Psychologist Reveals 3 Best Ways To React To An Angry Spouse

Anger is not a negative emotion; it's when you act upon it that makes it negative.

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Dealing with other people’s anger can be challenging, confusing, and sometimes terrifying — especially if it’s someone we’re close to like a spouse, parent, or co-worker.

In this article, I’m going to teach you how to think about and handle other people’s anger like a professional psychologist would. Armed with some insider information about how anger works and a handful of effective tips for dealing with it, not only will you be better at managing other people’s anger but you’ll feel more confident doing it.


Here are the 3 best ways to react to an angry spouse:

1. Validate the anger, put boundaries on the aggression

The first thing to understand about anger is that it’s fundamentally different than aggression.

Anger is the emotion we feel when we believe we’ve been wronged. Aggression, on the other hand, is the act of expressing our anger, mostly in terms of what we do and say.

Most of us aren’t afraid of other people’s anger; we’re afraid of their aggression — of what their anger might lead to:

  • Insults, sarcasm, put-downs, shouting, and other forms of aggressive speech.
  • Physical acts of aggression from slamming doors to physical abuse or shunning.
  • The stress, loneliness, anxiety, guilt, awkwardness, or any number of painful feelings that often follow from a major fight or confrontation.

This distinction between anger and aggression is critical because we need to handle each very differently. Unfortunately, our instincts for how to do this tend to be dead wrong.


Instinctively, we tend to get defensive in the face of anger and say (or think) things like:

  • Why do you have to get so angry every time I bring up my parents?
  • You need to calm down and listen to what I’m saying.
  • If you weren’t so angry, you could handle things like a mature adult instead of acting like a child.

The common theme is that you’re being critical of their anger, of their emotional experience. The problem is, that anger isn’t the problem. None of us have direct control over how we feel emotionally. And to be criticized or judged for something we don’t have control over feels terrible.

This is why high-anger situations tend to quickly devolve into unproductive shouting matches. We pour fuel on the fire when we criticize or judge people for their emotional experience of anger.

Then, to make matters worse, we don’t deal with the other person’s aggression in a smart, consistent way. What I mean by that is, that we are generally not good at being assertive about setting and enforcing boundaries on aggressive behavior — including the effective use of consequences.


How to Handle Other People’s Anger (Like a Pro)

Photo: RDNE Stock project/Pexels

RELATED: 5 Quiet Things To Do When You're Angry — That Could Save Your Relationship

When your spouse, for example, gets angry and ends up shouting and berating you, what’s the consequence? Most people respond to aggression in two standard ways:

  • They get aggressive back. They shout back, point out the other person’s mistakes, dredge up past wrongs, etc. Unfortunately, this only justifies the other person’s anger in their mind and reinforces it and the aggression — making it more likely to happen in the future.
  • They ignore it or give in. Because we’re afraid of future or increased anger and aggression, we don’t establish clear lines about what we will and won’t tolerate when it comes to aggression. And even if we do, we don’t enforce them. Instead, we give in, tolerate, and sometimes even take responsibility for other people’s aggressions — all in an understandable attempt to keep the peace. The problem is, this too ends up reinforcing the aggression, making it more likely to happen in the long-term because the other person learns that it’s okay and that they can get away with it.

In short, our default tendency is to be harsh with other people’s anger and either be overly accommodating or equally harsh with their aggression.


The solution is to flip your strategy.

When confronted with an angry partner or co-worker, for example, you want to validate their anger and put firm but respectful boundaries on their aggression — and be willing to follow through with consequences!

For example, suppose your spouse starts getting defensive when you ask them to help out more with cleaning around the house. They start criticizing you for not doing more, explaining how they do all the hard work, and how selfish it is of you to even ask that.

How might you respond?

First, start by validating their anger and frustration. You might say something like:

It seems like you’re feeling angry, maybe because it sounds like I’m criticizing you. I do appreciate everything you do and maybe I should have led with that. I’m just struggling with the housework and thought we could talk about different ways to keep things cleaned up.


This makes it less likely that they spiral into defensiveness, which isn’t in anyone’s best interest. Often, just this little move alone will help dramatically.

