Ask a Latter-day Saint therapist: How do I navigate inconsistent behavior from my spouse?


Editor's Note: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author. Readers should consider each unique situation. This content is not meant to be a substitute for individual, professional advice.

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Q: My spouse is normally kind and considerate, but sometimes he gets emotional, snippy, defensive, and throws childlike tantrums. How can I navigate the emotions and frustrations I feel when I don't understand my spouse's behavior?

A: Thank you so much for asking this question! We’ve all experienced it, the “Jekyll-and-Hyde Syndrome,” in which a normally decent partner, friend, or family member turns into an irrational and grumpy monster. We feel frustrated when they won’t listen to reason, hurt when they lash out, and confused when they make choices we don’t agree with.

In life and in my therapy practice, I’ve found four simple keys will help us to react constructively and helpfully when a loved one goes off the deep end. To be clear, I'm not referring to abusive behavior. That's another animal entirely. I'm referring to normally decent people who have “jerk” moments.  

1.    Everyone’s Behavior Makes Sense to Them 

This is one of the most important lessons we can ever learn. If someone is acting in a way that makes you think that they are a jerk, an idiot, or crazy, odds are you’re not trying hard enough to understand their experience or thinking. We human beings, in general, often assume that if someone isn’t handling a situation how we would handle it, doing what we would do, saying what we would say, or thinking what we would think, then they must be insane, an imbecile, or a brute. Heaven knows if they were sane, smart, and decent they’d do it our way. This assumption is part of the arrogance of the “natural man” within us (Mosiah 3:19). What’s more, slapping labels on someone rather than trying to understand them is the easy way out. It helps nothing. Yet how can we understand words, thinking, and behavior that make no sense to us? We have to get to the shared nucleus of emotion.

2.    The Shared Nucleus of Emotion

Imagine, if you will, a simple drawing of a human cell, like you no doubt encountered in middle school. You’ll recall a circle with a dot in the middle of it, with the circle representing the cell wall and the dot representing the nucleus. When it comes to the topic at hand, a person’s thinking, behavior, and words are like that cell wall. Too many of us, in trying to understand others, stop at the wall, see something we disagree with, and throw up our hands saying, “I don’t get it.” We try to make sense out of their thoughts, words, and behaviors through snap judgments like “Well, he’s just a jerk” or untrue stereotypes such as “Women are irrational.”

However, if we bypass the wall for a moment and go headfirst to the nucleus, which in this case represents emotion, we’ll find common ground with the other person. I may not agree with a person’s actions, but I can always, always, relate to the emotions behind them. If we try first to understand what a person is feeling, we’re less likely to see them as a monster and more apt to treat them with compassion as a person who’s struggling to deal with hurt, embarrassment, fear, shame, guilt, or frustration. We can all relate to these emotions. Validating them will help us to draw close to the other person instead of pushing them away.

3.    Hold Them Accountable 

Often, once we understand what another person is feeling, their behavior makes sense to us and there is nothing to redirect. Other times, however, this is not the case. While all emotions can be validated, some actions and words cannot. Once the other person feels understood and that they are not being judged, we can address thinking patterns and redirect behaviors. 

This may look something like this: “I’m sorry that I was late. I know that your time is precious and it was probably frustrating to be kept waiting without knowing why. I will work on being more punctual and letting you know if I’m running behind. I need you to know that raising your voice at me in front of everyone else hurt me and was not an okay way to handle the situation.

Another example might be: You know, I can see that it upset you when your brother took your toy. When people take my things without asking, I feel disrespected and angry. I know there are better ways of handling those feelings than punching him in the eye. What do you think you could have done instead?

4.    Manage Your Own Frustration 

When dealing with loved ones who are, at first glance, acting like irrational jerks, make sure to manage your own frustration. Hurt feelings, confusion, and annoyance can cause us to lash out or withdraw rather than engage and connect. We cannot see things from another's perspective, understand what they’re feeling, or redirect their thinking and behavior if we are upset.

Being angry is also when we are most likely to be irrational ourselves and say or do things we later regret. If you feel yourself getting worked up, be self-aware enough to take some deep breaths or even say, “I’m getting upset and need to calm down so I can think clearly. Can we take a break for a few minutes and talk about this then?” This only works, of course, if you actually go back and finish the conversation.

I don’t wish to imply that these four keys will automatically resolve every conflict and misunderstanding, but I have seen them work wonders in relationships, both those of my clients and my own, when applied regularly. It turns out that most of the time, those people who we see as stupid brutes are just individuals who are, like us, imperfectly trying to be rational while managing their emotions. The less we label them as “idiots” and “jerks” while treating them with understanding and compassion, the more likely they are to do the same for us. And if that’s not working, it may be time to get a counselor involved.

God bless you. I hope this helps.

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