The Ethical Dilemma: My Husband Explodes in Anger for No Reason. What Should I Do?

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Volatile Spouse: My husband and I have been married 45+ years and are entering our 70s. I’m currently trying to process the side of my husband that goes into a fury (which dies down immediately but is jolting and horrible nonetheless) and exploded at me about ten times over the past six months—not often but disconcerting every time. I’m concluding that if this is what my 70s are going to be like—living with someone who’s intermittently outraged and furious at me—I don’t want to do it. I’ve been appalled not only by people who stay in those kinds of marriages, but even by friends who put up with bosses who every so often scream at them. I cannot relate because I honestly don’t think I’ve ever experienced that degree of anger or screamed at anyone.

Right now my husband is the person he’s always been: cheerful, affectionate, even-tempered, happy, and jovial with everyone, and loving towards me. We run a business together and seem compatible and in sync with that.

I think these anger eruptions are some sort of physiological thing, and the next time they happen—I dare not imagine they’ll never happen again—I’m going to call him on it. He already has admitted he does not know why they occur. I want to hang on to this marriage, but I want to feel comfortable and secure, not on edge. What should I do?

—Moody Blues

Dear Moody,

As an occasional screamer myself (confined to immediate family members who may be squabbling or who have not, as requested, removed the piles of crap from the dining room table before I come out of the kitchen carrying hot food), I find it amazing that you never do. I hate myself for doing it, but I’ve found that no one seems to pay attention to my words until they reach a certain decibel level. Fortunately (I think) everyone forgets about it within moments. (Maybe someone needs to give me advice on this.)

You don’t mention why your husband blows up at you, but he must have reasons, even if they may seem irrational to you. You must call him out, not after the next time, but now, while he’s Dr. Jekyll. Tell him how Mr. Hyde upsets you so much, you’re starting to feel you’d be happier without him than with him and his outbursts. Maybe your husband really could contain it if he realized how much it throws you, but more likely he, or both of you, need some professional help. Start with getting him a thorough physical check-up to make sure he doesn’t have, as you suspect, a medical problem that’s causing him to lash out emotionally. Then you could try couples counseling. You also need to consider whether there’s something you’re doing, no matter how innocently (possibly even related to the fact that you never lose your temper, which he may find maddening), that’s sending him around the bend. It doesn’t sound as though this has been going on for 45 years. If not, when did it start, and why?

Controlling emotional outbursts is easier said than done, and it’s possible that blowing off steam is actually healthier than suppressing it. Perhaps the next time it happens you could announce that you will be happy to discuss the problem after he calms down, and then walk away until he’s able to have a conversation. But don’t walk away from this problem—it demands attention. While you imagine yourself happier alone than with Old Faithful, I suspect that eruptions every few weeks, horrible as they may be, are not worth sacrificing the companionship you enjoy in between, and the business you share so compatibly. But you don’t want this situation to escalate either in terms of frequency or intensity (and potential violence). So please start talking—and making appointments for professional help—now, before the next quake hits.