- Instead of reacting quickly, pause and take a deep breath. Before judging your partner, try to put yourself in their shoes.
- Self-control and emotion regulation are essential to living peacefully, especially when you are confronted with hostility.
- Exercise compassion and understand that underneath anger usually lies a deeper and more vulnerable emotion, such as fear or pain.
This is part two of a three-part series in which I offer strategies for relating effectively with an angry partner.
For many people, one of the most difficult aspects of being in a relationship is facing your partner’s anger. It can be challenging to maintain your equilibrium when the conversation heats up and hurtful words are exchanged. Before you know it, you are feeling strong emotions, too: possibly anger of your own, or fear, or shame. These feelings can make it hard to think clearly and respond constructively.
In the first post in this three-part series, I presented some strategies for heading off anger. In this post, I’ll offer some tips for responding to an angry partner in the moment. You’ll learn ways to keep your cool and move ahead in ways that benefit you and strengthen the relationship.
When confronted by a partner’s anger, we are often tempted to retaliate. But, when we do, we only add fuel to the fire. What if we could interrupt that pattern and train ourselves to pause? Instead of reacting quickly, as we’ve been prone to do, we can simply pause for a few moments. It’s not always easy to pause, but with intention and practice, you can strengthen your ability to do it.
Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl is often quoted as having said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Pausing slows down the rush of anger, creating the space we need to collect ourselves and respond with awareness and wisdom.
Stay Calm and Breathe Deeply
When you are the target of your partner’s anger, you will probably get triggered. This is completely understandable, yet nothing good will be achieved if you are both screaming at each other. In fact, the situation will probably get worse. Getting angry in response to your partner’s anger is counterproductive. The calmer you remain, the quicker your partner will overcome their outburst.
Mindful breathing is one of the most powerful and accessible tools for calming yourself in challenging moments. Breath anchors you and moves your attention from defensive and retaliatory thoughts to observing the present moment without judgment.
To practice this in a difficult conversation, take a full breath and remain with your feelings for a moment, then exhale fully. As you slowly breathe out, let go of your stress, frustration, and anger. Deep breathing provides extra oxygen that relaxes your muscles and promotes calm. The result is a clear mind, from which you can address your partner’s issue constructively.
Regulate Your Emotions
Regardless of what your partner is doing, your frustration, pain, fear, or anger is your own issue to handle. Facing anger and aggression requires resilience. The skills of self-control and emotion regulation are essential to living peacefully, especially when you are confronted with hostility. Emotional balance allows you to resist acting on impulses that could cause harm to all. It enables you to consciously choose to respond rather than react. When you regulate your emotions and stay committed to the values of compassion and love, you master yourself and your relationship.
Underneath anger usually lies a deeper and more vulnerable emotion, such as fear, sadness, or pain. All of us share lingering shame and insecurities from the past. These feelings are hard to deal with and tend to be less accessible than anger. Anger arises in part as a protective shield. For a short time, it makes your partner feel in control, even as it comes at a great cost to them.
This is why it is helpful to move away from blame and accusation and instead extend compassion toward your partner. Cultivating compassion helps you recognize the painful emotions buried underneath anger. In the moment, your partner is not fully able to face the challenging situation that pushes them to react defensively or aggressively. You can view your partner’s anger as the tantrum of a child. It is a desperate call for help.
Like all of us, your partner is doing the best they can. When you treat them with compassion and meet them where they are, you help create emotional safety, and your partner’s anger can be dispersed.
Put Yourself in the Other Person’s Shoes
When you learn to empathize with others, recognizing that each of us struggles with anger and other negative emotions, you develop a compassionate view of humanity. You are able to take another person’s perspective and view them with understanding.
Before judging your partner, try to put yourself in their shoes. If you can find the strength to recognize their pain and suffering, you open your heart, and, by doing so, you calm your partner. Empathy is naturally disarming.
Evaluate the Consequences
When faced with your partner’s anger, you must choose how to respond. Most decisions have some negative effects and some positive ones. Your task in choosing your next action is to minimize the negative consequences and increase the positives. Consider the impact and consequences for yourself and others.
Part of being skilled in dealing with your partner’s anger is the ability to learn from previous experiences. What have you done in similar situations in the past, and what were the results? Remember the words of Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” If you find yourself in such a predicament, it might be time to try something different.
Ask for a Timeout
When conflicts begin to deteriorate into angry reaction, they often stop being productive. It’s not helpful to continue beyond this point. So, make an agreement with your partner that if either of you feels overwhelmed or close to losing your temper, you can ask for a time-out to cool down. It is important to have a shared understanding that the person is requesting the time-out because they need a break from the situation, not from the other person. When they become calm again, it is their responsibility to initiate continuing the discussion. This strategy allows both partners to address the difficult matter in a calm, constructive way.
Conflict may be one of the toughest things you’ll face in your relationships. By learning to pause, calm your own emotions, take a compassionate perspective, and choose a skillful response, you can navigate these challenging situations in a way that restores peace and harmony.