All relationships experience some level of conflict, and what often comes with conflict is anger. At its core, anger is a secondary emotion, meaning it is a reaction to a primary emotional response. Common primary emotions that trigger anger are hurt, fear, pain, or rejection. Anger can develop as an automatic response to these perceived emotions if a person becomes conditioned to hiding his or her vulnerability.
Anger is not a healthy long-term strategy in managing conflict and can significantly corrode a relationship over time by fostering reciprocal anger, frustration, and pain. The tendency to jump to anger is much more a reflection of who you are and your style of relating than it is a stand-alone response to a specific event. This means that anger is something you can manage and learn to control, and it is something you need to change if it is harming your relationship.
To alter an angry pattern in your relationship, keep in mind the following:
- Do not become angry yourself.
Nothing escalates anger like reciprocal anger. It may seem unfair that you need to keep your emotional response in check while your partner does not, but that is only a partial perspective. Holistically, both partners must work on reducing expressions of anger during conflict, but occasionally tempers will flare. The goal is to keep the conflict from escalating further, and this can be helped by inhibiting the tendency to become angry yourself.
When you feel yourself becoming angry, call a halt to the conversation until you are able to calm down. Be sure when you do this to tell your partner how long you need a break. If you are not calm after the initial time you agreed on, you can always request more time. During your break from the conversation, try to identify what emotion triggered your anger and avoid ruminating only on what your partner did to anger you. In order to eradicate anger from your relationship, you need to focus on inhibiting your own anger response.
- Avoid playing the victim.
Both partners may feel like victims in highly escalated conflict, and they often are. But do not play the victim when it comes specifically to your expressions of anger. Yes, your partner may have done something that angered you, but you need to express the primary emotion over the secondary angry and hurtful response.
It is important to acknowledge your role in contributing negativity to the conversation and then work to change your go-to response. Apologize to your partner for becoming angry, and acknowledge that he or she was a victim to your inappropriate behavior. You can still address what hurts you may have felt from your partner during conflict, but it can come from a place of primary emotion instead of anger.
Often in relationships that suffer from frequent angry conflicts, partners try to pinpoint who got angry first and blame that partner for making the whole conversation futile. This is usually done from a very subjective and often wounded place, causing partners to point fingers at each other (again, trying to play the victim).
Instead of highlighting all the things that your partner did wrong or that hurt you, try to focus on what you contributed to the conversation. Did you become angry? Did you insult your partner? Did you keep pushing your partner when he or she tried to halt the conversation? Take ownership of whatever part you played, and communicate this acknowledgement to your partner. Apologize for your wrongdoings and delineate your efforts to change. Your motivation to do so will increase when your partner reciprocates these efforts.
- Channel respect and understanding.
You probably have a good idea of what topics you and your partner are more sensitive to, and it is helpful to be extra mindful and thoughtful when beginning a discussion in one of these areas. Consciously plan what message you would like to convey to your partner, and make a commitment to yourself to maintain your cool and strive for empathy when the conversation takes place.
Remember, changing habits takes time, and it is a commitment both partners must make for the sake of each other and the relationship. Altering a reactive angry response to a more adaptive, controlled way of relating is a difficult endeavor. It requires the angry partner to feel safe and motivated. It requires the other partner to be patient and persistent. Both partners must remain empathic of the other’s goals and struggles. Together, you can eradicate anger and increase the love in your relationship.
Meghan Emerson, MSMFT