Understanding My Wife’s Frequent Angry Outbursts

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Reader’s Question

Frequently my wife will just suddenly get angry. Something that isn’t planned or is otherwise bad usually instigates it, but the explosive bursts of anger are so out of proportion to what’s actually happening. When I tell her not to make such a big deal out of it, things will be okay, there’s no reason to get so upset, etc., she feels like I’m telling her she is stupid for having feelings. How can I convince her to see a psychologist without making her angry? What could be the problem?

Psychologist’s Reply

An initial question I have about your situation is whether this issue with your wife has been ongoing or is instead a recently-occurring one. As you are only now seeking assistance for this problem, I assume that your wife’s angry outbursts represent a change from her usual behavior and are thus reason for concern. Several medical reasons could account for your wife’s anger problems. Hormonal changes associated with menstruation or even menopause could be to blame, as could an undiagnosed thyroid condition or diabetes. The angry outbursts could also be the direct side effect of a new medication. Ruling out potential medical explanations would be critical before seeking psychological assistance. Once medical causes have been ruled out, you can then infer psychological causes and seek help from a licensed therapist.

Assuming medical issues are not to blame, a host of psychological causes or problems could contribute to your wife’s angry episodes. Depression, anxiety, and even bipolar disorder are all associated with increased irritability and mood instability. Likewise, stress associated with life circumstances or traumas can also lead to anger problems.

If your wife’s issues have persisted for a long time, then additional considerations need to be taken into account. For example, your wife’s temper could reflect pre-existing personality traits associated with borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder. A more benign explanation could be that your wife has stored up past resentment in your marriage and, instead of communicating with you directly about her feelings, lashes out at you instead. (But I am unsure from your question whether you are, in fact, the target of your wife’s angry outbursts.) Whatever might be causing your wife to act so angry, it makes sense that you are concerned and believe your wife needs help.

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How do you tell your wife you think she needs help? Your wife probably feels criticized when you confront her; after all, nobody likes to be told they have a problem, right? Furthermore, you may unintentionally be minimizing your wife’s feelings by telling her “not to make such a big deal” and “there’s no reason to get upset.” Although your have kind intentions, your words are likely experienced as invalidating to your wife who, from her perspective, has every reason to feel angry and upset about certain situations. Your wife might also react defensively if you suggest that she alone is the one with the problem; this is especially true if she is already feeling angry due to issues in your relationship.

While certainly she needs to assume responsibility for her behavior, your wife will likely respond kindly to you if she perceives your feedback as an expression of concern rather than criticism. She needs to know that your words come from a place of caring and that you are there to support her. She will also be more receptive if you let her know that you are willing to examine how you contribute to communication problems in the marriage. My suggestion would be to approach your wife during a time that is calm, as she might then be more receptive to your concerns. You will want to communicate the changes in her behavior you have observed as well as how these changes affect you. Make sure to use “I” statements to express your feelings: “It seems like you have been quick to get angry recently and I am worried about how easily things upset you. When you become this angry, I also feel scared and nervous.” If there are children involved, it is especially important to express your concern about them: “When you get angry like that, I fear that the children are afraid or may even start to imitate you whenever they feel angry.” You will then want to communicate the importance of seeking professional help in a way that demonstrates your support: “I believe that therapy or counseling might help you figure out other ways to manage anger. If I am contributing to this anger in any way, please know that I am more than willing to go to couples counseling.” Additionally, if your wife tends to direct her anger at you, you might tell her how that affects you specifically and then request that you two attend couples therapy together.

While certainly your situation is not an easy one, I do think it is possible to communicate effectively with your wife so that she can be receptive to the idea of seeking professional help. Approaching her from the standpoint of genuine caring and concern might be all she needs to prompt her into appropriate action. Remember she is more likely to be receptive if you share your concerns at a calm time. Remember too the importance of using “I” statements to communicate your feelings so that your wife does not feel blamed or singled out as the one with the problem. Finally, acknowledge your potential role in her anger problem and let her know how you can be part of the solution (i.e., couples therapy). By assuring her that you are there to support her, she will likely feel less alone and be more agreeable to receiving professional help.

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