How to Deal with Anger in a Relationship
"How do I communicate with my partner when I'm angry? Or when they're angry?"
To understand how to deal to anger, wether it's within ourselves or being expressed by our partners, it's important to first understand how anger functions. Before we discuss that, recognizing that you can experience anger in a healthy way is necessary. Avoiding feeling angry at all is not our goal, our goal is to make sure that we aren't becoming thoughtlessly reactive in the face of anger.
Why do we get angry?
Most commonly in relationships, anger is a defense mechanism, it functions in a way to try and keep us from getting hurt. Think of the last time you were angry: What was going on? Did your partner do something that you've already asked them not to do? Did your partner make a sarcastic comment about something they know hurts your feelings? We need to look at what proceeded your anger to be able to understand where it's coming from. The reason for this is because somewhere along in our lives, a lot of us learn that getting angry is the best way to avoid feeling sad/disappointed/unloved/etcetera. In reality, those hurt feelings are still lying underneath our anger, waiting to be addressed. We can try as much as we can to avoid feeling those hurt emotions, but they don't just disappear, they continue to build up- like a soda can continually being pressed down on with greater and greater weight. Every time you get angry and push those hurt emotions down, it adds to the mounting pressure. Eventually, the soda can can't hold that weight anymore, it collapses and all your hurt feelings come rushing out at once, leaving you suddenly overwhelmed by your emotions. Keeping all this in mind, the first step to reaching your partner when they're angry is the same way you have to first be able to reach yourself when you're angry:
"What is going on beneath my anger?"
To be able to identify what is going on beneath our anger, we'll have to learn how to know when we're getting angry, before we loose control of ourselves. When we start to feel hurt, anger is our knee-jerk reaction, often one that lashes out at or cuts off our partner so that they feel hurt like we are feeling. However, this will not help your partner be able to understand you or hear what you want to communicate. Being able to recognize the physical signs within your body that indicate you're starting to feel a certain emotion and then taking action when that emotion prevents you from communicating how you want to, is apart of emotional regulation and use of emotional regulation skills will keep the situation from blowing up into a bigger argument. Negotiated time-out's is an example of one such skill and can be effective in giving both parties involved in the conflict an opportunity to return to effective communication. These skills allow you to approach your partner from an emotionally regulated and calm place, which in turn gives your partner room to be able to do the same thing, making healthy, effective communication room to take place.
How do we address our hurt feelings?
Once we are feeling like anger isn't running the show anymore and have been able to regain our emotional bearings, we can begin to get in touch with our hurt feelings. This can often be difficult when we have a narrative that says "my hurt feelings will overwhelm me". Having a therapist (like me) guide you through this process can often ease this difficulty.
Identifying the feelings underneath our anger is not only helpful in continuing to self-sooth ourselves, but it also gives us greater clarity on our needs. We can begin to ask ourselves "What am I feeling hurt about? Where does that feeling com from? What need isn't being met? How can I express what I need from my partner to them?".
Often times making use of a feelings wheel like the one below can be helpful in allowing us to identify the need we have based on the emotion. For example, if I'm feeling irritated, but I want to feel peaceful, I can see that to get to peaceful I need feelings of thoughtfulness, love and trust. This wheel is also helpful in allowing you to more easily distinguish one emotion from another, especially if you begin to get overwhelmed or confused by feeling multiple emotions at once.
I feel like I'm now able to connect to my underlying feelings when I start to feel angry, how do I help my partner do the same?
Just as you need to understand and connect with your feelings when you're angry, the same is true of your partner. They are ultimately responsible for learning how to do this themselves, just as you had to. However, it can be helpful for you during conflict if you can empathize with your partners feelings. Can you take a pause to think about the current situation- knowing your partner, what could have triggered their anger? What emotions could be underneath that anger? What need do they need met?
Remember, while you can ask these questions and try to reach your partner in their anger, if they can't equally do the same work to understand their anger these tools won't be helpful.
Combatting anger that leads to reactive, defensive words/actions in a relationship isn't easy but it is 100% possible. Anger functions in a way that is protective and fighting against our protective instincts takes intentional practice and work. However, just as we learned in life to respond in anger to protect ourselves, that then means we also are just as capable in our ability to learn how to respond in a new way that leads to healthier communication and increased understanding.