If you are human and you are in a relationship it is inevitable that at times you will be angry with your partner. I often suggest to couples that if you never hear the neighbors fighting, it probably means that they have moved or that you should call 911.
The goal in sustaining a vibrant and loving relationship is not to prevent authentic differences, feelings and disagreements but to express them in a way that does not escalate into anger that threatens the emotional or physical well-being of either partner.
Complying at all times, fear of making waves, hiding resentments, or equating every disagreement to the inevitable break-up is emotionally exhausting and anxiety producing. If it is not safe to be angry in a relationship – it is not a safe relationship.
Stephen Mitchell, author of Can Love Last, tells us that “The survival of romance depends not on skill in avoiding aggression but on the capacity to contain it alongside love.”
How Do We Do This?
In the heat of an argument partners are in what author, Don Ferguson refers to as their “reptilian brain.” This is the part of the brain triggered when you are scared or angry that in turn sets in motion the body’s neurochemical and physiological “fight or flight” reaction. Breathing increases, heart rate increases and logic and rational thinking drop out.
If a couple considers strategies to manage anger when they are emotionally and logically in a calm state, they give themselves tools to understand triggers, avoid escalting reactions and diffuse verbal aggression.
Establish a Relationship Safety Net
This is the implicit or stated understanding between partners that they love each other, value the relationship, will not physically threaten or harm each other, will not say the “unsayable,” and prioritize their couple privacy. When a couple knows they love and trust each other, they have a relationship safety net. They can find a way to manage anger.
Anger Management Strategies
Stop and Self-Observe- It takes two to tango. Consider the self-reflective strategy of stopping to ask yourself “What am I feeling and why? If this is a step you start to use with other feelings, it will be invaluable when you start to feel angry: Why am I reacting with anger? Am I tired, stressed or hungry? Am I overreacting? Am I provoking my partner because the day was a nightmare?
Clarifying the reason you feel angry to yourself can change your feelings. Clarifying the reason for your angry reaction to your partner can change the emotional climate.
“I am crazed from the train – that’s why I sound this way.”
Re-consider Your Partner- Your initial angry response might be automatic, “How the H___ did you lose my car keys at the Beach?”
That said, can the actions, feelings or behavior of your partner, be seen from another perspective? Are mistakes allowed? Could it be a miscommunication or a misunderstanding? Is there a back-step to understanding or must you stay angry in a way that invites shame, defensiveness or counterattack by your partner?
Call a Time-Out- When a partner cannot handle the discussion of a stormy issue or a discussion deteriorates into a screaming match, one of the most effective anger management strategies is for one or both to call a Time-Out.
“This is going nowhere good – we have to stop.”
Unless this is a pre-arranged plan, it can be difficult to do. When couples actually plan and use it, a Time-Out can be amazingly effective. The willingness to stop because one or both feels they cannot deal with the angry exchange is an important respect of each partner’s limits and emotional space. It has a much better chance of inviting possible exchange than cornering a person and demanding he/she talk.
A Time-Out can be followed by a plan to re-visit the discussion at a later point or the next day after both have calmed down and perhaps had time to think. Often partners are impressed that the other waited and trusted the strategy.
Some partners are afraid the other won’t talk or re-visit the issue the next day so they won’t stop. Nothing productive happens. At the very worst verbal aggression can escalate violence.
Some partners actually plan and re-visit the topic but within minutes they realize they can’t do it. This is the point where new communication strategies like those described below can make a difference.
The Written Exchange- This is a way for partners to communicate their feelings, opinions and ideas about an issue without defensiveness, fear of being shouted down or talked to death. The goal is not to get your partner to change his/her mind but to understand you. Quite often having the opportunity to make yourself understood or reading what the other partner really means changes the tenor of the issue and both partners’ opinions. It is a surprise to partners that changing the goal to sharing instead of winning actually brings about possibilities.
When used after a Time-Out, each writes up what they were trying to say and leaves it on the table for the other to read and JUST THINK ABOUT. Often an invitation to talk again follows – sometimes it is not even needed.
“I’m not sure what happened, I just realized that as long as he understood my worries, we could make the trip.”
Time-Paced Communicating- Sometimes the last thing either partner is going to do is start writing. For them an alternative way of verbally communicating works better to disrupt their familiar fighting pattern. We found with hundreds of couples that when they took this seriously the back and forth of talking and listening became very productive.
Technique- Each of you will plan to speak about your thoughts, feelings and ideas regarding the problem issue for 3 minutes (set a timer). The other will only listen and try to understand. At the 3 minute bell, reverse the roles (set the timer). Now the other partner has 3 minutes of uninterrupted time with their partner trying to listen and understand. This should happen at least 2 or 3 times back and forth – that’s less than 10 minutes of uninterrupted talking and listening that is more valuable than an hour of yelling and screaming at each other.
Couples who tried the technique reported that they shared ideas and feelings they were unaware of when fighting. Many were surprised to hear the rationale of their partner – something they could not do when verbally defending themselves.
Letting it Go- Once you are done with a disagreement, let it go. You may think that telling your partner one more time the reason you were angry is part of letting go. It is not. Once you are in a positive mood or enjoying yourselves, your partner will not be grateful for such information. In fact, it disrupts the recovery momentum needed to broaden perspective, appreciate each other and build trust.
Working Resolutions- Anger between couples is often fueled by the conviction that each one of us is right but our partner just won’t see it. Given this human tendency toward omnipotence, it is worth accepting that an effective anger management strategy is to strive for “working resolutions” that test out the ideas and solutions of both partners. Life is not a sitcom – it usually takes process to come to the right place for both partners.
Assume the Best-Appreciate the Rest- In the big scheme of life, attitude and gratitude play a big part in anger management. While no one can or should tolerate mistreatment, positive consideration of your partner is a valuable antidote to reviewing what disappoints or angers you. Does your partner try with what he or she has been given in life to love and give to you? Are there things that your partner does that really make a positive difference in your life? Those are the reasons to find a way to manage anger.
“A love that has endured episodic aggression has a depth and resilience obtainable in no other way.”
(Stephen Mitchell, 2003)
Photo by AofDooM, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.
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Last reviewed: 10 Mar 2011