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How do I curb my sharp tongue with my spouse? Add to ...

The question: I can’t control my tongue with my spouse. I’ve got a quick temper, and sometimes I’ll just snap and say hurtful things I don’t really mean. How can I get this under control?

The answer: Start by memorizing this: Can’t lives on won’t street. The word “can’t” must be reserved for the impossible. Learning to control one’s temper and change behaviour may be challenging at times, but it is not impossible. Often our behaviour doesn’t change because we make ourselves believe it can’t. So you need to first believe that you are able to change.

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All of us think about changing our behaviour when, for some reason, the cons of that behaviour outweigh the pros. Articulate why you now feel motivated to change. What is the negative impact on your spouse (hurt feelings), yourself (guilt) and the long-term health of your relationship?

Think about why you respond to your spouse this way. Behaviours frequently are maintained because there is some short-term gain. How does your spouse react when you get upset? Does he or she give in to your demands, get quiet or leave you alone? Are there other, more respectful, ways you can communicate to achieve the desired end?

Be honest with yourself about why you react the way you do. You say you’ve got “a quick temper.” Where does this come from? Often the way that we respond to others (especially those close to us) is rooted in our family of origin – i.e. the ways in which others treated us or the ways we saw our parents treat each other. Has this been a long-term way that you react to many different people in your life? What specifically do you feel you are reacting to?

Remember that there is nothing wrong with feeling upset or angry. Anger is a normal, healthy part of the human experience and can serve a function in some situations. It provides us with useful information about our environment and is experienced when we feel disrespected, attacked or threatened, or when our boundaries are being crossed. Sometimes anger can be a “secondary emotion,” and is the manifestation of an underlying primary emotion that is more difficult to acknowledge or express (such as fear, hurt or insecurity).

As you recognize, it is important to distinguish the emotional experience of anger (which may be appropriate) from the behavioural manifestation. Anger and its manifestations can become problematic when there is a mismatch between the trigger situation and the response, or when it is inappropriately expressed or done in a way that is hurtful to others.

Whatever the contributors and reasons, it seems that you acknowledge that your response to your spouse is unfair and that you need to change your communication style. So make the commitment. Ask yourself what you will do differently. Be clear, specific and precise. Make yourself accountable by explicitly telling your spouse what you will be doing differently and ask your spouse to call you out when you don’t adhere to those goals.

To work further on your anger issues, here are a few books you may find useful: The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner is a classic book on anger written for women. Beyond Anger: A Guide for Men by Thomas Harbin takes a no-nonsense approach to anger in men. Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames” by Thich Nhat Hanh takes a mindfulness/Buddhist approach to managing anger.

Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at psychologist@globeandmail.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

Read more Q&As from Dr. Samra.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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