Doing nothing in the face of this problem is not an option for Amy. Yet she realizes that if she responds without considering her options mindfully, things can get worse. She is committed to trying to work things out with Kyle but feels that she is approaching her limit.
[Note: Although his outbursts are frightening, Kyle has never struck either Ora or Amy.]
The situation: Ora, the 11-year-old daughter of Amy and Kyle, had the lead part in the after-school ballet. Kyle was out of town on business and missed the show. When Amy told Kyle that Ora had felt disappointed that he’d failed to attend, he became irate. He pounded the wall with his fist so hard that he dented it and injured his hand.
He bellowed, “I do everything I can to give everyone what they need but it’s never enough.” He went on, “Can I be in two places at the same time? You are the meanest and most self-involved person I’ve ever known. I can’t believe you are telling me this the minute I get home after an exhausting trip.” As he continued screaming, his face grew contorted and turned red.
Later that evening, Kyle apologized to Ora and Amy for the way he’d lost his temper. In a sense, this represented a step forward for him because usually when he became enraged, it took longer for him to regain composure.
In spite of her belief that Kyle does not intentionally try to unnerve either of them, she feels desperate to put an end to his outbursts. Amy feels drained and defeated. The damage to their daughter’s sense of personal security is palpable to her.
- What response on her part would be most productive?
- What approach(es) would likely be most destructive?
Tip #1 is an advisory. Do not make use of the Fool’s Golden Rule. The regular Golden Rule is the one we all know well. It states that you treat your partner as you want to be treated. The Fool’s Golden Rule goes like this: you have license to treat your partner the way he or she treats you. Amy knows from experience what this approach brings: additional chaos.
Why do I mention this approach given that it is so unproductive? Because it feels intuitively right to many partners. They seek to match what they do to what has been done to them. If you are hurt you want to exact pain from your partner. If you are intimidated you want to see your partner squirm. This impulse is easy to understand. But when the common denominator of your interactions are guided by this matching principle*, you find yourself in a downward spiral of acts that cause and then compound disconnection.
Disconnection activates the neural circuits associated with anger and withdrawal. This activation can get more or less intense but it never crosses the tracks and creates connectedness. To get to that place you have to break from the disconnection mode and bring a different neural circuit into play. In other words, if you are in a reverse gear you can reverse quickly or more slowly but you cannot move forward.
In the past, what Amy had done in reaction to Kyle’s explosions was to demand a cogent explanation for why he allowed himself to discharge his anger so recklessly. And then she would demand reassurances that he would not, under any circumstances, lose control of his temper again.
Kyle stated earnestly that he wanted to meet these demands. And what did his response amount to? Lip service. Why? Because he was not on the cusp of being able to deliver what she was demanding.
To get to where she wanted him to be they would have to go through a process together. He would have to make a conscious intention to stop the outbursts and to follow through with learning and practicing techniques to help him do so.
Amy might get him to go for therapy or anger management classes but there would still remain a distance between where he was, given his make-up and behavioral patterns, and the desired goals. If she were too angry to believe in the possibility that he could manage effective change, her lack of confidence in him could sap his motivation to take personal responsibility and move forward.
By approaching him with zero-tolerance demands, although her demands were just and understandable, Amy, in effect, matches his recklessness with her own. Faced with a challenge he had no real chance of fulfilling, he becomes angrier. He feels increasingly inadequate. He feels shamed for not being able to do what both he and Amy wanted him to do: control his anger. The shame compounds the anger problem significantly and must be acknowledged and understood with compassion.
Conversation that starts with a demand for him to give a solemn promise to never repeat the offending behavior had failed this couple numerous times. By the way, another couple might have success with this strategy that failed for Amy and Kyle. It can work for some couples depending on how prepared they are to make the change. But for many couples, like Amy and Kyle, something else is needed.
Tip #2 addresses this question: What can Amy reasonably expect from her husband? If Kyle can acknowledge that he has a problem this would represent a significant breakthrough at this point. Acknowledging the problem and accepting it as his own would need to be validated and appreciated as a real step in the right direction. Responding to his acknowledgment as a disappointment because it does not indicate the problem has been solved for good will do nothing but demotivate him. Can he stop blaming Amy for his rage and demonstrate self-focus? Can he show that he is serious about making these difficult (for him) changes? If so, he can give her assurances that he is working on changing what he can as quickly as he can. If he is not working on changing with a professional, he can commit to getting help. What he can’t do is say that it will never happen again under any circumstances. Yet this is what Amy repeatedly insists is a non-negotiable demand. She says, “Kyle, you need to tell me that it will not happen anymore. Ever. I can’t keep going through this.” Comments like this trigger Kyle’s fears of abandonment. Continued conversation — not blaming tirades — are needed to re-establish trust and reinstate a basic expectation of seeing one another as allies rather than adversaries.
Tip #3 advances what I call the Compassionate Couples Golden Rule. Here is how it works. Amy resists issuing the stern rebuke and the threat that she has reached her absolute limit, unless she is truly at the point where she is ready to leave and that is not the situation at hand.
Note: The threat to leave Kyle gets issued and then Amy relents only to reissue the threat. What she wants to do is jump-start the real change process. The threats do not accomplish this. They benefit no one.
Instead, she can say something like this to Kyle: “I want to understand what is going on inside you when you lose your temper because I want to do what I can to help you control it better. And I want to protect myself from you when you feel that way. I need to do both things. Please believe me, I do not want to shame you. You apologized to me for punching the wall and all that. I accept your apology. I know you don’t want it to happen again. I certainly don’t either but if it should I want us to handle it better. And I want us to handle it together. I do not want you to feel more guilty than you probably already feel. I want to understand what it’s like for you on the inside so I can do a better job of being helpful to both of us.” She looks at him to see whether he is listening. Satisfied that he is, she continues, “If I understand it, I’ll probably also feel less rejected by you in those moments. I don’t know if you realize that one of the reasons that your out-of-control anger hurts me so much is that it makes me feel you are completely unreachable. I actually miss you in those moments, even though I am also furious at you for what you are doing."
As I have noted in another article when a conversation begins with a certain tone — like compassion — it inspires a back and forth that continues the theme. When a conversation starts with blaming and finger-wagging, it tends to stay on that track. The good news in that is that each new conversation gives partners the chance to start productively.
Tip #4 highlights the need for give and take between partners. Compassionate give and take can overcome anger problems so long as there is a conscious commitment to creating emotional safety. There are other words for what I call emotional safety: mindfulness, serenity, patience, humility — these are all facets of the same mindset.
Internal flexibility is needed if we are to transform potentially destructive energy, angry impulses, into the stuff of connection. In order to stay clear of the downward spiral of tit-for-tat, you’ve got to strive for generosity. This is not a moral precept. It is an operational principle for three-dimensional communication.
Generosity means intentionally inserting a concern for emotional safety into your dialogue on a regular basis. This allows you and your partner to gain traction and create positive momentum. Each interaction that features generosity fosters a rhythm of connection. Is this approach guaranteed to work? There is no such thing as an approach that is guaranteed to work for all couples. But it has worked for many of the couples that I have worked with. The situation Amy and Kyle are in is far from unique. I have worked with many couples — Kyle and Amy are a composite — that have been able to turn the downward spiral around by rejecting the Fool’s Golden Rule and moving ahead with Compassionate Communication and resisting tit-for-tat responses.
*For more on the matching principle, see Adam Grant’s fascinating book, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (Penguin, 2014).
Learn more about steps to get your relationship unstuck here, find information about the three dimensions of communication here, or take a step toward becoming an expert in creating emotional safety here. Questions, comments, suggestions, likes, sharing — all are welcomed.