But suppose simple validation doesn’t work, and they respond with something like:

This is bulls**t! You’re just trying to get me to do your work for you. You’ve always been lazy.

This is aggression that needs to have firm boundaries put on it.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Be clear about what constitutes aggression that you’re not willing to tolerate. Take some time to write down the types of aggressive speech and behavior you want to put boundaries on.
  • Next, determine how you’re going to respond if that aggression comes up. For example: If my spouse starts criticizing me, I’m going to ask them once to stop. If they don’t, I’m going to leave the conversation.
  • Anticipate tough emotions when enforcing boundaries. Understand that enforcing your boundaries and the consequences of other people’s aggression isn’t going to be easy. You may feel guilty like you’re responsible for fixing the issue. You may feel worried — worried that they’ll stay angry and do something stupid. In any case, don’t let yourself be caught off guard by this emotional friction to enforce your boundaries.
  • In a calm moment, share your plan with the person whose anger and aggression are an issue. For example, take a few minutes one Sunday afternoon and explain to your spouse that the way they express their anger and get aggressive bothers you. And that from now on, here’s how it’s going to be handled.

Of course, if someone else’s aggression is so extreme that you’re in danger, you should seek professional assistance or simply call the police.


If you see a therapist or counselor, they can be a resource for helping you make a plan moving forward. Your primary care physician can as well. There are also many independent resources like The Hotline for helping people in abusive or dangerous domestic situations.

Here are the takeaways:

  • Instead of criticizing people’s anger, learn to validate it. Let them know that you understand that they’re angry and that it’s okay for them to feel that way. Many, many anger issues will be resolved with that simple step.
  • Set and enforce clear boundaries on people’s aggression. Avoid meeting their aggression with your aggression or rolling over and accepting responsibility for it. Make a clear plan for managing their aggression and steel yourself to follow through on it.
  • In the case of abuse, always seek professional help.



​RELATED: 5 Subtle Signs You’re Angrier Than You Think, According To A Psychologist


2. Look for the function of their anger

From the earliest ages, most of us are taught to view painful or difficult emotions like diseases — foreign invaders out to harm us that should be quickly eliminated or at least ignored.

Just think about your childhood: How often were you told to cheer up, calm down, put on a happy face, and go to your room until you’re not so angry anymore? Unintentionally, comments like these communicate that how we feel is bad, and by extension, that we’re bad for having them. We’re taught to treat emotions as problems to be solved or avoided.

What we’re not taught is how to listen to our emotions. Few of us learn that rather than giving in to or avoiding how we feel, there’s a third option: you can calmly listen to them, consider what they’re “saying,” and then make an informed choice about how to proceed.

The best way to think about emotions is like lights on your car’s dashboard: Sometimes they’re a little uncomfortable (low fuel!), but often they’re trying to communicate something to us.


Learning to see the function of emotion — what they’re doing — is a key part of emotional intelligence generally. And it can be especially helpful when confronted with other people’s anger.

See, what most people don’t realize is that anger is a positive emotion. We think of it as bad or negative because angry people often end up doing negative things. But if you think about it, the feeling of anger itself is pleasurable. It’s inflating and ego-boosting:

  • Behind every assessment of “you’re dumb” is an implication of “I’m smart.”
  • Behind every judgment of “that’s wrong” is an implication of “I know what’s right.”

Once you understand that anger feels good, you can start to see why people so easily get angry and stay angry… Because it feels good! At least in the moment.

A very common function of anger that most people don’t realize is that it alleviates and distracts from other difficult emotions like sadness, fear, or shame. It’s a defense mechanism.


Many people have learned that they can quickly alleviate their fear, sadness, or any other painful emotion by framing the situation in terms of someone else doing something wrong. Consequently, they feel right and justified, which temporarily distracts them from their more painful feelings. This is why people are so judgmental.

Suppose you ask your co-worker to fix something in a presentation you’re working on together and they snap back at you with: “Well, I’ve had to fix plenty of your mistakes!” There’s anger functioning to alleviate some feelings of embarrassment, for example, at their mistake.

Once you learn to look for the function of other people’s anger, it makes it easier to separate yourself from it and stay detached. When you can see that your husband getting angry and rude is a defense mechanism (however primitive!) for dealing with his insecurity, it makes it easier to confidently stand your ground.

