He doesn’t know how to handle his highly emotional wife.

March 11, 2014

Dear Wayne,

I have a hard time with my wife. She is very loving and supportive. But when she gets upset about something, she goes from zero to 100 in the blink of an eye. I mean it. She can get so upset and irrational, so quickly, all I can do is try to hang on or get out of the way. But when I try to excuse myself, it makes her even more irate. This has felt like an impossible situation for years. I read your book and I have stopped arguing. But the insanity continues. Something has to change. Please give me some direction.


In the Line of Fire


Dear In the Line of Fire,

That something that has to change is YOU. You can’t handle your wife, or least her emotional outbursts. And when she sees that, it’s like throwing gasoline on her raging inferno. I think it’s time to share with you an important firefighting technique.

What you currently have with your wife is the opportunity to manage a “controlled burn.” In the forest, controlled burns are used to encourage the germination of desirable trees that would otherwise be prevented from growing by older growth. (Here comes the heroic leap to make sense of this metaphor.) Your wife has some old habits that can be burned away if you can demonstrate some new growth of your own.

I suspect that as she gets bigger (more emotional) your tendency has been to get smaller (wanting to run away.) Pretty common stuff. Just as she needs someone strong who isn’t afraid of or overwhelmed by her emotions, you shrink and want to hide because her outbursts send you back to your childhood. The way to silence the little boy in you (so you can care for the little girl in her) is to act more like the man you want to be.

So what does that man look like? Let me make a few suggestions. He is not afraid of his wife. He is the rock, and can remain completely unscathed by her emotional comings and goings. He commits to being the man with his wife, not the little boy who grew up with an overbearing parent.

For a lot of men who had an emotional mom or raging dad, any emotional rise in temperature takes them back to a time when it was safer to be silent, invisible, or just gone. But you’re all grown up now. What your wife needs is for you to be strong, present, and loving. When you shrink away, you’re making it all about you. What she needs in these moments is for you to make it all about her.

It’s impossible to cherish and protect your girl when you’re acting like a little boy.

Without getting into too much psyche tech talk, just know that for whatever reason, your loving and supportive wife didn’t grow up in such a loving and supportive home herself. Despite that, she’s a great woman who still behaves—sometimes—as if she’s in that home of her childhood. When you can’t take it, then her experience is just like it was back in the day. But when you are strong, she’ll have a new experience, and that’s when the new growth will really take off.

Although it takes two to tango—or in this case, to start a forest fire—you, being the man you want to be, can completely control this burn. And when you do, she’ll feel so much more secure and so much more loved.

In time you’ll realize that, as you strengthen as a man and husband, her “infernos” will have no more power than that of a single match. And when that day arrives, you’ll be able to retire your firefighting gear.