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Overcoming Anger In Your Relationship
How to Break the Cycle of Arguments, Put-Downs, and Stony Silences
By W. Robert Nay
The Guilford Press Copyright © 2010 The Guilford Press
All rights reserved.
UNDERSTANDING AND CONFRONTING ANGER The Promise of Change
Sarah hated it when Jeff was "stressed out" as he called it. He got loudly critical—of her, the kids, the driver ahead of him, her parents, and anyone else who annoyed him. He was impatient and irritable, and when he wasn't on the attack he became very distant. Anything that went "wrong" or got "out of control" in his eyes seemed to set him off, and Sarah never knew when that might happen or what to expect of her husband. "It sometimes feels like I turn my own life inside out to make sure he won't get upset," she told her closest friends. When her friends had heard that lament dozens of times and asked her what she intended to do about it, she sighed and said, "I guess I'll just live with it."
Frank admitted he had a bad temper. He conceded that when he lost it he was prone to cursing and yelling and that he had called his fiancée, Linda, "stupid," "limited," "a moron," and other names. But he wasn't the one with the anger problem, he insisted. It was Linda who caused the whole problem by constantly comparing him to his father, an alcoholic who regularly beat his mother. Getting angry back at her was the only way he could get her to stop criticizing him, he said. But as time went on, cursing and yelling had given way to pushing and shoving and physically restraining Linda to keep her from leaving the room or the house.
John and Nancy had been chipping away at their marriage with a kind of cold, quiet violence for several years. It wasn't unusual for John to get an icy greeting from his wife after they both got home from work. Or her mood would suddenly shift after he thought they'd been having a nice evening together, and she'd slip off to the bedroom without explanation and without answering him when he tried to call after her. No matter how much he pleaded, she wouldn't tell him what was wrong or what he'd done: "I just want to be alone," she'd insist. "Nothing's wrong, but I don't want to talk—just let me be." Eventually he would—and then he'd decide to make Nancy "pay" by doing a little withdrawing of his own, leaving the house for parts unknown for hours at a time. Lately he'd started skipping the pleading part of the game and just left.
HOW IS ANGER DAMAGING YOUR LIFE?
Are any of these couples familiar? If you're living with or close to someone who is often irritable or blows up regularly but unpredictably, who demeans you with sarcasm or put-downs, who is verbally aggressive or threatening, or who withdraws and withholds attention to express anger, you know how damaging it can be. Sarah started having tension headaches so frequently that her physician prescribed a muscle relaxer and an antidepressant to "calm" her nerves. John alternated between deep hurt and outrage: Why was Nancy treating him like a stranger, as if it wasn't worth explaining his transgressions to him because they were never going to see each other again? Linda was becoming afraid of the man she loved. How much worse would Frank's temper get once they were married?
Whether a loved one's anger is direct—like Jeff's and Frank's—or indirect, like Nancy's, being on the receiving end of anger is tremendously hurtful. It leaves scars that don't heal easily, often because the angry person typically denies that his or her anger is a problem or fails to take any responsibility for these episodes. Do any of these excuses for anger sound familiar?
"If you would just stop nagging me, I wouldn't get so upset."
"I'm not the one with the problem—it's your insecurity that's the problem."
"You're just overreacting again. Get over it!"
Excuses like these are insidious. You are not perfect either, but you know in your heart that your partner's anger is out of proportion to whatever situation seems to have triggered it. You know that your partner needs to take responsibility for the way he or she expresses high emotion like anger. Yet after an outburst or a siege, many people start to wonder whether it's true that they're to blame. When all you want is to avoid a repeat of your partner's anger, the idea that a little less nagging or a little more self-confidence on your part might make all the difference can start to seem pretty reasonable. Watching yourself for signs that you're overreacting might not seem like such a big deal. If making changes on your own will do the trick, maybe that's not such a bad idea.
If you've rationalized like this, you're on the right track but going in the wrong direction.
Changes you make can set the stage for your relationship with an angry partner to change, but not changes designed to accommodate the way your partner is expressing anger. You're probably reading this book because you've made lots of attempts to change the way your partner acts, and they haven't worked. Maybe you've started to arrange your lives together to avoid things that seem to trigger your partner's anger. Sarah's list of things she would do to "keep Jeff calm" seemed to grow every week. She'd try to keep the children quiet and send them to bed as early as possible so he wouldn't get angry at their "noise" and demands. She avoided going to her parents' home with him as much as possible because they "annoyed" him and she did not want her mother and father to feel her husband's distaste for them. People often try such accommodations after their more direct attempts to change their partner's behavior have failed. Sadly, such measures often send the implicit message that the angry person's way of expressing anger is appropriate. It is not. And the only thing that does set the stage for the relationship to change, as you'll see in this book, is to make that clear by changing the way you react.
