When You’re on the Receiving End of a Loved One’s Anger

By Charles H. Elliott, Laura L. Smith, W. Doyle Gentry

If you’re on the receiving end of the anger, the most important thing you can do is to stay out of harm’s way. Your job isn’t to fix your loved one’s anger — that’s your loved one’s job.

Most people who are on the wrong end of a loving-but-angry relationship have four options:

  • Hope and pray that the angry partner will change.

  • Seek professional help to undo some of the damage done by the abusive anger.

  • Make sure you do all you can to communicate effectively.

  • If all else fails, terminate the relationship altogether.

Don’t assume that your partner’s anger is “fixable” or under your control. Know your limits and be prepared to leave if things aren’t improving. Realize that emotional and physical costs occur when you remain with an angry person.

If you’re in a loving-but-angry relationship, you probably got stuck there through a series of mental traps, traps that have to do with two equally strong emotions: love and anger. What’s in your mind — firmly held beliefs about love and anger — keeps you from achieving what matters most: a relationship that is both intimate and safe.

To counteract the mental traps listed here, you need to practice what psychologists call cognitive restructuring. That is, rewire your thinking about the relationship between love and anger. Start by challenging any of the false beliefs listed. For instance, if your mind tells you, “If my husband loves me enough, he’ll stop being so angry,” restructure that thought by saying to yourself, “My husband definitely has an anger problem. He needs help. I can’t be the one to fix him — he needs to be responsible for that. Whatever is causing his anger, it’s not me. The answer to his anger is inside him. And loving me can’t make all that right.”

The belief that you can eliminate someone else’s anger

The most pervasive mental trap of all is the idea that a loving relationship will make the person you love less angry. Nothing could be farther from the truth. You can’t do anything to make your loved one less angry — it’s what your loved one does that counts! For example:

Tina fell into this trap years ago and tries to fix her female partner’s intermittent-rage disorder with love and support. As Tina says, “Living with her is like living on top of a volcano — you never know when she’s going to erupt next.”

In the end, all Tina gets for her efforts is a trip to the emergency room, a fractured skull, a ton of medical bills, and a restraining order against her lover. Obviously, Tina’s lover needs anger management.

The belief that anger is fleeting but love is forever

A second mental trap has to do with the belief that anger comes and goes but love is forever. No way. For a large — and perhaps growing — segment of the population, anger is anything but fleeting. Anger is a chronic condition — and a toxic one at that. All too often, anger holds on long after the love has gone.

The belief that when people love you, they’ll change

Another myth about anger and love is that if the angry person loves you enough, he’ll change. Not really. Although love for another person can be an incentive for becoming anger-free, by itself it isn’t enough motivation to alter long-standing, complex emotional patterns that have a life of their own.

The belief that all you need is love

The Beatles may try to convince you otherwise, but you need a lot more than love. Many people believe that as long as two people love each other, nothing else matters. Some people still believe that even after they’re released from an emergency room following an assault by the person they love.

Lots of things should matter in your life in addition to love — energy, health, your career, friendships, activities, hobbies, and neighbors come to mind as starters.

The belief that anger is just a sign of caring

The last mental trap is the one that tells you that if someone you love is angry with you, it means she actually cares. Parents or spouses sometimes engage in outrageous behavior (including violence) toward someone they supposedly love, all the while saying, “I’m doing this for your own good.”

Rubbish! Angry people care about themselves — what they want, what they expect, what they demand, what they think — not you. They’re expressing anger for their own good — to let off some steam, to relieve tension, or to protest what they regard as unfair treatment. If they actually cared about you — your welfare, your safety, your sanity — they would take whatever immediate action was necessary to short-circuit their anger.