Dad looks the part of a model citizen. He works hard, volunteers, and makes friends easily. He’s a good neighbor and an even better coworker. Then he goes home. Surrounded by his family, he’s angry and irritable, prone to yelling, and quick to punish. He’s not abusive, per se, but difficult and distant in a way that confuses his increasingly anxious children, who can see the disconnect, but lack the perspective to understand it. To them, it feels personal. In fact, it’s a relatively common situation.
Why are so many generally pleasant men so unpleasant at home? The answer, according to Professor Ryan Martin, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, has to do with men’s desire for power, both over themselves and over their own emotions, as well as a lack of introspection. Martin thinks of one client who would cry and say he didn’t want to be a tyrant like his father, but couldn’t help it. “He hated his anger problem and doesn’t want people to be scared of him,” Martin says. “But there was a split between who he was and who he wanted to be.”
Everyone wants to be themselves at home. And it’s tempting to think of this in terms of lazing around in underwear or eating dinner over the sink. But it can also mean emotional disregulation. Men who keep their cool in public and snap at family members in private do so in part because the home is a “culturally sanctioned environment.” They are letting their hair down in a manner that’s destructive to both themselves and others.
The idea that home is a safe space, specifically for men, has been around for a while. The expression “a man’s home is his castle” originated from a 17th century court ruling by Sir Edward Cooke that said homeowners have a reasonable expectation of privacy and safety at home. Cooke wasn’t making a statement about male supremacy and dominance, but the expression evolved over the following centuries into a slogan for male domestic power, which became a very real thing despite women’s outsized contributions to domestic labor. In many homes, male power remains a sort of default setting. This does not trigger anger, but it does mean there are fewer consequences for expressing negativity toward others. Whether or not men are explicitly aware of this fact, it likely informs the actions of many.
“If you’re in position of power,” says Martin, “it becomes easier to voice anger in a risk-free way. And being the head of a family is a fairly risk-free environment.”
On a practical level, angry outbursts in the workplace could get one fired and yelling at a cop writing a ticket can land someone in jail. But in the privacy of one’s home, such immediate consequences do not apply. For men who conflate confrontational behavior with masculinity, this can lead to outbursts. This is not a small subset of men.
“People’s relationship to their anger is based on a complex tapestry of early social and relational experiences as well as how they understand their role in society,” says Kate Balestrieri, Psy.D., licensed clinical and forensic psychologist and executive director of Triune Therapy Group in Los Angeles. “And that does include their role in their identified gender.”
It’s not being a man that makes men prone to anger, but being socialized to be “masculine,” which studies suggest is hard to separate from a propensity for angry emotions. Societal expectations about how to be a boy are evolving, but many men are still taught that anger is one of few acceptable emotions for them to express. When toughness and independence are highly valued in men, this inevitably leads to outbursts.
“Men who grow up in a hyper-masculine context tend to over-align with things like the illusion of strength,” Balestrieri says. “They hold fast to anything that gives them an air of dominance.” When they feel out of control and powerless, Martin adds, it’s natural that they would get angry. Life can be scary and depressing, and people are often in situations where they can’t express their frustration. Home becomes the place they’re allowed to vent. “Most people spend a good chunk of their lives feeling pushed around,” he says. “Sometimes anger is a way to feel empowered.”
A link between empowerment and men’s anger isn’t all in men’s heads either. In a 2015 study, angry women were viewed as emotional and lost the power to influence, whereas angry men were deemed more persuasive and credible, the Arizona State University researchers concluded. Some men, in fact, might not see anything wrong with their angry behavior because, to put it bluntly, they see it as the best way to get shit done. Yelling at kids to stop leaving toys around might scare them into not doing it anymore, Martin points out.
The dysfunction of that scenario seems obvious, but people who are angry generally think they have a justification for their anger and that anger is an appropriate response. “Anger toward family members can come from a feeling of entitlement where he feels it’s OK to respond that way,” says psychologist James I. Millhouse, Ph.D. “It’s also often the case that the father might feel more comfortable being angry with those more vulnerable; the response of an outsider may be more unpredictable and hostile.”
For some men, being angry mainly at home with family and not with others is simply because their families are the most common triggers for their anger. The more intimate the relationship, the more vulnerable we feel, Balestrieri says. We depend on the people closest to us and that dependency can create fear in men ill equipped to handle it. To add to that, many people assume loved ones will base their perceptions of us on our intentions rather than our actions, so they might minimize the effect their anger has on their families.
“People who don’t have secure functioning in their relationships or don’t feel safe [on a psychological level] with other people are constantly on the lookout for how to best protect themselves,” Balestrieri says. When dependency fears are triggered, particularly for men, there’s an underlying shame that comes with feeling they’re not OK on their own. Feeling vulnerable to someone can feel out of control and that can be scary, she adds.
“The most common way to unconsciously deal with that is to project negative feelings onto the person with whom they’re most intimate,” she says. “Their rage serves as an unconscious annihilation of their own shame, or vulnerable spot.”
Whatever the reason, men who find themselves getting out of control or angry at home (and sometimes aren’t even sure exactly why) need to address it. Recurring anger can affect men’s physical as well as mental health, and it can be damaging to kids and to partners.
“Assuming we’re talking about non-physically violent men, I believe most men would see that their lashing out is an issue,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Sabrina Bowen. But they often don’t know how to stop it. It’s a good idea to see a therapist to learn emotional regulation skills and how to assertively communicate with loved ones, she says.
They need to be real with their loved ones and verbalize when they’re frustrated and struggling, Bowen says. It’s also helpful to take an honest inventory about how you’re feeling: Are you really angry, or just sad, or hurt, or tired, or frustrated? The next step is deciding how to deal with those feelings in healthier ways, Bowen says. Do you need alone time, or do you need to assert yourself about something that’s frustrating you?
“Empathy is super-important here,” she says. “Part of empathy is communicating and actively listening. These skills have to be learned and practiced.”