Most of my clients get trapped in a vicious cycle of anger because they keep trying the same old tactics. They get angry back. They retaliate in some other way, like John's showing Nancy that "two can play that game" by withdrawing from her whenever she withdraws from him. They try reasoning with their partner. When nothing works, they may decide they really must be to blame. After all, it's not as if their partner is a terrible person, angry all the time. "He's a great husband when he's calm, and I love him," Sarah would say when her friends asked why she didn't just leave Jeff. Linda wanted to marry Frank; she knew they loved each other and that, ironically, their attachment and passion were evident in how reactive and emotional they got in their endless arguments. Somehow, then, these partners found a way to "live" with their loved one's anger. But because their reactions to their partners stayed the same, the outcomes stayed the same. Anger continued to rule their lives.
Eventually, a partner's anger becomes a burden too heavy to bear. You may very well feel now that it's unfair to have to adjust your own life to your partner's anger, that it's becoming too costly for you. Have you ever changed your plans to accommodate your partner because you were apprehensive that she "couldn't stand" or "couldn't cope" with a situation without getting upset and angry? Has the threat of your husband's anger prevented you from inviting a certain relative or friend over for fear that he might say or do something in anger that would embarrass you? Do you sometimes avoid discussing certain topics that you know are triggers for his anger, even though you very much want him to know how you feel? These and many other possible adjustments can greatly affect the quality of your life. You may find yourself resenting this person for the limits his or her anger seems to place on your choices, outcomes, and possibilities.
You'll have an opportunity to assess how you react emotionally and how you currently cope with this person's anger in Chapter 2, but it's probably already clear to you that you're paying a big price that has started to feel unacceptable. Like the sand gradually wearing away the painted finish on the bottom of a boat, living with an angry person begins to wear away at one's most personal self. Perhaps you've noticed that you feel more depressed than you used to feel and sometimes have sad thoughts of leaving this person. Or your self-esteem may have taken a hit as you suffer through repeated episodes of hostility or aggression that you don't deserve but can't seem to alter. Maybe you feel like your life has changed drastically and you have no idea how you got where you are today.
THE MANY FACES OF ANGER
Anger makes inroads into intimate relationships in part because it comes in many shapes and sizes that we don't always identify as anger. There's the yelling, intense version that most of us think of when we say someone is angry—the kind of anger that is depleting Sarah's reservoir of commitment to her marriage and that may keep Frank and Linda from getting married at all. As is usually the case with Jeff, this expression can take the form of plain hostility about why things are so slow or frustration when a line is too long. Or it can manifest itself in its more sinister form of outright nastiness and aggression, as with Frank. In any form, loud and intense anger is no fun for the beholder (you) and most often isn't a picnic for the angry person. Most of us don't like to be around others who are outwardly and intensely angry, and some of us react in ways that are incredibly unhelpful and even damaging to ourselves. Linda is amazed to find herself right in there, battling it out with Frank "like some sort of thug." She doesn't like the person she sees in the mirror these days.
Then there is anger that doesn't look like anger at all. Let's imagine I'm angry because you didn't show up for a lunch date on time. Instead of calmly telling you how I feel (confused and irritated), I make out like nothing is wrong. When you try to talk to me, I'm quiet and respond minimally, making you do all the work. Pretty soon you ask, "What's the matter?" I reply, "What do you mean? Why nothing's wrong!" This is a way of being passively angry. While not loud and obnoxious, passive-aggression is toxic in its own special way. You know I'm mad, but I won't admit it and withhold what you want.
Anger is not inappropriate in and of itself. But there are inappropriate ways to express it that fall into certain general categories defined in the box on the next page. Whether anger is expressed in active, intense, and forceful ways or is shown in passive and indirect comments and actions, each of these anger styles is a roadblock to good communication and intimacy in your relationship. Your partner may express anger in just one of these ways or in several ways. Some people use one face of anger at home and another in public or at work. Or they seem perfectly capable of expressing anger appropriately with others but not with us. It's important to understand which face of anger your partner is wearing at any given time so that you know how to alter your reaction to it in a way that protects you from further damage and, as I said earlier, sets the stage for change in your relationship. The stories told in this book will help you identify your partner's particular faces of anger and look specifically at how to deal with each one you may be encountering. Even more important, though, is understanding how anger can affect the behavior of both partners.
