Trying to de-escalate his wife's rages

Question: My wife and I have been married for 28 years. Ninety-five percent of the time, we get along great.

We have both had our demons, however, and have been through various therapies, apart and together.

She was one of 14 children and has issues with abandonment and neglect. There is a little girl inside her who is hurt and very sensitive. In the past, her anger issues resulted in yelling and occasional physical violence - throwing things and damaging property.

She has stopped doing those things but settled into a pattern targeting me with angry words and avoidance.

She often acknowledges that her anger stems from age-old feelings of inadequacy and shame. When I ask, "Where are the car keys?" she is reminded that she didn't put them where they usually go and isn't as organized as she'd like. So I get the rattlesnake response. When I complain, she erupts in anger and leaves, saying she needs to work it out. Though she rarely apologizes, she tries to make it up to me later with affection, a massage, etc.

Sometimes, when she lashes out, I just keep still, not wanting to get into it. But for the sake of self-respect, I typically do speak up, saying she makes me feel as if I am in her way, insignificant, not worthy of courtesy.

Sometimes, I feel like a battered spouse, being told by an abuser that what happened "wasn't that bad" and was actually my fault.

She resists therapy nowadays. I used to hope that, as with other problems we've overcome, we would get past this. We are now 60, and I don't have that hope anymore. Any thoughts?

Answer: I could make the argument that your wife is, indeed, an abuser - just emotionally threatening now, where she used to be physically threatening, which isn't cause for much celebration. Certainly she's controlling your actions and word choices with her volatility. I also don't doubt that control extends into your self-reported 95 percent contentment.

But you want this marriage to work, not end, and you also sound capable of standing up for yourself should things deteriorate to the point where you need to leave.

So I'm going to focus on a very small point that could be the fulcrum on which you establish some balance. You say that, in the interest of "self-respect," you tell her you feel you're "in her way, insignificant, not worthy of the smallest courtesy" when she rages. Which may be a fair reporting of your mental state, but it's still an indication that you're in as much of a rut as she is.

She goes rattlesnake on you out of her sense of inadequacy and in response, you declare your perceived inadequacies. That creates a highly personal she-vs.-he standoff just as she's lost her emotional grip. That's escalating.

As the calmer, healthier party, you can break this fire-with-fire pattern by making your response observational vs. emotional and about her vs. you: "I've apparently touched a nerve. Do you need a moment?" De-escalating, self-respect intact. And if she attacks again, "I'll step away for a bit." De-escalating, self-respect intact.

It's a small thing that can make big changes in how you feel.

tellme@washpost.com.

Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.