Many people steam in silence, act out in passive aggressive ways or become depressed because they fear that anger will destroy their relationship:
“I don’t want to rock the boat.”
“It’s better that I just keep my mouth shut.”
Does 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 two partners, is the “safety to protest” without the repercussions of extreme anger or destruction of the relationship.
What I often tell couples that:
- If it is not safe for you to have an argument with your partner or to become angry – it is not safe.
- Compliance, self-silencing, or 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 the impact it can have that make it destructive.
Preventing Anger From Becoming Destructive
Most partners who fear the expression of anger in their relationship will tell you that it too easily becomes a destructive fight. If this is a frightening reality in your relationship, it is worth developing strategies to manage anger.
Although the knee-jerk solution to problems is to have our partners just change, the most effective anger management will start with you. No one can fight alone or carry out the same destructive patterns if you are acting differently.
Anger Management Strategies:
Often partners get so dysregulated by their angry exchanges, they don’t even remember who or what started the fight. In the hyperaroused fighting mode, we are surviving –not thinking.
- In the face of something that really annoys you or makes you angry, grab a moment to pause. This is the mindfulness moment.
- It is the point where literally taking a breath can lower hyperarousal, and make possible a shift away from a fight/flight stress reactions toward thinking.
- Elisha Goldstein, reminds us that with practice, this shift gives you a chance to choose how to respond. You are in a position to consider if you are provoking your partner in a way that will not help making your point or you are overreacting in a way that will create chaos not clarification.
- You are human. Even if you go right into fight mode, stop yourself for a moment. Even if you have the fight that leaves you both not talking— take a moment in the aftermath to examine why you were so angry or how you reacted. At any point, moving from reacting to thinking taps into anger management.
Consider the Broader Context
- An important reconsideration to ponder before, during or after the fight is your partner’s offense in the light of what is going on in both of your lives. The more you are able to build this into your thinking – the more likely it will keep you from jumping quickly into accusation and anger.
- 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. Is this the fight worth having? Blame and shame do very little to improve functioning or feelings.
Give Your Partner Time and Space
- If you feel unable to take time to calm down and rethink a situation, but your partner is asking for time and space– let it happen.
- If you feel that you just can’t let it go, it is worth reconsidering how valuable talking can be if a partner can’t emotionally listen. Can you reduce some of your agitation by instead writing a letter to you or your partner? Can you ask for a time when your partner feels he/she can speak about it and see if that occurs?
- Cornering your partner – not permitting him or her to walk away, calm down, or save face – fuels irrational and aggressive reactions.
Account for the Audience
- Bringing up an argument in front of family, friends or children adds shame and guilt that generally escalates tension and fighting.
- Children are particularly vulnerable in the heat of parental tension or fighting. Babies feel the tone of words and read the expression on faces. If going to a parent is the primary safety source, two fighting parents not only escalate a child’s distress-they withhold safety.
- In the case of family members as audience, it is a known fact that families don’t forget—even when the partners do.
Protect Each Other from Verbal Assault
- Verbal aggression in the form of taunts, insults, accusations and threats can be as dangerous as threatened physical violence.
- Verbal aggression invites withdrawal or retaliation. It rarely invites communication and resolution.
Avoid the “silent treatment”
- The silent treatment is both provocative and withholding and adds little understanding to a situation.
- When held in the face of your partner’s attempt to apologize and move forward, continued silence limits hope, invites despair and often escalates rage.
Recognize that Alcohol and Drugs Fuel Destructive Anger
- Using substances before or during an angry exchange is like pouring lighter fluid on a flame.
- Re-visiting the situation and seeking help during sober times is a step toward relationship safety.
Use “We” As A Point Of Reference
A seemingly small word that has big benefits for couples is the use of “We” when facing and dealing with differences of opinion or anger in a relationship. As different as your issues may be, being able to consider the issue and responses from a mutual perspective is big!
“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.”
When you can change the perspective from me vs. you to “We”– you change the experience from contention to a mutual challenge. Dealing with anger as a mutual challenge is the groundwork of a strong and safe relationship.
“ The survival of romance depends not on skill in avoiding aggression but on the capacity to contain it alongside love.” (Mitchell, 2002)