UNDERSTANDING THE IMPACT OF ANGER ON YOUR RELATIONSHIP
Are you, like Sarah, living with a partner's anger that has become a constant source of discomfort for you? Do you feel like your entire life is now crafted to avoid, prevent, or control your partner's anger? Or do you feel like your partner's anger is a maelstrom that pulls you in, making you join in the anger and leading to an endless series of arguments, battles of will, and scorekeeping? Sarah is marching to Jeff's angry tune. She's trying to find a way to live with the circumstances she hasn't been able to change, but she's so stressed out by the tension that she can't think straight. The other couples are all following each other's lead and can't seem to change their routines. The unhelpful expression of one partner sets the stage for the other. Following Frank's lead, Frank and Linda are both getting more and more physically aggressive. Nancy and John both withdraw. All of these people have gotten lost in these inappropriate expressions of anger; no one is able to convey what really needs to be said or to resolve conflicts that simmer under the surface.
For John and Nancy the problem wasn't so much what ideas, feelings, and needs their anger was preventing them from conveying but how their communications fell apart. When Nancy got angry at John, her anger upset her further. She'd been raised to believe it wasn't right to feel, much less express, strong anger, and so she clammed up, justifying her cold silence by telling herself her husband should know her well enough to know why she was angry anyway—she shouldn't have to explain. John felt so hurt and rejected that his pride was injured along with his feelings, and he decided he shouldn't have to explain, so he withdrew more himself.
It's only natural to get angry in response to what you believe is unfair anger aimed at you. It's only reasonable that, when it feels like the rug is pulled out from under you by your partner's anger, your partner take responsibility for changing the drill. Right?
How We Get Entangled
If you are in a well-established and loving relationship with this person, it makes sense that you would want him or her to be motivated to make some changes. How have you tried to provide that motivation when your partner doesn't seem to have it?
Taking the direct approach—letting your partner know clearly that you're unhappy with this angry "face" and that he or she must make a change—is always the best place to begin: "I really didn't appreciate it when you lost it in the car with our friends. Yelling and carrying on like that makes me feel really tense and embarrassed. Please don't do it again." Or "Why do you withdraw from me when you're mad? It makes me feel rejected and really sad. Please don't do that anymore. Just talk to me, okay?"
Take a few minutes to think about what efforts you've made to be direct and how your efforts have been met. My clients have reported the following responses to me. Are any of these similar to the reactions you've gotten when you've shared your honest feelings?
If your partner replies with "I didn't know my anger was upsetting you so much. I will try not to raise my voice and to be calmer. Let me know how I'm doing, okay?," you probably don't need this book unless the other person just doesn't know how to change, in which case it will be a good guide. At least your partner is a good listener and willing to make an effort to change. But what if you get one of these all too common replies?
"I don't have a problem. I just get upset with what you do." This response outright denies that anger is a problem. Angry yelling at you, ignoring you for days, or withholding affection (or many other angry faces) get relabeled: "I'm just upset." Of course the new label could be "frustrated," "annoyed," or "stressed," but they all serve to minimize the problem. Also, notice how you are blamed for your loved one's anger. What "you" do is the justification for your partner's emotional reaction, and the focus is now placed on you. The implication is that if you would only change, your partner wouldn't get "upset." So now you end up blamed for what is not really your problem to begin with. Does this sound familiar?
"You just want to create problems." Another version of this one is that you enjoy/seek out the creation of problems in this relationship, whereas your partner just wants to be carefree and happy. By "constantly bringing up problems" you now have become "the problem," and if you would just relax and forget about these nonissues all would be at peace and you could spend your evenings singing "Kumbaya" together. Right? This is really crazy-making! You're living with someone who acts out anger in ways you cannot tolerate and now are told that you somehow enjoy conflict. Again, the implication of this reaction is that you must stifle your need for a change and stop making trouble for the relationship. If you would only relax and forget about these problems, they would go away. You're left with all the responsibility for making a change and will continue to be stuck with your partner's anger.
"Everybody gets mad. I'm just getting out my feelings, which is good." At least there is an affirmation here that this person does get angry, but again there is no acknowledgment of your feelings and the negative impact that this anger has on the relationship. This reaction minimizes or tries to "normalize" what this person does when angry, thus making your complaint seem over the top. Also, it makes the assertion that "getting out" anger is always a good thing. Direct expression of thoughts and feelings is not only a good thing but is essential to resolving conflict in your relationship. The issue is not emotional expression but just how those emotions are expressed. The faces of anger shown in the box in this chapter all have one thing in common: they are ineffective and dysfunctional ways of expressing important feelings. They almost always create anguish for others and are rarely successful in accomplishing anything other than making relationship issues worse. We'll discuss many effective ways of expressing anger or other emotions in the chapters that follow.
Excerpted from Overcoming Anger In Your Relationship by W. Robert Nay. Copyright © 2010 The Guilford Press. Excerpted by permission of The Guilford Press.
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