Managing Anger in Relationships

Anger expression in a relationship can be both therapeutic and destructive.

As anger is a normal emotion, couples should expect that at some point they will need to deal with either their own or their partner's anger. Anger can result in good changes for the couple and draw attention to something that needs "fixing" or altering. For example, one spouse could express anger to her partner about how he spoke to her in front of in-laws, expressing both anger and hurt if she felt her husband was sarcastic or patronizing to her at a dinner function. Now she has really drawn her husband's attention to something that is bothering her affording the couple now a chance to work through her feelings and possibly set new precedents about acceptable social behaviour.

If she approaches this discussion with both owning her own feelings and assertively stating that she wants to discuss this, she is dealing with her anger in a productive way that helps ensure some discussion and new agreements. If her husband responds with anger or denial that he did anything to cause her anger the couple could quickly go into a spin-off of other issues and get no-where.

If her husband responds by wanting to hear more about how his wife feels without defending himself, they will likely get further down the road to solutions.

If however, she approaches her partner in a heighten anger state with accusations and character assination they will also spin off into non-productive directions. Inappropriate anger expression occurs when arousal is so high that almost anything can happen from verbal to physical abuse. Couples who fight while in a high arousal state tend to "attack" each other resulting in more wounds and circular arguments with statements like "how could you be so stupid" "why do you always do that, don't you know me well enough by now" etc.

What are the implications for couples if they want to use anger effectively in their relationship? Here are some basic guidelines that I try to have couples follow:

  1. Try to be aware of your own arousal level, if high you are not likely going to accomplish too much other than create more problems. A simple rating system could be used such as, where are you on a 1-10 scale with ten being raging inside and ready to come at your partner with both barrels to prove them wrong. If you rate yourself as being somewhere 6-10 it would be a good time for a constructive time out.
  2. A constructive time means that you would announce that you are not ready to talk, you need to chill out for maybe 30 minutes or so then you will return. The other person, of course, needs to honour this and not pursue.
    I often coach couples to return with a collaborative attempt in mind. For example, you may start with "I want to explain to you why I was so angry about last night, can you please try to understand and I promise I won't attack you".
  3. If your arousal level is somewhere around 6 or less (this is a subjective measurement so you decide, but most people know when they are going to explode and when they are mildly angry) then I would normally encourage couples to continue discussing whatever it is that has made them angry with some conditions, however:
    • the person who is angry does their best to stay focused on the event or issue and avoid generalizing or character assassination. So that means avoiding saying things like "you always do that", or "you are just like your father/mother" etc.
    • The person who is angry does their best to stick to behaviour descriptions of why they are angry. For example "when you said I was absent-minded at that dinner party and proceeded to tell a long story about how I forgot my purse at the gym, I was very embarrassed. I feel very self-conscious about my forgetful behaviour since I have been under all of my recent work stress. Even though I know you were just trying to be amusing, I am very sensitive about this right now"
  4. The best outcome is one where both partners feel heard, and some compromise or change is struck. In other words, try to make the anger useful to advance the relationship rather than creating a culture where anger is often expressed but not resolved.

How Marriage Counselling Can Help

In many situations, even two or three sessions with a professional marriage counsellor can dramatically improve your relationship. Understanding new strategies for improving communication between partners and using better conflict resolution techniques can make a significant difference in a short period of time.

For more information about Couples Counselling Services, please Contact Terry Penner Today.

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