I have an angry wife…Why?

There’s an old phrase: “When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

Research bears that out.

An angry wife typically battles about serious issues of power, fairness, and responsibility. But on the surface, it looks like a fight about ‘nothing.’

We have a cultural belief that men are more prone to anger than women, but that is simply not true. Research at the University of Massachusetts reported that there are essentially no differences in the frequency of anger between men and women.

My wife is mean! Why?

She is peeved because she feels powerless, prevailed upon, and provoked!

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. Walk away wives are what drive many confused husbands to contact us for intensive marital counseling at Couples Therapy Inc.

Women’s anger, marital fights, and depression

The pattern of marital deterioration is predictable. So is the common onset of depression which can intensify irritability and marital problems in a circular way. Couples with frequent disagreement or arguments are 10 to 25 times more likely to experience depression than marriages that are not as conflictual. Feeling unsupportive also makes women more susceptible to depression.

Women, more comfortable with low-grade conflict, and will want to talk things out with their husbands in the earlier stages of distress. But men in problematic marriages see this as criticism and may get defensive.

Men often have little or no skill in managing low-grade conflict and either act defensively or stonewall.

Is she angry with her husband? Maybe it’s because he has a hard time reading her

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 researchers have demonstrated 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 intriguing area for future neurological research. In contrast, women are far better at self-soothing than men.

A woman is triggered to anger when she sees her husband’s behavior as irresponsible, feels 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.

Harsh start-ups and angry wives

Of course, women do become physiologically aroused when angry as well. Research shows that they experience and express their anger differently, however, 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.

Often, it’s because the woman, herself, has brought up this conversation.

Gottman’s research suggests that the way a woman brings up these unpleasant conversations will determine how they turn out. If she brings it up harshly and critically, both are more likely to get nowhere constructively in the conversation. Wives can discuss their annoyance and still aspire to have a productive and intimate conversation. An angry wife is still an engaged wife.

Why am I so angry at my husband? The trauma variable

If you have Developmental Trauma or PTSD, you may become flooded, just like your husband. Your flooding, however, will be entirely different. You will have a glazed overcast to her eyes and will emotionally withdraw. Your “checking-out” at this point means that you need a twenty-minute break or so to self-soothe and calm yourself 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 constant toxic fighting and emotional withdrawal.

An answer from the research

In our couples retreats, our first priority is to help couples to understand that anger is an emotion of thwarted desire. It’s an emotion of engagement, particularly if it can be channeled constructively. Women who are angry may have a lot to say to a husband who is sick of the way it’s being said. Being able to help a critical wife express this holding tank of emotions and feelings is important. But helping her do it in a way she can be heard is even more important. And helping her husband hear it is the other side of the coin.

We help husbands to appreciate that as unpleasant as it may be to have an angry wife, a silent and sullen wife is a much bigger problem.

The couples who come to us want to start relating better, want to talk so they can be heard, and want to know how to express even tremendous anger impactfully AND effectively. It’s our task in a Couples Therapy Intensives. And it’s all done in a weekend.

Here is what to do when your wife is upset

  • Take 5 to 10 seconds before you respond. But keep eye contact if possible. See her as trying to get her point across, not as trying to tear you down.
  • You want to find out where the hurt lies. Does she feel powerless? Does she think you have been irresponsible? Has her sense of justice, reciprocity and fairness been violated? Remember one thing women want most from men is trustworthiness.  Be truthful.
  • Don’t turn away from her. Lean in. Ask appropriate questions:  “What ‘s going on for you right now?” “What are you feeling?” “Talk to me I’m listening.” “What do you need from me right now?” “What bothers you the most about this?”

What do I do when my wife is always irritated with me?

Listening to criticism is hard. Research shows that. It’s hard to endure what seems like a “relentless attack” from your angry wife. And it’s not enough to “grin and bear it.” It’s important to know what effective complaining is, and collaborate in calmer moments to work toward talking productively. We can help.

However, the quality of your marital conversations when you are not in conflict is like money in the bank. When was the last time you went out alone together? You connected emotionally? You touched her lovingly?

While your primary job is to keep your cool when tensions rise, when things cool off, your job is to be actively engaged and involved.

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 precisely wrong approach in dealing with their walk-away wife.

Our Couples Retreat is a perfect opportunity to change your fighting habits!

“We have the skills for coping when I get crazy angry.  I realize if I criticize him, he’s only going to get defensive, so I use my words carefully! We use the results of where we scored as a couple to help us also in see that we still have enough left in this relationship to work on it. We are talking better, too.”   –Recent Intensive Client


S. P. Thomas,”Women’s anger, aggression, and violence,” Health Care for Women International 26, no.6, (2005):504-22

Originally published February 24, 2017

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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  1. This is utter think tank / propaganda research aimed at family and marriage therapy. No way any man should ever have to be treated like this. Couples therapy is about effective communication between two adults whom equitably provide vulnerability, truth, respect and the “want to” that requires them both to take responsibility for their thoughts and actions.

