Recently I was asked by a participant at a seminar I gave to define the most important thing for couples to identify if they are experiencing anger or conflict. Based on my 25 years of helping “angry” people move beyond their ire and into resolution of conflict, here goes.

            First and foremost remember that anger is aroused by unmet expectations. If your expectations are realistic, given how your partner has acted in the past, then you have probably found a way to accept what is likely to happen again. If, however, you are expecting something that the other has rarely or never done up to now you are likely to be frustrated and angry again when met with unwanted behavior. So you are stuck in the first gear of anger because you have not addressed the root cause. You are expecting an outcome that is unlikely to happen. When it doesn’t, you will again be angry and may “act out” your temper by saying and doing things your partner will be repelled by. Certainly yelling or nagging at someone is not the way to influence positive change.

            What to do? Examine your “should” thoughts, like “he/she should be more affectionate” or “should be less a slob---this house is so cluttered!” or “should be ready on time for once!” Once you surface what you expect, ask yourself: “How often has this occurred up until now?” “Is my partner as invested in this new behavior as I am?”  How to get unstuck?

First, sit down with your partner and be clear about what behavior (be specific!) you would appreciate in the future and why it is so important to you. Share your feelings and thoughts about it and then listen carefully to what the other says about your request. 

Now, craft new expectations based on what your partner agrees to and realize that new habits take time. Set your expectations to reflect a process of change that may be slower than you would like and be sure to comment positively when you get what you want.  Finally, realize that even if this process does not turn out as you would like (e.g., the other will not agree to make a change) you are powerless over everyone but yourself. People do not change when yelled at or shamed into actions they are not invested in.

Once you’ve acknowledged what the other is willing to do, it is important to problem-solve other ways to achieve your end (e.g., take more responsibility for initiating romance, hire a maid to get the place as clean as you would like or plan to leave for events in your own car if your partner is unwilling to get ready on time). As your expectations are more realistic your anger will subside and you will feel more a sense  of control. Another benefit of controlling your anger by changing your thinking is worth noting. Others are much more likely to make heroic efforts at change if in a relationship that values and accepts them.

About the Author

W. Robert Nay, Ph.D.

W. Robert Nay, Ph.D., is a Clinical Associate Professor at Georgetown School of Medicine, and the author of  Overcoming Anger in Your Relationship.

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