If you’ve read The Dance of Anger you know that I don’t advise yelling. Venting anger simply doesn’t change the pattern from which your anger springs. Ineffective fighting and blaming protects rather than protests the status quo of a relationship. Real change rarely occurs until we calm down first and do our best thinking.
But in Marriage Rules, I share an exception to the rule.
There are times when showing your partner a raw expression of hurt and rage, will break through the other person’s defenses and get through. Important addendum: This will happen only if your outburst comes as a big surprise to both of you, meaning it’s a rare event and not the rule.
Here’s an example: A therapy client of mine, Kathy, discovered her husband was having an emotional affair with one of his graduate students. Something led her to go into the “deleted” box of his email, where she found his provocative and sexualized messages. He wrote, for example, “I didn’t dare hug you when you left my office Monday, because I didn’t trust that I’d be able to stop myself there.” It seemed that they hadn’t (yet) had sex.
Kathy confronted him immediately, and they had many conversations about the situation. Kathy said all the right things and, expressed the whole range of feelings that were evoked by reading the emails. She took a clear position on what she expected from her husband, and how much he was putting at risk if he didn’t stop the flirtation. Probably, she said all that could be said.
Kathy was a therapist herself, and talked like one. She felt it was important to take a position calmly, to speak in “I” language, and to keep the intensity down so as to ensure her message was heard. The problem was that Kathy almost always talked this way. She was, by nature, a very low-key person who didn’t have much range in her speaking style. Teasingly, her younger sister sometimes called her “one-note Kathy.”
One evening in their bedroom, Kathy simply lost it. She began screaming at her husband about the graduate student. “It was the kind of screaming that left my vocal cords raw,” Kathy told me. I was afraid I might have actually damaged them.” After she screamed, for maybe a minute or less, she threw herself down on the floor of their small bedroom closet, sobbing uncontrollably, refusing her husband’s pleas to come out or at least open the closet door. She slept in another room that night.
This episode got through to Kathy’s husband in a way that all the previous conversation had not. The rawness of Kathy’s emotional response opened his heart in way that his wife’s calm, “I” language and “good communication “ had never done. “Losing it,” to use Kathy’s term, turned out to be both good and, perhaps more to the point, unavoidable.
I’m not suggesting you should make a plan to “lose it.” I’ve lost it this way, perhaps three times in four decades of marriage, and certainly not by plan. In fact, if you “lose it” with any degree of frequency, you’re eroding the foundation of your relationship and self esteem. You need to get help.
But when “losing it” is a very rare and surprising departure from your usual fighting style—and does not harm or physically threaten your partner—a raw show of emotion may get through at a deeper level.
As Kathy’s story illustrates that there’s an exception to almost every rule of good communication—and that goes for my own rules, too.