Bad Temper or Bad Relationship? When it comes to clicking, the devil is in the details

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on January 24, 2011

Recently, I was asked to respond to someone who has a bad tempered boyfriend.  Here’s what she wrote to me:

“I’ve been dating him for a few years. I used John Gray’s books to help me understand the differences between men and women, and I tried his advice too. My boyfriend has a very bad temper and it’s really hard  to communicate with him. I know that I cannot argue with a hot tempered guy because it will make it worse. Instead, I have tried to calm him down everytime he gets upset.  But I get angry too, because I can’t reveal my own frustration about having to tolerate his bad behavior.  Don’t get me wrong.  He is a wonderful guy, and he also makes me laugh. But the main problem is that he’s bad tempered, wants everything done his way, and he doesn’t like to hear any conflicting opinions. We have plans to get married, and I’m wondering, do you think that he is the right person for me?  How do I deal with him?  Thank you for your time”

My response came in the form of a little straight talk.  Because ‘bad temper’ is a broad generalization, and it’s too big to actually respond to with specifics.  I find that people do better in sorting this sort of thing out if they can get specific about what kinds of things set off the person with the bad temper, or develop some insight into what inhibits their response in dealing with it.

For example, some people have trouble with double binds.  A double bind is a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation,  or a communication in which there are no obvious good choices and all other choices seem like they’ll make things worse.  I’ve worked with people who get terribly angry when they feel trapped in a double bind.  The key to unlocking the anger reaction is to learn a new way of dealing with double binds.  It’s not that hard to do.

I’ve also worked with people who lose it when they feel they haven’t been heard and understood, and others who lose it when they feel powerless or unappreciated.  From my point of view, I think that using John Gray as a source isn’t going to help, and might make things worse, because this isn’t a male/female thing.  Indeed, I find that very few human behavioral problems are.  Whenever I hear that ‘Men are from Mars, and women are from Venus,’ I have to fight the urge to reply, “No, men are from Earth and so are women.”    The generalizations of that polarized gender view don’t hold up to scrutiny, at least I don’t think so.

Instead, it’s a mental/emotional/behavioral thing.  It’s about old triggers for old habitual behaviors.  And change happens when new possible responses to those triggers are discovered, explored and implemented.

Something else that wasn’t obvious to me is what stopped her from being able to express herself with him. Is she afraid of his reaction and gets flustered when she thinks about what to say?  Is she lacking a clear objective when she speaks?  Is she tentative because she doubts herself, or because he’s so dismissive?  Does she talk at him rather than invite him into a dialog?   The devil, as they say, is in the details (or lack thereof!)

Most of the communication problems between people can be solved by going beyond the surface generalizations to the communication and thought patterns themselves.  I seriously doubt that he ‘doesn’t like to hear conflicting opinions.’  Maybe he just doesn’t like how long it takes for someone to get to the point, or how emotional they sound when they speak.

Sort out these specifics, I told her, and you’ll sort out your feelings as well.    The fact that she cares for him, finds him wonderful and enjoys his companionship tells me a lot about the possibilities in her relationship with him.  Nobody can make the determination for her about whether they are right for each other, but we all have baggage, and baggage is no reason not to travel the road of life together.  How sad that so many people take the shortcomings of others as the excuse for missing out on a great relationship.

I offered her one last bit of advice.  I find that the best relationships are built on shared values, not on personal characteristics (charming, funny, skinny, etc.)  If you and your significant other agree on what matters most in life, you can work through your behavioral challenges and build a great and lasting relationship.  But if you disagree on what matters most in life, you’ll find it a perennial challenge to your happiness and well being.  So people MUST be able to talk with each other about the important things in order to find out if the values they share can sustain a committed relationship.

How about you?  How do you deal with bad temper in the people you love most?  How do you express yourself?  What stops you when you don’t?  What can you observe?  I’d love to hear your comments and feedback about this post as well as the entire blog.  But you don’t need to shout.   I’m listening.

Be well,


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