    This new era of capitalistic counseling, because face it; that’s what this is, disgusts men. Why do men not show up in counseling? Why don’t men seek help for themselves? This, like many other feminists theories, involve only what’s best for the woman and is a total lie. A lie which has had serious consequences in western society as we see divorce rates continue to increase.

    Even suggesting that men can’t possibly read a room and hold responsible conversations during arguments is derogatory. Sexist. Bluntly speaking : BS

    And let’s not forget that the truth is that if you are buying this product you have already lost your relationship while this company is banking your buck. Find a real couples therapist. If you’re a man seek a therapist that sticks to ethics and the Hippocratic oath to do no harm. It’s a shame as a society we have allowed profits to become more important than people. It’s even worse when we allow the medical profession to spread such misinformation.

  2. I call bullshit on this article. My ex husband who I divorced in the late 70s acted like this and it made me literally sick. He went nuts if I forgot to flush the toilet. Laundry day was hell on earth because he would stand over me supervising me and scream if everything wasn't folded right or if I put too much detergent in or I took too long. Or something. If dinner wasn't to his liking he threw his plate at the wall. If a hair was on the floor he would scream for hours. I am glad I left for greener pastures.

    1. Hi Barbara. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’m sorry that you experienced such a horribly abusive relationship. I hope that your new pastures remain evergreen, because you deserve to be treated with kindness and respect.

  3. This article is superb… insightful and compassionate yet direct. I’m sorry some of the men can’t handle it, but as the Yugoslavian proverb says, “tell the truth and run.” Thanks for helping me understand my feelings.

      1. Yes marriage can be too complicated to be a success at. As for myself I am a self taught engineer and worked long and arduous hours to be wealthy. My soon to be ex wife bombards me with nonsense.
        So I made the best decision for myself, move on.

  4. This is exactly backwards for my relationship. My wife is the defensive actor in even the smallest situations.
    How dare I say anything negative about her? My feelings don’t matter, only hers.
    Happy wife, suicidal husband.

  5. “And always remember, if she’s complaining it’s because she cares.”

    “She is peeved because she feels powerless, prevailed upon, and provoked!”

    “Is she angry with her husband? Maybe it’s because he has a hard time reading her…”

    Is there any point in this theory where the wife takes responsibility for her anger/attitude/behavior and doesn’t blame it on her husband?

    We are all responsible for ourselves and our behavior. This article seems to say that an angry wife is justified in her anger simply because of her husband’s perceived ineptitude in a variety of ways.

    It is a wrong headed and dangerous simplification that completely ignores issues with chronically angry, abusive, or unhappy people.

    1. It can seem that way if the point of the article doesn’t focus on what can make wives angry and what husbands can do about it. Yes, we are all responsible for our own actions. Can men do anything if they find themselves with a wife who seems chronically angry? Can THE MAN do anything? Yes, this is what this article focuses on. Thanks for your comment. We have many other articles that focus on abusive behavior and personality disorders. Check them out!

      1. With all due respect Dr. K. My wife just likes being grumpy, argumentative and disagreeable around me. When she is around other women, she is expressive and positive. When she is with me she is just a grump and would rather argue. I’ve told her how I feel, but it doesn’t seem to faze here.
        Must be me, right?
        How crazy of me to want to be around a positive and pleasant wife.

        1. Well “like” is a pretty simple interpretation, and it stops you from real investigation, but okay. Perhaps she’s just a sour-puss who want cheer up no matter what you do.

  6. So, what I get from this article is that it’s my fault that my wife is angry all the time, calls me names, threatens to leave me daily, cheats on me. All her choices are 100% my fault.

    1. I can’t say. Some women suffer from depression or personality disorders that distort their perception of others. Bipolar Disorder can cause hypersexuality and rage. The point of this article is that with women who do not suffer from these conditions, there’s a way men can address it: ask them to talk to you in a way you can listen. No one can agree with someone who calls them names and threatens them. Your wife is responsible for her own behavior, including her infidelities. It sounds like you feel like the innocent party here, and perhaps you are 100%. But it’s black and white thinking (totally right/totally wrong) that gets couples into difficulty in the first place. No one should be abused, and that’s exactly what you are describing. If she won’t stop, it’s time for you to take action.

      Dr. K

  7. I remember from childhood seeing interactions between older couples. When the wife disagreed with her husband she did it respectfully. And thus the man listened. Today women have such grossly inflated expectations for men that they get upset at the man’s slightest fault, real or perceived. Let’s face it, women have changed over the past several generations. I wish I could say it was for the better

  8. Daniel, I see Justin’s point, and while I appreciate your response, there’s a bigger point here. Which is that any man who criticizes his wife the way women criticize their husbands is viewed by men and women as ethically inadequate. Men wouldn’t like him just as women wouldn’t. Social and innate norms say such men are contrioling and inherently abusive. It would be diufficult to say otherwise. So what Justin is having a hard time with, one suspects, is not just harsh outbursts from a wife, but unilateral criticism in general. Most men, decent men, simply do not see and acknowledge the everyday faults of their wives. Their flaws, things being equal, are accepted with their good and are cancelled automatically, as part of the implicit relationship contract. Not so with women’s attitudes toward men, which are now socially grounded in an implicitly – and explicitly – hostile attitude. I believe our culture has made female victimhood axiomatic, so that women in general feel an ambient negativity towards men, making it acceptable to unilaterally criticize them. It’s almost considered a necessity. Yet men would agree that it is a deeply malignant man who consistently crtiicizes his wife. The kind of man men detest. No man – you included – will spring to his defence and say: “The poor guy, his wife doesn’t understand him.” No, the opposite. Their instinct would be to protect his wife. That’s the male norm . But I suspect you can have no positive response on this level, since it would be illegal. Our attitudes will be noted by the latter day self-appointed poltical officers (viz, everyone), and we will be pressured in the public stocks to admit the error of our ways.

