The Problem With Making Anger the Problem
4 tips to help you deal with it better.
Posted Dec 15, 2015
Many couples feel that what is wrong with their communication process is that it fails to prevent conflict and anger. But conflict and anger are inevitable; viewing your relationship as defective because you argue, even if you argue a lot misses the point. How couples resolve their disagreements, not whether they have them, is what counts. Research indicates that fewer arguments do NOT indicate greater relational health or longevity. The resolution is what counts.
Tip #1: Argue within bounds.
Before losing your temper check your understanding of what your partner is trying to get across. Speakers can and do misspeak. Especially when they are angered. Many times a partner will say something in anger that they know full well is not true; and many times it doesn’t represent how they feel.
Before etching what they've said into stone and making it the centerpiece of your side of the conversation, explore whether it represents how they really feel. Will they stand by it?
Consider this situation: Leslie says to Jason, “You think of yourself and nobody else. I bend over backwards to accommodate your schedule but when it comes to inconveniencing yourself for me I can always count on you to disappoint me.”
Jason might have counter-attacked. At the beginning of our work together this is what he typically would have done. But he has worked on his temper. His goal is to control what was a chronic, automatic anger response.
In a split second, afforded by his commitment to handling his anger mindfully, he reads Leslie’s mood. He reminds himself that good communication requires paying attention to words that are spoken; but, even more importantly, to the emotion beneath the words. The words combined with the emotional subtext render a message's fuller meaning. Anger can be intoxicating when it takes over a person's way of seeing things. He takes Leslie seriously and recognizes she is expressing something real but that her annoyance and frustration are coloring the words and the literal meaning of what she is saying may not represent what she truly feels. Therefore, he does not "go after" her words, which were hurtful to him, but he wants to address her mood. What he wants to do in this situation is help her to calm down so he can get down to what is really wrong. Rather than counterattacking, he responds in a non-defensive manner.
He and I have practiced developing a vocabulary of non-defensive responses in role-play exercises because, in the conversational moment with Leslie, unless he's prepared and thought about what he wants to accomplish with his response, he will tend to get triggered and, chances are, react with knee-jerk anger. Instead, he says, “You know, you’re right, I can be self-centered sometimes. And you do bend over backwards to accommodate me a lot of the time. But do you really think that I am self-centered all the time?”
He pauses to let her take this in. Then he continues, “When you had your presentation at work last week, I helped you get your material organized. I asked if you needed me to do anything else. I said that I’d be glad if you asked me for help because I knew the presentation was important to you. I wanted to be there for you. Do you remember what I’m talking about?” It is important to note that his tone of voice, in saying this, was not argumentative or disparaging. He was explaining an idea that he wanted her to take in and consider; his tone was gentle. He invited her to consider his idea, he did not try to force her to surrender to it. He was consciously aware of not wanting to shame her.
Leslie calmed down. She acknowledged that she disagreed with much of what she herself had said.
Jason’s non-defensive response helped Leslie to be able to make herself vulnerable and acknowledge a change in perspective. Key point: Jason’s non-retaliatory stance indicated he was not interested in judging or competing with Leslie, but in connecting with her. He helped shift the focus towards whether the moment was contributing to the creation of emotional safety—what I call the third dimension of communication—or not. And Leslie responded creatively. She went from a blaming to a non-blaming conversational position—not an easy thing to do. As a couple, they are learning a lot about how they can handle difficult conversations in a non-adversarial way.
Tip #2: Some partners can’t seem to speak when they have something angry to say. They can’t find their voice under such circumstances. Others can’t keep their mouth closed when the first inkling of anger occurs to them. Managing anger, for both these kind of partners, is often not so much a question of expressing or not expressing the anger. It is often a matter of being able to identify the other feelings that are embedded within the anger. Anger can camouflage other emotions. Feelings such as sadness, grief, vulnerability, fear can be covered over by expressions or obsessions with anger. Sometimes, when a person has difficulty acknowledging or accepting a particular feeling—sadness for example—they can become enraged rather than experience awareness of that hidden feeling. Another couple I worked with Bruce and Larry often reported feeling angry at one another; and each used angry feelings to avoid acknowledging other (hidden) feelings that were under the surface. Bruce was angry that Larry flirted with others at parties. Rather than talking about feeling that his need for a more secure attachment was not being met, he berated Larry. He accused him of being selfish and cruel. Larry did flirt at parties but, to a significant degree, it had to do with feelings of fear at the intimacy that had developed between himself and Bruce. He was more connected and felt he needed Bruce more than he had allowed himself to feel connected to any one else in his adult life. The closeness scared him even though he craved it. Conversation about these feelings was camouflaged by the angry back and forth that usually focused on accusing Bruce of being controlling and unable to trust.
Once the couple became aware of some of the feelings that the anger was masking they were able to talk through some of those previously unvoiced emotions. What came across and got validated at that point was not that anger was dominating their relationship but that intimacy was challenging for both of them and that it existed between them. They were able to validate their importance to one another, something that the misplaced emphasis on their anger had prevented. Making anger the problem, in their situation, masked their true communication problem.
Tip #3: There is such a thing as expressing anger mindfully. And that is very different from venting. Guideline: Express your anger in such a way that your partner can understand not only how you feel but something about the way the feeling developed; and why it is being expressed NOW. In other words, allow the expression of anger to be part of a dialogue, not a dialogue-stopper. From a neurological perspective: Anger, because it is expressed, does not necessarily dissipate. It often grows. The more the anger center in the brain is activated, the more it tends to become activated; it becomes increasingly easy to activate it because the neural network that lights it up becomes all the more energized and powerful. Habitual anger leads to emotion itself—along a wide continuum including many emotions—becoming automatically associated with anger. A person who is chronically angry, in effect, experiences her entire range of emotion through the lens of anger. This condition makes resolution of differences increasingly difficult.
Tip #4: Anger too often stops conversation, making the issue at hand more difficult to deal with. Anger often steps up the intensity of a conversation and can disarm the recipient of the anger. This is particularly true if it comes at unexpected moments.This can cause the receiver of the anger to adopt a self-protective and/or outraged stance. In order to reverse this trend, and it can be accomplished, partners have to anticipate these "surprises"—that is anticipate that they will occur—and resolve to respond by referencing this question: “At this point in our conversation, what do we need to do in order to bring ourselves back towards creating emotional safety and away from provoking distrust?” Asking this question moves the conversation back towards intentionality and away from the mode of automatic response. This gives partners a chance to regain a perspective in which they can remember: we want and need to be each others allies: we love each other.
As always your comments, questions, suggestions are welcome!
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