaving. We have no children now and I know they compound stress. I start to wonder if I really want to have kids in this kind of environment.

I brought this up during our first year of marriage but my wife blamed it on birth control pills and the weight they caused her to put on. But she has been off the pills 2 years and has only gotten worse. Is this normal in a marriage? Am I being too sensitive and making a mountain out of a mole hill? Because so many episodes happen when we’re alone, others would have a hard time believing there’s a problem.

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Any ideas?

Psychologist’s Reply

Although it’s impossible to assess your situation with any real reliability remotely, the things you describe present some interesting possibilities.

There is a condition called Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED). It’s not very common but recent data suggest it’s more common than we once thought. It’s primary feature is relatively unpredictable extreme expressions of anger or rage that are out of proportion to the triggering events and are not premeditated but impulsive in character. The diagnosis for this disorder is given when all other possible causes for the outbursts, including medical reasons, are ruled out. Interestingly, the disorder often co-occurs with mood disturbances.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the psychological treatment of choice for IED, although some drug regimens (especially the use of SSRIs) can be very helpful in improving impulse control.

It’s important to rule out other possible underlying causes. Some brain abnormalities and other medical conditions can cause patterns of behavior that resemble IED. Further, there are some personality disturbances that are characterized by emotional lability, dyscontrol, and inappropriate expressions of anger. Also, in some circumstances there could be underlying psychological dynamics at play which are unconscious to the individual. The fact that you say these episodes occur primarily in your presence raises that distinct possibility. It would be best to secure a thorough assessment by a trained professional to get to the root of the problem. You might need to set and enforce some limits in that regard as your wife might not be immediately amenable to such evaluation or treatment. You might even indicate your willingness to be an integral part of the process. Once you know what the nature of the problem is, you’ll be better advised not only about what issues you’re facing but also about what steps you might need to take to best deal with them.

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