Research shows that if you have an angry wife, it’s probably a fight about nothing, but serious issues of power, fairness, and responsibility may lurk under the surface. We have a cultural belief that men are more prone to anger than women, but that is simply not true.
Men are more prone to anger under certain circumstances, such as the “startle” research we discussed in a previous post. Research at my one of my alma maters, UMass, reported that there are essentially no differences in the frequency of anger between men and women.
But what is profoundly different between men and women is their management of anger. A large-scale empirical study of the “ordinary anger of everyday women” was conducted by Sandra Thomas at the University of Tennessee. Her research suggests that there are three consistent themes to the source of a woman’s anger; irresponsibility of others, injustice, and powerlessness.
Dr. Raymond DiGiuseppe at St. John’s University in New York teases out this research even further. In a respectfully large survey of 1300 participants, his research suggests that while men and women do not differ in the frequency of their anger, they not only express their anger differently, they also experience their anger differently.
Dr. DiGiuseppe’s research indicates that women stay angry longer than men, and are much more inclined to harbor grudges and resentments. Most importantly, women are far more likely to employ indirect aggression. When anger goes dangerously deep with women, they are much more likely to begin to go silent and dark on you.
This is the emotional foundation of what Michelle Weiner-Davis describes as the “walk-away wife.” As a rule, women are typically uncomfortable with direct expressions of anger, so in the early stages of marital distress, criticism becomes a crucible for their anger. This is where Psychobiological differences between men and women begin to complicate matters.
Women are more comfortable with low-grade conflict and will want to talk things out in the earlier stages of distress. Women are far better at self-soothing than men. Men often have little or no skill with managing low-grade conflict and either act defensively or stonewall.
What is amazing is that Gottman’s research tells us that when a wife brings up an issue, 40% of the time the husband doesn’t even fully understand what she is talking about. This might be due in part, to the speed of the male defensive reaction, and the tendency of men to become quickly flooded when they feel attacked. When I was discussing my research for this post, Dr.K told me that men also have a diminished ability to read their wives facial expressions and body language as they become flooded. Curiously, this is often not the case with other conflictual conversations that these same men may have with other people. This might be an interesting area for future neurological research.
Why is my wife so angry? Triggers to a woman’s anger are her perception of her husband’s irresponsibility, a sense of injustice in not having an influence on him, as well as an abiding sense of powerlessness over her inability to achieve a favorable outcome. You can see that gender differences in conflict management can profoundly undermine marital satisfaction.
I don’t mean to suggest that women are never inclined to become physiologically aroused when angry. I am saying that the research shows that they experience and express their anger differently, and tend to be slower to resort to aggressive anger, and tend to calm down faster. Women are more at home with remaining steady and regulated during unpleasant conversations. Paradoxically, because of harsh start-ups, and differences in sensitivity to conflict, they may be perceived by their partners as otherwise. Wives can discuss their annoyance and still aspire to have a productive and intimate conversation. An angry wife is still an engaged wife.
But if an angry wife has Developmental Trauma or PTSD, she may become flooded, just like her husband. Her flooding, however, will be quite different. She will have a glazed-over cast to her eyes, and will emotionally withdraw. Her “checking-out” at this point means that she needs a twenty-minute break or so to self-soothe, and calm herself down.
If you are both flooded, you both need a twenty-minute break that offers a mental shift. Listen to music, watch TV, read a book or magazine. If you ruminate and obsess about the argument, you are unlikely to calm down. I do a lot of work on couples retreats because Developmental Trauma has led to chronic toxic fighting and emotional withdrawal.
In our couples retreats, we help our clients to understand that a wife’s criticism is just a holding tank for other emotions and feelings. We help husbands to appreciate that as unpleasant as it may be to have and angry wife, a silent and sullen wife is a much bigger problem.
Listening to criticism is hard. It’s hard to endure what seems like a relentless attack from your angry wife. However, the quality of your marital conversations when you are not in conflict is like money in the bank. Your main job is to keep your cool.
Don’t get angry or defensive, or placate with false promises. Use the Groundhog Day questions. Get out of your conversational rut.
And always remember..if she’s complaining it’s because she cares. If she decides to give up and go dark on you.. she might become a walk-away wife. Unfortunately, many husbands take the exactly wrong approach in dealing with their walk away wife.
S. P. Thomas,”Women’s anger, aggression, and violence,” Health Care for Women International 26, no.6, (2005):504-22
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Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.