Ask Dr. Venus Nicolino, Dealing with a hot head

Ask Dr. Venus Nicolino, PhD of clinical psychology, answers your questions in this section. This week: Dealing with a hot head

Dear Dr. V,

My boyfriend and I will be getting along famously and then I will say or ask something that happens to not be in his agreement and he doesn’t just disagree he gets pissed! So angry that he starts screaming at me, hangs up if we’re on the phone. He always says, “Oh I knew this was going to turn into a fight” and it didn’t have to at all! But he always takes it there. He also has been begging me to move in with him, but sometimes the way he talks to me and treats me makes me second guess myself and wonder what I’m doing with him. But then again, I couldn’t imagine myself happy without him, I really love him but I wish he would cool his jets. Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with a hot head?
Katie, from Oregon
Dear Katie,

Most of us, at one time or another, have been confronted with someone who seems to be perpetually negative or just has a proverbial “chip on the shoulder” but what you describe from your boyfriend is called verbal violence. What is verbal violence? And more specifically, how do we define verbal violence or abuse in the context of a long term relationship? What one person calls “abuse” may seem like normal interaction to someone else. To me, “verbal violence” is something that goes far beyond the boundaries of “fair fighting.” It’s defined not so much by the particular words spoken as by the intent of the speaker.
So, what do you think is the intent of your boyfriend’s “hot headedness” and how can you better navigate a more adaptive communication style?
Below are ten ways to deal with abusive people.

1. Don’t react! Easier said than done but that’s exactly what your angry or negative opposite number won’t expect! Instead of reacting and zinging off the first thing that comes to mind, take a moment, count silently to ten if you need to, step back mentally and create some space between you and your hot headed man.
2. Listen for the message behind the words. Ninety percent of anger is misdirected. Anger is often a function of fear, sadness or frustration about something that has little or nothing to do with you. Often, in or behind the words, there’s a clue as to what’s really bothering your troubled man. Listen for it with all your senses. Further, you describe an interesting pattern: when you’re “getting along famously” he then blows up. Perhaps, he fears intimacy? Or the closeness he feels with you, he needs to destroy? Look at his family dynamics. Look at your family dynamics and take note of communication patterns.
3. Acknowledge you heard what was said. When you acknowledge what the other person has said, you aren’t necessarily agreeing with him or her. You’re simply letting them know they’ve been heard. Example: “I can see that you’re not happy about this.”
4. Ask a clarifying question. There are two reasons for asking a question at this point. First, it tends to defuse the anger by causing the person to expand upon what he or she has said initially. Second, it lets the person know you’re really interested in finding out what’s going on. Example: “Can you tell me more about what concerns you?”
5. Repeat back. This is the first of three steps designed to further defuse the situation prior to looking for a solution. Repeating back lets the other person know you really did hear what was said. Example: “If I understand you correctly, you are concerned about _______. (Here, try to use some of the exact words used initially by the other person.)
6. Expand upon what has been said. Get in the other person’s shoes and take it a step further. Done properly, this allows the other person to know you really do understand and, in the brief time allotted, have thought about what he/she said. Example: “In light of your concern, that would mean _____. Is this correct?” Ending with a question encourages the other person to confirm to you he/she feels you’re open.
7. Legitimize. As in #3 above, to legitimize does not mean to agree. It simply means based on where the other person is coming from, you can understand why he/she said what was said. Example: “I can certainly understand why you feel the way you do.”
8. Offer to explore solutions. Different from “offer solutions”. Chances are if you offer a solution you’ll be shot down. Better to ask permission to participate in the problem solving process. Example: “Would it be helpful to you to consider what can be done to resolve this?” Of course, a negative response alerts you to the fact the person really doesn’t want to resolve it! Notice you didn’t say “we” consider what can be done. Putting it that way can inadvertently place you in the position of assuming responsibility for the solution, and it may not be yours to assume. Keeping the question generic allows you to get additional feedback as to just how willing the person is to assume responsibility for finding a solution.
9. Establish your boundaries. You’ve asked a reasonable question and you’re entitled to a reasonable and courteous reply. If you don’t understand it, stand your ground. Point out, if necessary, your question was prompted by your concern that this person be able to resolve the situation. Sometimes at this point you simply ask: “What can I do to help?” Surprisingly, this can trigger an awakening in the other person that it really isn’t your responsibility to solve the problem.
10. Use as much force as necessary to enforce the boundaries you’ve set. Occasionally, you’ll encounter someone who, like an old dog with a bone, just won’t let go. They’ll return to the same litany and begin all over, or they’ll toss in a nasty dig or accusation which is probably wide of the mark. The fact is, you’ve listened, acknowledged, explored, legitimized and offered, and that isn’t good enough. Some examples: “I believe I understand your concern, and I’ve offered to help you reach a solution. What more do you want?” If the person becomes verbally abusive after all this, you can simply say: “I’m sorry. I don’t believe I can help you any further, and I don’t appreciate your tone. If you’re going to speak to me in that manner, I’m afraid you’ll have to work it out for yourself. I don’t appreciate abuse.” You’ll have to judge just how far you want to go with this by observing the other person’s demeanor and whether or not you feel the situation might still be salvageable.
Finally, abusers have to take responsibility for their actions, and then take action to learn new ways of dealing with anger. That usually means getting professional help. How can a victim make an abuser want to do that? Maybe by taking responsibility for his or her inaction, and having the courage to say: I don’t deserve to be abused.
To do that, you have to ask yourself some hard questions:

What constitutes abuse to you? Where do you draw the line?

Have you been verbally abused in the past?

Do you believe you deserved it?

Do you or have you verbally abused someone else?

Do you believe they deserved it?
The next question is, what can you do, right now, to stop the cycle of abuse? By sending your question and seeking answers, you’ve already taken the first step. Good luck.
Note: All information in the Ask Dr. V column is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnosis and treatment, please feel free to call or email Dr. V, or consult your doctor.
Please feel free to email Dr. V a question for posting at DrVenus@TheSavvyGal.com; questions may be edited for grammar and length; emails are only read by Dr. V.

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