Many couples are both perplexed and stressed by the anger that erupts between them in the aftermath of trauma. Working with small groups of men and women after they had experienced a trauma, we often heard comments like: “Is anyone else angry?” “We never fought this much before.” “He’s nice to outsiders but angry with me and the kids.”
Some admitted fear of and avoidance of anger- of walking on eggshells. “I don’t want to rock the boat.” “It’s better that I just keep my mouth closed.” Most worried that anger could destroy their relationship.
Can Anger Destroy A Relationship?
The basic answer is NO. Anger is a human feeling and in itself is not damaging. According to attachment theory one characteristic of a secure attachment, be it between a mother and child or a couple, is the “safety to protest” without the repercussion of extreme anger or destruction of the relationship. Essentially if it is not safe for a couple to fight – it is not safe. Compliance, self-silencing, hidden resentments to keep the peace are not solutions. Research that studied the argument styles of 4,000 men and women in Framingham, Mass., revealed that self-silencing for women and battles of control for men created as serious a heart risk factor as smoking or high cholesterol. Being angry is not damaging – it is what you do with it, how you communicate it and what it does to you and your partner that can be destructive.
How Do We Keep Anger From Becoming Destructive?
Reconsider the Meaning of Anger
An invaluable step for any partner is to reconsider the meaning of their own anger and that of their partner – at a calm, non-stressful time. Understanding the causes of anger when you are in a state to think about it actually fosters perspective and alters response in the heated moments.
It is important to recognize, for example, that anger is a common and complex reaction to trauma which can be tripped by many sources and can reflect different things. Anger can be experienced as a physical state – a component of the fight/flight reaction to danger that often persists weeks and months later and can change the threshold to reactivity. After trauma, a line in a food store can be cause for rage with the partner, a misplaced car key the trigger for a morning fight.
Certainly most couples have experienced the relationship between anxiety and anger such that in all types of stress situations – be it getting lost on the way to the airport or picking up their teenager suspended for smoking – there is a very good chance that by the time they get where they are going- they will be arguing.
Anger often masks other feelings like grief, vulnerability, and depression. The National Institute of Mental Health in 2005 reported that men are more likely to express depression, the most common disorder associated with post-traumatic reactions, as fatigue, irritability and anger. Given that women are more likely to show their feelings of loss and despair with sadness and guilt, it often happens that partners have very little patience for understanding the differences. Sometimes their bursts of angry words reflect their inability- even fear -of speaking directly about their loss.
The losses associated with trauma often create shame, a fear of pity or self-consciousness in the eyes of the person who knows you best – your partner.
Vali Stone, a cop’s wife reminds us in her 2002 book that “Cops Don’t Cry.” When physically or emotionally injured, they often get angry with themselves. “Who am I if I can’t be a Cop?” Attempts by the partner at consoling or supporting can be met with distrust and more anger. Similarly, in the aftermath of surgery or injury that alters a partner’s weight or body, the other’s genuine compliment can give rise to rage “Don’t tell me that I’m still attractive when I’m not!”
Anger as Communication. Despite the common urge to understand or be understood by the partner after trauma, communication of needs is often not easy. Suppressed by some, silenced by others, it often does not happen clearly. Whether conscious or unconscious, anger can become a misguided way of sending a message. For example,
Paul’s late-night complaints to Carol about money or projects around the house were really a way to avoid Carol’s wish to talk about losing the baby or the possibility of sexual connection, which could lead to another pregnancy—neither of which he could handle. Experienced as hostility and rejection by Carol, these complaints often erupted into fighting and ended up with distance between them.
(Excerpt from Healing Together p. 73.)
Reconsider Behaviors and Reactions that Defuse the Fight!
In the aftermath of trauma and in most circumstances, partners rarely plan to victimize their partner or become victims. More often, given the pain they are both feeling, anger is stirred by one or the other and without realizing it they react in ways that fuel the fight. By reconsidering the meaning of anger, you may find it easier to avoid those behaviors that fuel the fight and choose alternate responses that defuse the path to destructive anger. A painful pattern cannot persist if even one partner begins to act in a less reactive, more constructive way. Consider the following behaviors that defuse the fight:
- Observe yourself. Step back and consider if you are overreacting or provoking your partner. Even if you examine your reaction after it happens, your consideration alters the chance of impulsively or unwittingly repeating it.
- Consider the broader context. Reconsider your partner’s offense in the light of what is going on in your lives. This does not mean self-silencing or condoning abusive behavior. It means that when she leaves all the doors open, he forgets to pay bills, she bangs up the car – it is put into some perspective. Blame and shame do very little to improve functioning or feelings.
- Give yourself and your partner permission for time and space. If you are unable to take time to calm down and rethink a situation, you will have more difficulty moving from a “me-versus-you” survival mentality to a place of rational thinking, problem solving and empathy. Cornering your partner – not permitting him or her to walk away, calm down, or save face – fuels irrational and aggressive behavior.
- Account for the circumstances. Bringing up an argument in front of family, friends or children adds shame and guilt that generally escalates tension and fighting.
- Protect each other from verbal assaults. Taunts, insults, accusations and threats set the other up for withdrawal or retaliation. They never invite communication and are often difficult to forget.
- Avoid the “silent treatment.” The silent treatment is both provocative and withholding and adds little understanding to the situation. When held in the face of the other’s attempt to apologize it limits hope and invites despair and often rage.
- Avoid alcohol or drugs. Using substances before or during an angry exchange is like pouring lighter fluid on a small flame- resolution becomes impossible.
- Use “we” as a point of reference. Even if the only thing you can say is that “We are really having a hard time talking”; “We are really coming from different places”; “Maybe we can write down what we each think”; “We need to get through this without hurting each other” you will have changed the configuration from me vs. you to “we” have a challenge together!
“ The survival of romance depends not on skill in avoiding aggression but on the capacity to contain it alongside love.” (Mitchell, 2002, p. 120)
For Further Reading
Mitchell, S. A. 2002. Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time. New York: W.W. Norton.
Stone, V. 2002. Cops Don’t Cry: A book of Help and Hope for Police Families. Ontario, Canada: Creative Bound.