Dealing with violent behavior in relationships

Q. My husband and I have been having serious problems for years including his violent behavior. He had a difficult childhood, so I keep forgiving him. He is extremely nice except when he becomes angry. What can I do to keep the good man around and get rid of the bad one?

A. You mention that your husband had a difficult childhood. Those who have been damaged by early trauma sometimes have difficulty with interpersonal relationships. However, this should no longer be an excuse for abusive behavior in adulthood.

According to Jodie Gale, a psychotherapist writing for the website PsyCentral, there are several signs that one is involved in an unhealthy relationship with your spouse.

• You’re emotionally affected by his behavior.

• You dread or fear being around him.

• You feel exhausted or angry after encounters with him.

• You feel that you must rescue him.

• When you are with him, you feel you are walking on eggshells.

• You ignore your own feelings.

As a practical matter, never argue with your husband when he is irrational. Wait until he calms down; then explain to him that you become frightened when he is so angry. Ask him what the two of you can do to make your marriage better. Let him know that it is never acceptable for him to become violent or abusive. If he continues to do so, leave. If you cannot leave immediately, do not engage him in an argument. During this crisis time, ask for help from friends, family, church, or local shelters. Find a psychotherapist or a women’s group to give you emotional support.

If you stay in the marriage, you and your husband should have couples’ counseling. If he refuses, this is an indicator that you likely cannot save the relationship. Ending the marriage may be painful, but it will be less painful than living with fear and violence.

Q. My boyfriend, who never had an anger problem, has suddenly become horrible. I’ve heard that depression often comes out as anger in men. Is this true? He seems out of control and down on himself, and I’m concerned that something bad will happen since he has access to several guns.

A. Depression often manifests as anger in men because they are more likely than women to believe that they must maintain emotional control. According to the website, when men are angry it can manifest in many ways. They may become more irritable, overly sensitive to criticism, drink or use drugs more often, or engage in fits of rage. Some become physically abusive to their loved ones. Unfortunately, it is often difficult for men to admit that depression is the problem.

Speak with your boyfriend about his behavior. Ask why he has changed. Could he have a substance abuse problem? Could he have work issues or financial difficulties? It is particularly important for men to understand and to acknowledge that depression is not a weakness; it is a psychological and sometimes physical condition.

You are right to be concerned about his behavior since untreated depression can have serious implications. According to, men who are depressed are four times more likely to commit suicide than depressed women. Although women attempt suicide more frequently, men are more likely to use firearms while women are more likely to overdose on medication. When a firearm is used in a suicide attempt, there is virtually never a second chance.

If he has talked about suicide or has signs of serious depression, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Also, insist that he schedule an appointment with his primary care doctor to discuss medication and the possibility of psychotherapy.

Your well-being should be your primary concern. If his behavior continues, and he refuses to get help, it is time for you to leave the relationship.

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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. She currently teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College. If you have questions, e-mail them to They will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.