Let me tell you about Mr. and Mrs. R, a couple I recently saw in my office.
When they came in, they recounted an argument they’d had the previous Friday. They’d started the day in bed, cuddling and snuggling affectionately. But then Mr. R felt his wife resisting. He snapped at her, and she got defensive. Mr. R let out a big sigh and got out of bed. They ate breakfast in silence. When Mr. R got home from work that evening, Mrs. R was in the kitchen.
Mr. R: What’s for dinner?
Mrs. R: Meat loaf.
Mr. R: Meat loaf? Again? We have meat loaf every Friday.
Mrs. R: You like meat loaf. You’ve never asked for anything different on Friday.
qMr. R: It would be nice, just once, to have something different—like a salmon steak.
Mrs. R: I don’t like salmon. You know that.
Mr. R: But I like salmon. And you might like salmon more than you think you do, if you’d ever give it a try.
As Mr. and Mrs. R related this exchange, they told me that it had been marked by particular intensity. They didn’t understand why they’d been so upset, and neither one knew why the other had made such a fuss about something as trivial as meat loaf or salmon.
I explained that their explicit disagreement had been about meat loaf and the routine of dinner, but their true argument was about their feelings, and it had to do with that morning’s unresolved emotional tension. It’s important to understand that ignoring or hiding feelings creates tension in relationships
Talking about your emotions simply and clearly can leave you feeling vulnerable, but it’s one of the most important skills you can develop as you learn to manage your anger. Here are some ineffective strategies that you may be using when a disagreement arises between you and someone else:
• Protesting your innocence. “But I didn’t do it—I swear to God!”
• Giving orders. “Get ahold of yourself. Back off. Leave me alone.”
• Taking too much responsibility for others. “Let me do it. You’re just screwing it up.”
• Predicting the future. “If you don’t stop now, there’s going to be trouble.”
• Appealing to logic. “Be reasonable. Use your head!”
• Trying to force agreement. “You’re wrong. That’s totally false.”
• Denying the legitimacy of the other person’s feelings. “You have no right to be angry at me after all I’ve done for you.”
• Resorting to sarcasm or ridicule. “Wow, you sure look beautiful with your face all red like that.”
The antidote to feeling defensive is to understand that you’re in control of your choices in the present. To take positive control over these choices, you have to make an active effort. For example, the next time you’re angry, remind yourself that you have choices now that you didn’t have as a child. As a child, you sought to get control in the wrong way—by losing your temper or suppressing your anger. But now, as an adult, you can choose to express your anger by simply and clearly saying how you’re feeling rather than arguing, shouting, or defending yourself. You can respond from a place of self-respect instead of reacting from a place of rage and defensiveness.