    1. I agree that female victimhood has become fetishized in our culture, but that’s not the point of this piece. This piece is about loving, intimate bonds.
      Most American men do see their wive’s faults, but they are not socialized to complain openly. They prefer to withdraw. This withdrawal elicits a powerful emotional response from their wives and the pursuer/distancer dance begins.
      I’m not telling any man or woman that it’s ok to accept emotional abuse. The best thing to do is leave and let both nervous systems calm down. Staying involved and engaged is not an appropriate response if you’re being emotionally abused. If you can’t have a calm conversation, you need a time-out.

  9. Look I get the fact that we are suppose to support and listen to each other but to use the excuse that wemon use anger different than and us men should just sit back and take someone who is suppose to love you lash out at you blame you and criticize you. I’m sorry but its a little thing called respect that everyone deserves. If you can’t handle your emotion s and you sit there and yell scream cuss and verbally assault then no one in their right mind is going to just stand there and take it just because hey we are woman and we have hormones so its ok . no I’m sorry if you have a problem controlling anger or your emotions learn to not let your emotions take the wheel and learn to be calm and respectful to the other person. The way I see it if you want someone to fully listen to you with an open heart then you need to speak to that person in the same way. You say us men need to listen as we are standing there trying to focus on staying calm ourselves and not take an attack personal how are we suppose to fully understand with a calm and open heart. No one should ever have to stand there and take a verbal beating for any reason. I’m a man and I was in a abusive marriage for 15 years and I started out taking the verbal attacks and after the years it taught her I was a coward and it was ok to speak to me that way and over the years she took it further and further and I finally had enough. I’m finally now in a marriage where when my wife is hurt and has a problem she talks to me like a human and doesn’t get angry angry at me. Stop telling men its ok to take a verbal beating. Tell her you will go with her to counseling to learn how to talk about feeling without letting emotion and anger take the wheel.

    1. Being calm in the face of your partner’s upset is one thing. Being emotionally and verbally abused is another.
      Justin, I’m sorry that was not clear to you.

  10. Every wife has a few melting points. During her outburst, she is unlikely to hear your side of the story. Just remain focused on her. It should appear to her that you are paying attention to what she is saying. Not doing so can make here angrier, accusing you of ignoring her. Don’t argue or try to present counter-claims. Just get hold of a seating position and face her verbal assault like a soldier. Don’t ask her to calm down or take a chill pill. These are precisely the kind of things that adds more fuel to the argument. In fact, it is better to stay mute as long as she is animatedly shouting at you.

    Just use your body language to convey that you agree with her reason for getting angry. For instance, nod your head and occasionally, let out a slow sigh that indicates you have surrendered to her reasoning. Not doing so will make her shout more. The sooner you give-in to her anger, higher are the chances of placating her.

    Women are prone to venting out their emotions in the form of anger fits. It is a feature associated with wives across the world. So don’t let her attack on your integrity, job or even parents prick you. Most probably, she isn’t even aware about most of the words dropping out of her mouth. Just try to take it like a man. Sit back or lean against the wall and let her tire herself out. If you let these things bother you, it will ignite retribution in you.

    For many women, verbal outburst of anger is induced by those unavoidable hormonal issues. Thus, you might be helping her and ensuring that the next few weeks would be more peaceful. Yes, it seems like a natural thing to do, i.e. ducking from the scene but this will make her more resentful and frustrated. Further, till what extent can you really escape any situation that involves your wife?

    Many times, anger bouts are precipitated due to deep-seated issues. For instance, your wife might be getting angry since she sees a pattern in you which resemble her father’s mannerisms whom she resents. Such issues need to be tackled with extreme care. Firstly, you need to decode the underlying cause. If it is just another fault committed by you, you can seek an apology and diffuse the situation. However, if it turns out that there are some serious emotional issues weighing on your wife’s mind, you need to be her guiding soul. In such cases, your wife needs your support to let bygones be bygones and forgive herself or someone else who had hurt her in the past.

    1. No one can handle an onslaught of verbal assault. It’s not right and not fair to anyone you claim to love. When you are insulting, screaming, verbally abusing, or simply out of control emotionally, chances are you are physiologically flooded. No one should have to sit through that. Being angry is one thing. However abuse is something extremely different. Know the difference, and fight fair when you do fight. And when you are flooded, stop fighting and separate for at least 20 minutes. Then come back and more calmly discuss the issue.

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