Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Wife's flinching makes him angrier and raises huge red flag
Baltimore: Last week, my husband became furious at me for flinching and backing up when he came near me during an argument. He screamed at me for 10 minutes that it's not fair for me to react that way, that people will think he's abusive, and that he can't be with me if I think he's capable of violence.
I tried to explain that the flinching was reflexive, and that I didn't think he was going to hit me, but he can be very uncontrolled (screaming, gesticulating wildly) when he's angry and I didn't want him to touch me.
He says he only gets angry when I act afraid of him; I say I am afraid because he gets so angry. We're at an impasse and I don't know what to do. I am reconsidering whether I should stay in this marriage. Am I wrong in thinking that it's unacceptable for him to lose control like this no matter how upset he is?
Carolyn: Yes, it's unacceptable for him to lose control. Your body is telling you something important.
So is his response: He gets angry when he sees signs of fear in you?! Think of times when you've scared another creature — maybe caught an adult off-guard, or spooked a dog or cat, or spoken too sharply to a child. You probably put your hands up in an "It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you" gesture. That's the healthy response, at least, for a person who makes the sudden calculation that s/he has all the power. You want to assure the creature you overpowered that you're not going to use your power to do harm.
Instead, when you flinch, your husband (1) thinks of himself; (2) blames you; (3) gets more aggressive with you.
I urge you to talk to counselors trained to handle abuse, to get a more detailed assessment of your situation. The National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE, or the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), 1-800-656-HOPE, are two readily accessible resources.
You need to be especially careful if you decide to leave — or even just approach him on counseling — since steps toward empowerment are a known trigger for abusers, and suggesting that he has a problem is apparently a rage trigger for your husband.
Also, given his apparent preoccupation with not appearing abusive in the eyes of others, he's likely going to feel very invested in keeping you away from any venue that he thinks would expose him as an abuser.
This is a dangerous situation for you, and you need to take the appropriate precautions (starting with a call to one of those hotlines). While your husband might ultimately be willing to get help, your experience has told you to expect otherwise, and prepare accordingly.
Anonymous: I have a sibling who used to do this. She'd quickly raise her hand to see if I'd flinch, and then she'd get all excited about it. It wasn't until adulthood that I figured out she did it on purpose to see what it would take to get me scared. And, yes, she thoroughly enjoyed the power of scaring me.
Carolyn: It takes many forms, some of them harmless, but none benevolent. Thanks.