Constructively responding to your partner’s anger can be a challenging task in even the most loving and secure relationships. It is a moment when emotions run high and you might find it difficult enough to reign in your own emotions—yet alone help to diffuse your partner’s anger.
A key fact to be mindful to when your partner is angry, is that anger arises from a perceived threat—perhaps to his emotional or physical well-being; to his resources—including his time, finances, space and possessions; and to his loved ones. So, whether real or not, such threats may undermine your partner’s experience of safety. And whether or not you believe the threat to be real or not is irrelevant to helping him diffuse his anger.
Consequently, the overriding task to help defuse your partner’s anger is to engage in behaviors, verbal and non-verbal, that help him experience an increased sense of safety. When doing so, your challenge is to increase his being fully present with you in discussion rather than being overwhelmingly absorbed by his inner landscape—thoughts, feelings and body sensations that interact to arouse his anger.
It’s also important to remember at such moments that trying to reason with him may be futile. In fact, focusing on reasoning during the height of his anger may only exacerbate his anger. At such moments, his emotional mind is overriding his rational mind, making him less available to fully take in and consider your thoughts.
For example, your partner may feel less safe when your spending exceeds what he or she believes is reasonable. She may feel less safe when she perceives her trust is being threatened. Your wife may become angry when she feels her self-worth is diminished by your actions. A girlfriend may become angry when she perceives you are trying to control her—whether or not that is your true intention.
It’s also crucial to notice when your partner’s anger arises with an intensity that does not seem warranted by the situation. This may occur when your partner has a “hot button”, a sensitivity to feel threatened. This further explains why it may be detrimental to initially focus on reasoning rather than strategies to help increase his or her calmness.
In general, any action that helps your partner feel safer is going to help defuse his or her anger. The following nine strategies form the foundation for helping you to meet this challenge.
1. First, reduce your own anger arousal. Emotions are contagious. If you show anger in tone, words or behaviors, you’ll only further increase his sense of threat and reduce his or her sense of safety. Learning to effectively respond to, rather than react to, your anger enables you to clearly think about and identify those strategies that may be most constructive in calming your partner during this moment of conflict.
Being able to manage your own anger may require that you learn strategies to do so-strategies that might include exercises in body relaxation, mindfulness and mindfulness meditation, cognitive-therapy techniques and self-compassion skills.
2. Promote physical comfort. Suggest that you and your partner sit in the most comfortable couch or chairs in the room. Sitting, rather than standing, can help both of you to be more relaxed.
3. Speak slowly and in a low tone. As emotions are contagious, your being calm will help to foster calmness. Speaking slowly and in a low tone draws attention to you and can further help to break the cycle of your partner’s escalating anger.
4. Compassionately acknowledge your partner’s anger and negative feelings. Remember that anger is a reaction and distraction from experiencing some form of inner suffering. It is a reaction and distraction to the visceral tension that accompanies both anger and the negative feelings that accompany it-feelings such as fear, powerlessness, anxiety, shame, betrayal and feeling diminished.
You can simply state, “I could tell you’re angry” and “I really can’t read your mind. Maybe you’re feeling ignored, hurt, or disappointed. Can we talk about that?”
5. Remain silent and listen. Anger requires energy. Your partner may wind down in 10 to 15 minutes. Challenging or interrupting it may only lead to further escalation. Genuinely listen to what he is saying in order to better understand what he is experiencing. Communicate that you’re listening with your words as well as your facial expressions and body language.
But know your partner. Some individuals may only escalate during silence. If this occurs, skip to suggestions 9 and 10.
6. Partially agree. Finding common ground is an essential component of any successful negotiation. Agreement enhances connection, promotes empathy and reduces threat-the key element in fostering a feeling of safety.
Listen to your partner’s language to identify paths to agreement. She may be global if she says that you “always” or “never” do something. You could then respond with “Yes, sometimes I …”
If you’re accused of being “stupid” you could respond by saying, “I sometimes do stupid things”.
If you’re told, “You never remember what I say!” you might say, “Yes, I can be forgetful at times.”
7. Admit your contribution to a situation. Admitting your role in the conflict shows your willingness to have a candid discussion—one that does not involve defensiveness. Saying you’re sorry is another way for “owning” your contribution. And doing so may be a powerful way to validate your partner’s experience.
8. Freeze-focus to defer focusing on the past at this moment. In the heat of an argument, your partner may state, “You did the same thing last month and again last week!” In order to focus on the current situation, you may respond by saying, “I could tell you still have feelings about what happened then-and we can discuss that. But—it’s me. Right now I can only handle one thing at a time. Could we discuss what just happened?” Repeat this phrase if necessary.
You may be confused and frustrated by her bringing up the past. However, this clearly indicates that she has not fully let go of feelings about those events. So, It’s important to follow through by discussing them at a later time.
9. Set limits. Setting limits involves assertively attending to your need for respect and safety. Setting limits may entail saying a certain word or phrase that both of you have previously agreed upon to end a heated discussion. Or, you might say, “I could tell you’re angry and hurt and I’m open to discussing how you’re feeling. But I don’t deserve to be yelled or cursed at.” Or, you might state, “It’s me. Right now I don’t believe anything that I say is going to be constructive.”
Remember that withdrawal is another form of setting limits, especially if you feel threatened. State your reason for doing so and then withdraw. Assure your partner that you want to discuss the issue but that you don’t feel comfortable doing so at the present time.
10. Seek assistance when you feel physically threatened. Practicing self-compassion entails doing what is wise and in your best interest. Your safety should be a priority. Listen to your inner wisdom to determine if you need to leave and find help.
These strategies may not always be effective. However, you may learn a lot about your partner when they don’t work. For example, your request to end the conversation may increase his anxiety, rather than his anger—regarding not being on the same page or his fears of abandonment.
These strategies may also fail when your partner tends to habitually cling to anger and ongoing hostility. At that point, you can ask him, “What is it I can say or do that can help you with your anger?” Through this approach, you’re encouraging him to identify what he needs to calm himself. And, his answer may be very informative and revealing.
It’s important to remember that you can only control your behavior. And, while you may be responsible for contributing to his feelings, you’re not responsible for how he manages them. He is ultimately responsible for his behavior.
There is a big difference between “showing” anger and “discussing” it. The most committed and loving couples may from time to time experience conflict and anger. Learning how to create safety to enhance further discussion further supports that commitment and helps to foster a more fulfilling relationship.