Editor’s note: The following article refers to instances of anger in relationships that do not escalate into any kind of abuse, either physical or emotional.
Articles discussing anger in relationships often feature photos that tend to be comical, depicting people screaming or gesturing wildly at each other, for example. These photos take a lighthearted look at a very serious subject—in my opinion, nothing destroys a relationship quicker than hostility and anger.
Consider this scenario: You’ve spent time laying the foundation of a loving relationship (that hopefully started with building a friendship) with your partner. You’ve worked hard to have a strong foundation of friendship and respect, but slowly you’re beginning to realize your partner is someone who has a lot of anger built up. Often you don’t even know where the anger they experience is coming from.
Anger can have a serious impact on a relationship. Those who live with and love someone who has a lot of anger can often get caught up in trying to find fault. A symptom of something deeper and more complex, anger can also be contagious, and both people in the relationship often end up angry. After a time, you may become less able to even recognize each other as people, and your basic feelings about yourself often no longer align with what you’re experiencing. Instead, you end up seeing yourself as an angry and hostile individual, identifying your relationship as one where you as well as your partner are angry all the time.
Learning to Become Authentic and Vulnerable
In my work with couples, I focus on helping each partner become authentic and vulnerable, to reach a place where they are susceptible and open to the other partner’s words, actions, and statements.
When we are continually angry, we can begin to see each other as adversaries instead of the allies we truly are. We may have learned the best defense is an offense, so we go into attack mode, to strike at them before they can strike us. That keeps us defensive, trapped in the mode of looking to our partner as the one who is responsible for the problem. We’re not going to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to being hurt. If we do, we’re open to blaming our partners for the problems. This creates negative assumptions about our partners, so we lean toward being protective of ourselves. The result is an outward appearance of being uncaring and unloving—though this appearance may be accurate in the moment, when we are in protection and defense mode in our relationship instead of focusing on the love we have for our partner.
The cycle of anger changes our perception of ourselves, our partners, and the entire relationship. To change this perception and see what is really there, we need to identify the fears and difficulties that have been created by the anger and address the impact anger is having on the relationship.
When we are continually angry, we can begin to see each other as adversaries instead of the allies we truly are. We may have learned the best defense is an offense, so we go into attack mode, to strike at them before they can strike us. That keeps us defensive, trapped in the mode of looking to our partner as the one who is responsible for the problem.
If we experienced anger in our family of origin, or if we have experience with domestic violence, we may recognize its danger. We might try to avoid anger as long as possible, but it builds up, like a teakettle slowly reaching a boil. Eventually you, like the kettle, will eventually reach a boiling point where you can no longer contain your anger. If you don’t have the skills to manage it productively, it can explode.
How Can We Address Anger?
It can be difficult to talk about anger instead of displaying it. Maybe your past family experience tells you violence will be the outcome of any discussion, and so discussing your anger is the last thing you want to do. This is one situation where both people often feel so bad about themselves and each other that they tend to not even recognize themselves or their partner in these interactions.
In defense, some numb their emotions and don’t access them at all. Feelings of being denied, or as if one’s feelings don’t matter, often develop, and these fears, insecurities, and feelings of self-doubt contribute to the anger. The conflict causes partners to avoid connecting emotionally not only to the anger, but also to the other intense emotions that accompany it.
Because the experience is so different from the way you see yourself, you may tend to see your partner as the one who is causing it and come to believe you don’t matter to them. But anger is an emotion that often serves to mask other emotions—pain, loneliness, or feelings of alienation. Often we must go through the anger to the other side in order to resolve the other emotional hurts underneath.
The answer to this is really to go back to the friendship, the foundation you first laid for your love relationship. Underneath all of the pain and difficulty are still two people who truly love and care about each other and want the best for each other. We want to be there for each other, but how do we do that when emotional eruptions continue to happen and we feel powerless to stop them?
Try these steps:
- Identify that this is a problem. If you don’t acknowledge it, you won’t be able to break the cycle.
- Find a way to cool down your temper and de-escalate arguments. Couples who truly know each other often know how to, even in the heat of anger, inject humor into the conflict and change the tone of the discussion. When you can laugh about things, you know you’ve worked hard on your relationship. You first have to have that foundation of trust, though, in order be able to do this. You have to know your partner and truly believe their intentions are trustworthy.
- Think before you speak. If you’re speaking while triggered, nothing will be able to be resolved. Anger has a way of shutting down your brain until you’re only angry—you’re often not reasoning or thinking clearly. You need to be able to step back, look for the causes of the anger (attachment needs not being met, for example), and talk about them. When I see couples who are in conflict, often the issues they’re arguing about/are angry about stem from feelings of detachment. Deep breathing and calming techniques can be helpful steps in de-escalating the situation.
- Own your anger and be aware of warning signs. Address the primary emotions underlying the anger. Often in these situations, we’re only addressing the secondary emotions, the things that made you angry or set them off. But these are not the core issues. Primary emotions instead might include feelings of vulnerability, loneliness, and abandonment. When your partner is angry, it may remind you about losses in your family. You might feel guilt, shame, and defeat over not knowing how to have a good relationship with someone you care for a great deal. You may experience self-doubt, which can be hard to navigate when you face this kind of confusion. Your experiences may not match who you are or who you think your partner is.
- Keep a journal. Write down what matters to you and what you want from your relationship. Take time to describe the feelings of sadness and self-doubt, among others, you experience when the two of you are not doing as well. Whether you bring this journal to counseling to help you put your emotions into words, share your thoughts with your partner on your own, or simply keep the journal private, being able to articulate these issues can help you identify the real reasons you’re in this angry cycle with your partner.
- Deal with the anger as soon as possible. Address it immediately and acknowledge what you’re upset about. Show your partner you truly care about what is bothering or hurting them, and express your feelings in non-blaming ways. If your partner is full of anger and becomes harsh or critical, don’t have to take it to heart. If it’s not accurate, you don’t have to defend yourself (this often escalates). Instead, stand back and allow yourself to see the real message behind the hurtful words. Often the message is something much deeper. Your partner loves you but may feel you don’t love them because of something you’ve done or said and doesn’t know how else to express their feelings in the moment. If you can step past the anger and acknowledge your partner is hurting underneath the anger, you can reassure them you do care and begin to address the anger and its impact together, with your relationship as the top priority. (No one should ever take responsibility for a partner’s anger that is expressed through any type of abuse or violence. This is never okay. If anger in your relationship is characterized by abuse and violence, please reach out.)
- Work on really listening. Communication is not just speaking, it’s listening, truly listening. Acknowledge what your partner is saying, and own up to any responsibility for feelings of frustration, hurt, or disconnect. If you have hurt your partner, apologize with sincerity. If you’re the injured party, work on forgiving them instead of holding on to anger and resentment. This, with the help of a qualified couples counselor if necessary, can help the two of you move forward toward a better place together.
Anger is something that can alter a relationship to the point you are no longer able to be proud of who you are together. You want to have the kind of relationship where you feel you’re with your best friend and where you know you care deeply for each other. Once partners get to the core of the problems and identify the needs both parties have, it’s possible to learn how to meet those needs for each other and begin to have more positive experiences together, changing any negative perceptions.
Anger is often a symptom of something deeper. When we realize this, we can address this in order to change the tone of our discussion about anger, put an end to negative interactions, and begin to make space for positive communication and change.
© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW, therapist in Scottsdale, Arizona
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