Expert Q&A: Coping with Mood Swings
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Q: My partner can't control her mood swings. What should I do?
A: Most of us hate anger-especially when it gets so heated that we don't know how our partner are going to respond. The intensity and the unpredictability are frightening.
See if any of these scenarios sound familiar. What do you think is the common denominator in all of them?
1. When Margie read a text message from another woman on her husband's phone, she tossed the phone down the steep hill and into the ravine at the back of their condo development. She assumed he was cheating on her.
2. After Zach and Zoe separated, Zach began leaving cruel and threatening messages for her at work when he discovered that Zoe was getting serious about the man she was dating.
3. Whenever Steve buys his wife Samantha expensive gifts, she is very loving and tolerant of his long work hours as a surgeon. Yet, her good mood is short-lived, and at some invisible point that Steve can't figure out she turns mean and explosive. One time she keyed his car when he didn't come home until almost nine at night.
4. Rick and Rolanda met at AA. They have both been sober for two years, but Rick says he never knows what to expect when he comes home from work. Most of the time, Rolanda is in such a foul mood that she throws something at Rick the moment he walks in the door. Usually, she is angry over small things such as not separating the whites from the darker laundry. And once he does one thing wrong, Rolanda gets on a roll and lists all the things he's done.
In all the examples, the angry people are reacting to their perception that their partners do not love or appreciate them. The intensity of this sense of loss makes them believe they are justified and correct in their over-the-top reactions. They latch onto the smallest thing-such as laundry problems or coming home late-as "proof" that their partners are selfish and insensitive.
Even worse, this anger activates their universal fear of abandonment, which stems from a childhood of loss, divorce, illness, and mistreatment, for example. Regardless of the reasons, these angry people feel like "nothing" unless you love them 24/7 and never make any mistakes. Unfortunately, their abandonment fear makes them lash out and become punitive, destructive, and dangerous. In the first three examples, the angry persons panic when they conclude that their partners are going to leave them.
You might also have guessed that the partners of these angry people tend to be even-tempered, people-pleasing, keep-the-peace conflict-avoiders who often underestimate the depth of their partners' abandonment fears. These too kind people often end up feeling clueless about how to calm and assure their furious partners. Regardless of the situation, all the partners of these hot-tempered people say the same thing about their relationships: "I feel damned if I do, damned if I don't. I'm caught between a rock and a hard place."
Sadly, sometimes, the other person's anger can be so intense and so deep that nothing can modulate their mood swings or make them feel loved. Before you head for the divorce attorney, I strongly recommend that you seek counseling in how to manage your partner's moods. Tell your partner you want to see a counselor to learn how to be more appreciative. More often, though, you will have to go alone since people with this degree of anger usually can't withstand the self-examination. Always develop a safety plan with a counselor if you are in danger of being harmed.
Below are some tips that have worked-more or less. Please bear in mind that life can be very difficult with partners who have wild mood swings of love and anger.
1. Know and understand your weak spots. Your needs to be kind and calm are wonderful qualities, but they can get in the way and prevent you from speaking your mind. Think about why anger frightens you. Perhaps you also experienced an unstable and unloving childhood and managed the emotional pain by aiming to keep the peace instead. What are you afraid of? Probably, the same things that frighten your partner-being unloved and abandoned!
2. Practice speaking your mind in small ways outside your relationship. Get more comfortable with speaking up and rocking the boat. Practice scenarios might be to return an item, complain about poor service or tell someone who uses you a lot that you can't help them right now.
3. Be mindful of your fears and trigger situations. Keep track of when you feel anxious about speaking up. How does your body react? Does your heart race? Do you go "blank?" What situations unnerve you? Speak up in a constructive way-even if you feel anxious.
4. Stay calm and warm in heated situations with your partner. Don't get drawn in to your partner's anger and arguments. You don't have to defend yourself, point-by-point, for example, when your partner gets furious. Be careful about sounding too cold, logical or methodical. Coolness is a kiss of death to furious people. It's an art form to stay calm and warm Practice, practice. You might say, for instance: I love you, I'm sorry I hurt you, let's fix it with a good solution.
5. Choose several "fall-back" phrases of reassurance you can use when your partner gets out of control. Write down on flash cards some lines you can say. Memorize them until they come to mind immediately.As in number 4 above, make sure you state something positive and solution-oriented. Some examples are: "I want us to work this out." "I only want you." "I'll talk to you when we both can work on a solution."
6. Protect yourself if the behavior becomes dangerous or destructive. If your partner hits or threatens you, get out of the way. Say calmly as you leave, "This is dangerous. I'm leaving the situation-not you." And leave, get in the car, find a safe place, go. Call in a few hours or the next day to see if your partner is calm. Discuss a solution over the phone. Don't reveal where you are if you are still in danger. If your partner sounds "too calm," don't be fooled by it. Usually, it is the calm before the next storm. Don't go back until you've spoken to a counselor, have an undisclosed place to go and/or a friend to go with when you return. Every situation is different. When in doubt, it is better to be more cautious.
7. Be prepared, as Sergeant Friday said in the classic television show "Dragnet," to state the facts, "just the facts." Often angry people get angry because they've got the facts wrong. Explain calmly and warmly in no more than 3-4 sentences the correct view of things. If the argument escalates, stay calm and warm and practice the "broken record" technique where you say the same thing.
It takes lots of time and practice to respond in a way that at least increases the possibility that your partner will calm down. These relationships tend to be rocky and explosive. Don't expect miracles. Only you can decide whether you want to stay. Before making any hasty decisions, seek counseling.
Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, ED.D., MSS is a noted psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in relationships. For her book about women and love, she welcomes women to take her 17-20 minute online research survey at www.lovevictory.com. Also on her website, if you donate $5 to Habitat for Humanity-Sarasota, Florida, you can receive a download of her relationship advice cartoon book for women, "The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie."
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