photo by Lance Grande
Source: photo by Lance Grande

Are you in a committed relationship with someone who is easily provoked to angry responses? Here are some common descriptions of angry behaviors that drive partners to seek help.

1. A spouse who appears calm and reasonable one minute and then suddenly becomes enraged and shouting, with criticisms, insults, and even name-calling.  

2. An extremely inconsiderate person who feels entitled to their anger and expresses it with hurtful sarcasm, or direct insults toward others.

3. A socially charming person who seems to be self-controlled until she/he perceives an offense, and then quickly lashes out with a verbal “counter-attack.”

Anger does not need to be hurtful or destructive. It is inevitable that negative feelings will arise on occasion in any committed relationship, including feelings of frustration or anger. The way in which those feelings are expressed makes all the difference. Assertive statements of thoughts and feelings are the most constructive (“I feel angry when you break a promise to me”). Passive-aggressive responses create new problems ("Instead of telling you what I feel, I’ll just break one of my promises to you") and are not recommended. Aggressive responses are very common and range from verbal attacks (criticism, insults, blaming) to more hurtful name-calling and, less often, physical assault. This discussion is focused only on how to deal with verbal aggression. Physical assault or threats of physical harm need to be addressed with the help of a trusted friend and/or a professional.

If you are in a committed relationship with a chronically angry person, you are probably the frequent target of their angry verbal outbursts. You may be confused as to what makes them so angry, because you are not the cause of their anger, but are nevertheless the target of it. Their frustration is directed toward you, because you are such an important person in their life. Your words or actions may remind them of the actions of other important family members earlier in their lives. Of course, this effect works in both directions, as their words or behaviors may trigger early memories of your own. Either way, angry comments are more closely tied to the intrapersonal mental state than to the events or words used in the moment, i.e., what may be observed as interpersonal events. Usually, the anger is triggered by some form of fearfulness being experienced by the angry person.

How Does Fearfulness Turn Into Anger?

A sense of danger may easily arise in anyone with a history of being emotionally or physically abused, particularly if they have never sought professional help for the consequence of that abuse. Past trauma, whether it was short-term or long-term, may have left the victim with a persistent feeling of vulnerability and powerlessness. Even if there is no conscious fear of harm, there is probably a heightened sensitivity to signs of danger. For some of those victims, the adrenaline rush that comes with anger feels empowering and relieves the fearfulness, at least temporarily.

A second source of fearfulness which can shift into anger is the fear of abandonment. This is a universal and basic human emotion, which is usually managed by developing strong, healthy attachments to others. However, it is easily triggered in adults with a history of childhood neglect, or a history of betrayal and actual abandonment. As before, the anger feels empowering and lessens the pain of the anticipated loss of the other person.

A highly self-critical person tends to also be highly critical of others. When self-esteem is threatened, the reaction is to criticize the other person in order to lessen the intense feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt within themselves. This behavior pattern leads to blaming and/or criticisms. (“If it’s your fault, then it can’t be my fault.”)

Often the angry person appears to be acting in a narcissistic way: not accepting responsibility for their part in the problem, entitled to become critical of others, and seeming to be without any regret for their outburst. That does not mean that your partner is a narcissist. The behavior of an angry person may be similar to that of a narcissistic person, but only temporarily. For the duration of the intense angry feelings, there is a lack of compassion for the person on the receiving end of their anger.

How to React in a Constructive Way Toward an Angry Partner

photo by Lance Grande
Source: photo by Lance Grande

Compassion and assertiveness are the most constructive responses to an angry verbal outburst. Although it is very common to react with defensiveness, or even an angry verbal counter-attack, the defensive response is not going to be helpful in calming yourself or the angry person. Take a pause, and focus on calming yourself first. It may be helpful to you to develop more insight into how you push each other’s buttons during times like these. (For an insightful description of how you may be triggering each other’s defenses, refer to a recent blog on that topic in Evolution of the Self.)  If you cannot react calmly, it is best to ask for a “time-out” of about 20 minutes minimum, so that you may both calm down. Let your partner know that you need time to think about what they have said, and that you will come back to a discussion of the problem as soon as possible. Depending upon your own level of stress in the moment, you may be able to respond immediately with something calm and reassuring. Tell your partner that you acknowledge their frustration, and that you would like to talk about the problem with compassion for each other. The important point is that both you and your partner need to have compassion in order to get past the intense emotion and move ahead to a resolution.

The effective response includes having compassion for yourself, which allows you to know that accepting the other person’s criticisms or blaming is not healthy for you. Presumably, both of you are in this relationship because you love and care about each other. Being assertive in your statements, but not aggressive, is a skill which takes time to develop. It is a critical skill for resolving conflicts between partners. When both people are able to express themselves assertively and with compassion for the other’s feelings, they will be able to manage anger constructively.

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