How to Help an Angry Man: And Stop the Fights That Harm Your Marriage

I’ve been helping men and the women who love them for more than 40 years. When I ask men what’s most important to them in their relationships, I hear many variations on a simple response. Men want more sex and fewer fights. When I ask women what they want they also give offer variations that are consistent. Women want to feel save and emotionally connected with their partner. Disagreements and misunderstandings are inevitable in any relationship, but fights undermine a marriage and can poison a relationship.

When couples fight, they rarely remember what caused the disagreement or how it escalated into a fight, but pain embeds itself in our bodies, minds, and spirits, and acts like a strong acid corroding the very foundation of a relationship and undermines a couple’s trust for each other. We may make-up and think everything is O.K., but the foundation of the relationship becomes a little weaker and over time may collapse.

I’ve helped more than 25,000 couples stop fighting and heal the misunderstandings that lead to fights. The key to my success has been to teach couples how to understand male anger and how cool it down before bursts into flames. Before I tell you what I’ve learned, I’ll tell you where I’m coming from.

I’m an only child and was raised by an anxious mother and an angry father. My mother always worried that something would happen to me and was afraid I’d die. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the death of her father when she was five years old, contributed to her life-long anxiety. My father was the black sheep of the family. All his brothers and sisters were successful in business. My father wrote plays and acted. He never achieved the success he longed and become angry and depressed when he couldn’t make a living to support his family.

Understanding Male Anger

One of my most popular articles was titled “Why is My Husband So Angry?” I described how destructive anger can be to a man and his family. Anger is an increasingly serious problem in our society today according to Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “Out-of-hand anger ruins many lives,” he says.  “More, I believe, than schizophrenia, more than alcohol, more than AIDS.  Maybe even more than depression.”

When a man gets angry, most people become afraid and tend to withdraw. Rarely do we truly understand what is at the core of male anger. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years I’ve been helping men and the families who love them:

  • Anger and fights are often triggered by male shame.

The powerful impact of shame on male irritability, anger, and violence is captured by James Gilligan, M.D. who has spent his professional career working with violent men.  “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.”

  • Men often feel ashamed when women are unhappy.

Men want women to be happy and often feel responsible for making them happy. When a woman is unhappy, particularly if she is unhappy with him, he feels he is failing at his job. Rather than tuning in to her hurt and listening to her upset he feels deep shame which often triggers his anger.

  • Men often hear a woman’s unhappiness as criticism of him and her criticism as a personal attack.

When a man is triggered by shame, he becomes more irritable. When a woman wants to talk about something she’s unhappy about, he can feel that he’s being criticized. Criticism can feel to him like an attack and goes into counter-attack mode. Marriage experts John and Julie Gottman found that “It is impossible to communicate when a person is in this physiologically aroused state.”

  • Men and women experience and express anger differently.

Marriage experts John and Julie Gottman reported research that showed that when men get angry they are more likely to use physical aggression, passive aggression, and revenge to handle their anger. Women are less likely to directly express their anger, become more resentful than men, and stay angry longer. This can often trigger more conflict and fights.

  • Men are more emotionally reactive than women during conflict.

We think of women as becoming more emotional during conflict, but it’s actually men who have a more difficult time handling emotions. With our evolutionary roots as hunters and protectors when he senses danger his whole system goes on high alert. “Because the body does not tailor its physical distress when upset,” says Gottman, “a man may rev up as if he’s facing a ferocious beast rather than an angry partner.”

  • Men get more emotionally flooded and overwhelmed than women do in a conflict situations.

Flooding is deadly to relationships. When men become flooded they are in total fight or flight mode. Our anger can overwhelm us and to protect ourselves and our partner, we want to escape, which makes the woman feel even more afraid. Flooded men often fall into four destructive responses described by the Gottmans:

  1. They become more defensive.
  2. They become more critical and blaming.
  3. They respond to their partner with contempt and “put-downs.”
  4. They close off their feelings and “stonewall” their partner.
  • When a man is flooded, he is in panic mode and literally “out of his mind.”

