Chronic Anger is Common
Judy Watson-Remy candidly admits what many other women won't say out loud: She's angry at her husband a lot of the time. "We both work, but I'm still the one responsible for all of the housework and the kids' stuff," says the mother of two from Brooklyn. "My husband does nothing around the house, and that really annoys me."
She has plenty of company: "Chronic anger is common in a lot of marriages -- especially when a couple has young children," says Helene G. Brenner, Ph.D., author of I Know I'm in There Somewhere: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner Voice. The demands of raising kids can take a toll on even the best of relationships, and when couples don't have the time and energy to work through their issues, anger and resentment can build. The result? Consider the words of one angry wife: "I used to be madly in love," she says. "Now I'm just mad."
The Roots of Rage
One of the most common complaints marriage counselors say they hear from angry young moms is that their husbands don't shoulder a fair share of domestic chores. And it's not just the physical labor that gets to them. Women also feel burdened by mental overload -- having to keep track of every shoe size, doctor's appointment, birthday party, and more.
"When my kids were little, I owned the family to-do list," says Lisa Earle McLeod, a mother of two from Atlanta and author of Forget Perfect, a humorous self-help book for women. "I'd say to my husband, 'Do you know when their Girl Scouts meeting is? Do you even know they're in Girl Scouts?'"
Other common gripes for women are that their spouses don't pay enough attention to them or are insensitive to their concerns and needs. "My husband works all day and then comes home and hangs out with the kids," says an at-home mother of three kids under age 5. "After they're in bed, he'll plop himself on the couch and watch ESPN. He doesn't even want to have a conversation with me, and that really makes me crazy. I'm with the kids all day, taking care of them. Don't I deserve to have someone take care of me once in a while?"
Still, she's reluctant to tell her husband how she feels. "I don't want to be the nagging wife," she says. "I know he works hard, and he's tired, and he deserves some time to himself." Every so often, though, her simmering anger will explode into rage. "Some little thing will set me off, and I'll go crazy on him," she confesses.
Explosions like that are typical. "Anger is a scary feeling for women, and they often don't feel comfortable expressing it," says Fiona Travis, Ph.D., a psychologist in Columbus, Ohio. "But they tend to hold on to their resentment, and those feelings build. Then, when things reach the breaking point, all the pain, hurt, and frustration come flooding out."
The Fallout of Anger
Psychologists say that women tend to experience temporary relief after an angry outburst. It feels good to release pent-up emotions, and it helps alleviate the stress that rage can cause. Ultimately, though, it's counterproductive to allow things to reach the boiling point. "What happens then is that a husband will dismiss his wife's feelings because in his eyes she's screaming like a maniac and not making sense," Dr. Brenner says. "As a result, he doesn't take her seriously."
What's worse, repeated meltdowns can cause a man to withdraw even further. "Female rage can be frightening to men," says Daphne Stevens, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in Macon, Georgia. Males react to confrontation with physical symptoms of stress: Their blood pressure goes up, and their heart rate increases. So to avoid the discomfort, a man may simply tread carefully around his wife and her issues or avoid her completely.
As couples grow distant, the first casualty is usually their sex life. "Women have little interest in sex with someone they don't feel emotionally connected to," says psychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D., coauthor of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships. And husbands, despite their reputation for boundless lust, tend to avoid intimacy with wives who are mad at them. Over time, lack of sex in a marriage will deepen the estrangement and further erode the relationship. Simmering anger is also hurtful to children, experts say. When women feel resentful, they're more prone to lose their patience with their kids.
Even if they do manage to keep their feelings inside, constant resentment -- and snippy comments or cold, distant glances between partners -- give children a bad example of what marriage should be like.
Greatly Improve Your Marriage
The situation is not hopeless. "If both partners are willing to put the effort into working on their differences and disagreements, most marriages can be greatly improved," says Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., a marriage therapist in San Francisco and author of The Marriage Makeover. Here are his and others' suggestions for dealing with mad-mom syndrome.
- Don't let it build. Unless you make a conscious effort to resolve them, bad feelings about a partner will begin to feed on themselves. Once you start looking at someone through a negative lens, everything he does will be wrong. To change your perspective, it's important to step back every once in a while and remind yourself why you married your husband in the first place. Make a mental list of those qualities you most appreciate in your spouse, and try to focus on them. And catch yourself when you're thinking in absolute terms. Avoid saying things like, "He always does this" or "He never does that." Such sweeping statements are probably not accurate -- and can fuel anger.
- Identify the triggers. Become aware of the times you get the most angry. Do you get irritated when you haven't had a chance to exercise? Is it when you're especially tired? If that's the case, you need to figure out a way to fit in a trip to the gym or an afternoon nap. "It's important for young moms to schedule time to nourish themselves," Dr. Stevens says. Getting reenergized probably won't change your husband's annoying conduct, but it will affect the way you react to it.
The next step is to identify which one of your spouse's behaviors aggravates you the most. Then, figure out whether you play a role in it. "It's easy to assume that the problem is all your partner's," Dr. Coleman says. But both people in a relationship contribute to a bad dynamic. If you're a control freak, for example, can you really expect your husband to take the initiative to make decisions?
You should also talk to your spouse about what's making you mad -- before you explode. "Never let a contentious issue hang in the air without discussing it," Dr. Brenner says. But don't try to work things out when you're feeling angry and upset either. Instead, schedule a time to talk after you've calmed down and can have a clearheaded conversation.
- Find practical solutions. Are you -- like many busy moms -- mad that your husband doesn't help around the house? If you want help, you'll probably have to spell it out. "Make a list of your most-dreaded tasks, and ask your husband to take on some of them," suggests Aline Zoldbrod, Ph.D., a relationship expert in Lexington, Massachusetts. If you want him to do a particular chore, like laundry or meal preparation, and you're not sure he knows how, offer to teach him.
- Keep the tone civil. How you say it is just as important as what you say, so plan your words in advance. Instead of screaming, "Stop lying on the couch like a beached whale and help out for once!" try saying, "I need your help -- would you mind unloading the dishwasher tonight so I can read Tommy a bedtime story?" And remember: When your husband does pitch in and doesn't do things exactly the way you would have done them yourself, bite your tongue. Don't criticize an honest effort, or he may not be as willing to help out the next time.
- Make time for each other. Most marriage counselors recommend that couples try to schedule time alone together at least once a week. Ideally, you should plan a "date" to get away from the demands of home life. But if you can't manage that, at least set aside a regular time-- say, after the kids have gone to bed in the evening or on a weekend afternoon when they're with Grandm -- when you can sit together over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. And instead of talking about your children, try this exercise: Start off by telling your spouse something you really like or admire about him. Then, ask him to say something positive about you in return. This might feel corny and unnatural at first, but experiment. You may find that it prompts a deeper conversation. If nothing else, it may get you laughing -- and that's always a good way to reconnect.
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the October 2004 issue ofParents magazine.
Finally, it's helpful for young parents to remind themselves that this is a particularly stressful period in any marriage. It's natural to argue and fight with each other occasionally, and most good relationships can survive that. In fact, learning to work through your differences and disagreements will help you build a stronger relationship -- one that will survive long beyond these demanding years of raising young kids.