My Dad Had Anger Issues, And It Hurts My Marriage

by Elizabeth Broadbent

My father was a yeller. Not just a yeller: my father had anger issues. He terrified children — he was the guy who would “give you something to really cry about.” And we knew he meant it, because he spanked us, too. My father hit us in anger. Tears only enraged him. A bad day at work would spiral, shrapnel. We walked on eggshells, knowing we would get it for something, but not knowing what.

I would fantasize about my parents divorcing. He would become enraged when each parent had to take a child and both my brother and I insisted on picking our mother. When I was over eighteen years old, in the summer before college, my mother had to stop him from hitting me while I stood on the other side of the kitchen terrified, streaming tears, back to the wall. I had changed our voicemail as a stupid and very obvious prank.

This was a man with serious anger issues.

Two Decades After Living With Those Anger Issues…

I’m married. I have three children. My husband is one of the most mild-mannered, kind men on earth. But I didn’t sleep last night. I went to bed before him and left some incense burning. Apparently, in the past (I have a very bad memory for various reasons), he’d expressed, quite kindly, that he doesn’t like that. My husband came to bed exhausted, in incredible pain from post-shingles issues, and stressed from returning to his teaching job face-to-face mid-pandemic. He snapped at me: I’ve asked you not to burn incense when you go to sleep and it’s not fair. There were other words, but I was sleepy.

I registered, not the stress, not the pain, not the exhaustion, and not the reasonable request. I registered male voice, anger, and therefore danger. I’ll give you something to cry about. I rolled away from him and curled into a protective ball. I shook. I didn’t clap my hands over my ears. That makes him angrier. But I sure as hell didn’t sleep. He’s not awake yet and I know, intellectually, that everything is fine.

But after growing up with those anger issues, I hear him waking and my body spins into fight-or-flight. Will he mention it? Will he yell? Will he snap or shout? Will he get angrier when I’m scared?

My Past With Anger Issues Displaces His Anger

He does get angrier when I’m scared. I don’t really blame him. He expresses a legitimate grievance; his wife curls up in a ball and claps her hands over her ears. He doesn’t even have to yell at me. He can yell at the dog instead. And because my father’s anger issues spread through the whole house — if he was mad at one thing, he was mad at everything — I can’t cope. I freeze. I stare at him.

“I was yelling at the dogs, honey. Not you,” he’ll say.

I’ll swallow. “I know.”

Sometimes he understands. But it’s justifiably mightily frustrating, and while I’ve been to therapy, am in therapy, it’s hard to detach. I’ve come to the point that I can say, “It scares me when you raise you voice.” I have to say to the kids, “We don’t yell in this house,” because their raised voices are starting to stress me out.

Can you imagine never raising your voice? Ever? At anything? And when you do, feeling incredibly guilty because the person you love is spiraling into terror? Welcome to my husband’s life.

It Can Make Legitimate Discussion Impossible

Arguing feels like yelling, which feels like a visceral threat to my safety. I cry. I cry every goddamn time we argue. I always give in because I want it to end. Then I get angry at myself for giving in and try to fight harder, which makes me more scared, and it becomes an angry, ugly, teary mess. Because of my father’s anger issues, my husband and I are unable to have a truly rational disagreement.

I just lose my mind. His disagreement feels like yelling. It feels as if it could turn, at any time, into I’ll give you something to cry about. And when I cry, which I can never help, I get even more scared. I never want to apologize because I’m desperately clinging to any autonomy I can muster.

“You never apologize!” he’ll snap. “You can never admit you were wrong!” No, I can’t, because it’s the only thing I have. I will eventually, when I can breathe again. But any disagreement is a “fight,” and any sharp statement is “yelling.” My father’s anger issues create a toxic spiral. I will finally break down, clap my hands over my ears, and (actually) yell that I’m wrong, that I don’t care what I have to say or do but I just want this to end, please tell me what I have to do to make this end, I can’t do it anymore.

Obviously, this is not a healthy way to conduct a marriage.

But My Husband Understands My Father’s Anger Issues

My husband knows I grew up under a father with severe anger issues. He understands my reactions. He knows where they came from, and he’s learned to work around them, learned to understand they aren’t personal. And I have learned to say: I am not scared of you. This is not because of you. You know that, right? This is nothing you did. And he’ll nod. I know. Just breathe.

Disagreements are still very, very hard for me. This morning, he didn’t even remember the incense issue that kept me up half the night. He didn’t mention it. When he came in, he asked what was wrong. Nothing, I said. Nothing’s wrong. And truly, nothing was. I was only haunted, only frightened by ghosts, like a child who’s never managed to grow up.