Trying to talk to a man (or woman) who is emotionally flooded is like trying to have a reasonable conversation with a person who is drowning. In their fear and panic they are more likely to harm you than help you. They certainly are in no condition to listen to you.

How to Help an Angry Man

Half the battle of helping an angry man is understanding his anger, which I’ve described above. When we understand men’s desire to please a woman, the shame when feels he’s failed, and the emotional overwhelm and flooding he feels, we can all have more compassion for ourselves and our partner.

The other half of the helping process is for both members of the couple to do everything they can to prevent develop the “self-soothing” practices that can prevent flooding and if flooding occurs to take emergency measures to stop the flooding before a fight occurs. Here are some things I’ve learned that can help.

  • I get regular massages every two weeks which helps soothe the stresses that arise in my life.
  • I love the healing and relaxing in a hot tub or pool.
  • I use mind practices to reduce stress.
  • I enjoy getting out in nature and feeling the peace and quiet of the trees, meadows and streams.
  • I’ve learned to meditate and have a regular practice to relax my mind.
  • If I’m talking to my wife and I feel myself beginning to feel emotionally stressed and flooded, I stop what we’re doing, say “I’m starting to get flooded” and need to calm down.
  • I’ve learned to take ten slow, deep breaths and count to ten. This calms my nervous system.
  • If I’m still feeling flooded I ask to take a short break (usually ten minutes and I can resume listening and talking). I check my pulse rate. If its elevated I continue the deep breathing.

Everyone must find their own ways to prevent flooded and to keep it from turning into a fight. I’m not always successful, but I’ve gotten better with practice. It’s worth the effort to keep my relationship alive and well. Please share your comments and questions below.

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  1. Rick Herranz Sr. says:

    Good Morning Jed
    Thanks for being REAL LIGHT on your web site HELPING MEN. There is much confusion in our American culture and how the culture conditions so many people to believe otherwise.

  2. thank you for sharing this. this is exactly what has been happening with my wife and myself. i so love her and it has been hard to be around her as it occurs she is pissed off with me, no matter what i do. we have been separated now for two years. i go out and do things for her like fix things and build stuff for her and no matter what i do it is never enough and it triggers me to leave upset. any time she shares with me it comes across as blame and is hard to hear. thank you for sharing this in such a way i can see the water we are swimming in.

    • Bruce,
      Often these issues, if they persist, have to do with unresolved issues from the past. Our families are the first models we have that embed in our minds a model of relationship. Its like a map to what it means to be in a loving partnership. But often the model we received growing up from our parents relationship created a distorted and inaccurate love map. As a result we keep looking for love in all the wrong places. If your wife is seeing you through the distorted lens of the past, it may make it difficult for her to see the real you. In my book, The Enlightened Marriage, and in classes and counseling, I try and help people heal these old wounds and distortions so they can have the relationship they want and deserve.

  3. Its not entirely true that males want more sex I feel.
    I think they want to believe they want more sex.

    I feel humans male or female both want sex.
    Technically it makes more sense if a female needs more sex cos without the females sexual desire continuation of species might not possible.

    I am a female myself.
    I personally feel a husband and wife should be like Bonobos..just solve everything with sex.

    When the brain is flooded with Dopamine ..there is only Love and No War.

    • Renu, It would solve a lot of problems, for sure, if we following the practices of our Bonobo ancestors and had more joyful sex play.

  4. John patrice fanggidae says:

    Hi Jed
    I am a husbund, since 3 years a go i got a habit to make sesnsul like kissing ect with young girl untill i got orgasm, i know that is not good things. I am traying to avoid but after 1 month it feeling comes again and i done it again. I have decided to stop it now, please advice. My wife know that at the beginning and she got so angried to me, and i said to her i stop it, but since that time our sex intercourse is not like before, even it become worst now

    • John,

      Sounds like you could use some help dealing with your emotions and attractions. Often we get drawn away from our primary partner when things become difficult, and as I say in the title of one of my books, we begin “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.” Its good you recognize this so you can change course and get the help you need.