Furthermore, understanding the function of someone’s anger makes it easier to acknowledge and validate their anger as we discussed in number 1 above.


The next time you find yourself confronted with someone else anger, ask yourself: What function could their anger be serving? What does being angry (a pleasurable emotion) help them achieve, do, or think?



​RELATED: 3 Sneaky Signs Anger Has Taken Over Your Life (& You Don't Even Realize It)

3. Avoid speculative self-talk

We humans are meaning-making machines. We’re also storytelling machines.


We crave the security and comfort that comes from believing things have an inherent purpose and order to them. And we often impose our purpose and order on things by telling stories.

Think of a time when you performed poorly at something, maybe getting a C on a test in school or a poor performance review. Chances are, you almost immediately started telling yourself a story about why it had happened:

  • I knew I should have studied for those extra three hours instead of going out with friends.
  • My manager’s just overly critical. She’s always picking on me and singling me out.

In both cases, we tell a story as a way of making sense of what’s happening.

Now, sometimes this storytelling is pretty objective and aimed at truly understanding something better. But more often than not, the stories we tell are motivated not by the truth about things but by wanting to feel better:

  • Telling ourselves that if we had studied more we would have gotten a better grade makes us feel in control.
  • Blaming your manager makes you feel less guilty about the fact that you’ve been slacking off lately at work.

At times, we can harness our self-talk and storytelling powers for good, but often they simply happen out of instinct or the desire to feel good and bolster our egos. And if left unchecked, these habits of self-talk can wreak havoc on our emotional lives and our relationships.

When it comes to anger and dealing with other people’s anger, a lot of people make a bad situation worse because of their automatic habit of spinning stories about what the other person’s anger means.

Here’s an example:


Suppose your wife yells at you the minute you step through the door because you’re half an hour late and now she’s late for a meeting. Almost instantaneously, your thoughts and self-talk start spinning a tale about what her anger means:

God, why does she have to be so angry all the time? She should relax, it’s not the big a deal — certainly not worth getting all bent out of shape over. She really should go see a therapist and get these anger issues under control.

First of all, there’s a lot of potential assumptions and inaccuracies in this story:

  • She’s angry ALL THE TIME?
  • It’s not a big deal to you, but have you considered all the reasons why it might be a pretty big deal to her?
  • Because she yells at you that means she has anger issues? Do you even know what anger issues mean other than that you feel like she gets angry too much?

Second, this storytelling is self-serving. The fact that these stories you’re telling make you look like the good guy and her look like the bad guy is going to make you feel better. And the fact that it makes you feel better is a major conflict of interest when it comes to being objective. Maybe all these stories about her anger are just serving to deflect attention away from your guilt over not paying attention to the time.


The point is, that it’s very easy to start telling ourselves stories in our head about other people’s anger and what it means. And usually, these stories aren’t super objective, in large part because they tend to be self-serving.

Once you’ve built up a story in your head about why their anger isn’t justified, you’re much more likely to act in a way that invalidates their anger, puts them on the defensive, and escalates the conflict.

Instead, one of the best things you can do when confronted with someone else’s anger is to avoid any speculation about their anger initially. Rather than theorizing about their anger based on assumptions and self-serving instincts, try to be a bit more factual. One option is to try to understand the function of their anger as we discussed in number 2 above.

Another option is to simply catalog the facts of the situation: What happened exactly? Does what they say match up with my experience? Am I feeling afraid, sad, guilty, or any other strong emotion? If so, what’s that about?


There’s power in stories. And when based on gut reactions and the desire to protect our egos, these stories can end up doing more harm than good.

Try to be aware of your default self-talk scripts in the face of other people’s anger. And then ask yourself:

  • How realistic is this?
  • And even better, Is this line of thinking really helpful to the situation?

How to Handle Other People’s Anger (Like a Pro)


Photo: Gui Spinardi/Pexels

​RELATED: How I Finally Stopped Letting Anger Ruin My Life

Nick Wignall is a psychologist and writer sharing practical advice for emotional health and well-being. He is the founder of The Friendly Minds newsletter.