How to Deal with an Angry Partner
What drives them, and how you can bring them back.
Posted Apr 04, 2009
The biggest challenge of living with a resentful or angry person is to keep from becoming one yourself—or else, the high contagion and reactivity of resentment and anger are likely to make you into someone you are not.
The second-biggest challenge in staying in a relationship with a resentful or angry person is trying to get him or her to change. Four major thorns are likely to obstruct that goal:
- Victim identity
- Conditioned blame
- Temporary narcissism
- Negative attributions
Victim Identity Breeds Entitlement
Resentful and angry people see themselves as merely reacting to an unfair world. They often feel offended by what they perceive as a general insensitivity to their "needs." As a result, they are likely to feel attacked by any attempt to point out the ways in which they are unfair, much less the effects of their behavior or others.
Driven by high standards of what they should get and what other people should do for them, the angry and resentful frequently feel disappointed and offended, which, in turn, causes more entitlement. It seems only fair, from their perspective, that they be compensated for their constant frustrations. Special consideration seems like so little to ask!
Here's the logic: "It's so hard being me, I shouldn't have to do the dishes, too!"
Conditioned to Blame
Most problem anger is powered by the habit of blaming uncomfortable emotional states on others. The resentful or angry have conditioned themselves to pin the cause of their emotional states on someone else, thereby becoming powerless over self-regulation. Instead, they use the shot of adrenaline-driven energy and confidence that comes with resentment and anger, in the same way that many of us are conditioned to make a cup of coffee first thing in the morning.
This is an easy habit to form, since resentment and anger have amphetamine and analgesic effects—they provide an immediate surge of energy and numbing of pain. They increase confidence and a sense of power, which feel much better than the powerlessness and vulnerability of whatever insult or injury stimulated the conditioned response of blame.
If you experience any amphetamine, including anger or resentment, you will soon crash from the surge of vigor and confidence into self-doubt and diminished energy. And that's just the physiological response; it does not include the added depressive effects of doing something while you're resentful or angry that you are later ashamed of, like hurting people you love.
The law of blame is that it eventually goes to the closest person. Your resentful or angry partner is likely to blame you for the problems of the relationship—if not life in general—and, therefore, will not be highly motivated to change.
I have had hundreds of clients who were misdiagnosed by their partners' therapists (or their partners' self-help books) with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Although it is unethical—and foolhardy—for professionals to diagnose someone they have not examined, it is an easy mistake to make when considering those who are chronically resentful or angry. Indeed, everyone is narcissistic when they're feeling angry or resentful. In the adrenaline rush of even low-grade anger, everyone feels entitled and more important than those who have stimulated their anger. Everyone has a false sense of confidence, if not arrogance, at those times, is motivated to manipulate, and is incapable of empathy.
States of anger and resentment feature narrow, rigid thinking that amplify and magnify only the negative aspects of a behavior or situation. The tendency of the angry and resentful to attribute malevolence, incompetence, or inadequacy to those who disagree with them makes negotiation extremely difficult. We are all likely to devalue those who incur our resentment or anger. Even if we do it in our heads, without acting it out, this negativity will almost certainly be communicated in a close relationship.
The Healing Emotion
You can easily get stuck in a Pendulum of Pain when living with a resentful or angry person. This leads to a tragic Catch-22: "When my partner heals whatever hurt seems to cause the resentment and anger, then he/she will be more compassionate." The truth is, your partner will not heal without becoming more compassionate. Compassion breaks the hold of victim identity, habituated blaming, temporary narcissism, and negative attributions by putting us in touch with our basic humanity. Your compassion will heal you but not your partner.
In demanding change from your partner, your emotional demeanor is more important than the words you use, and it must stem from the deep conviction that he or she will not recover without learning to sustain compassion. You must be convinced that you and your family deserve a better life and be determined to achieve it. It is important to see your partner not as an enemy or opponent, but someone who is betraying his or her deepest values by mistreating you. Approach him or her with compassion, and say, in your own words, something like:
"Neither of us is being the partner we want to be. I know that I am not, and I'm pretty sure that in your heart you don't like the way we react to each other. (It's hurting our children as well.) If we go on like this, we will begin to hate ourselves. We have to become more understanding, sympathetic, and valuing of one another, for all our sakes."
Because your partner cannot recover without developing greater compassion, the most compassionate thing for you to do is insist that he or she treat you with the value and respect you deserve, if you are to stay in the relationship.
You are most humane when you model compassion and insist that your partner do the same.