Anger is a perfectly normal emotion, and can actually be helpful in identifying things that are hurting us or situations in which we feel frustrated or out of control. The experience of anger itself is not the issue, it is in how we express and deal with anger that problems can begin to arise.
The Mental Health Organisation’s 2008 ‘Boiling Point’ report found that one in five of people (20%) have ended a relationship or friendship with someone because of how they behaved when they were angry.
There are two main ways that we can express anger; dirty anger and clean anger. Dirty anger is when we are blaming someone, we don’t allow the other to speak or defend themselves, and we are not willing to listen. Clean anger can lead to a conversation and ultimately a solution.
Dealing with a partner who is often angry can be a drain on your energy and on your relationship. When anger is expressed in a negative way, it can undermine your own wellbeing, weaken your relationship, and leave you also feeling frustrated and unheard.
This blog post deals with supporting a partner with anger, not with emotional or psychological abuse, which is very different. If you are in a situation that is abusive, the way that you handle yourself and your partner will be very different from the methods outlined here.
So, how can you deal with anger in a healthier way?
“Do not return anger with anger, instead control your emotions. That is what is meant by diligence.” (Siddhartha Gautama). Let your partner be angry and recognise that they will calm down eventually; returning anger with anger will only escalate the situation.
When someone is angry, they are not thinking with their higher brain, they are thinking with their lizard brain. When someone is angry they are operating from their amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response and fear processing. Give them the time and space to calm down and then have a rational conversation. The calmer you remain, the quicker they will calm down also.
2. Active Listening and Asserting Yourself
Once your partner has calmed down, you can have a more rational conversation. Express your own needs and wishes, but be respectful. It is important to consider your partner’s needs, feelings, and wishes, and to show them that you are considering these. People often become angry when they are feeling unheard, so it is important to show that you are making an effort to hear and understand them.
Go beneath what they are saying to understand why they might be saying it, what has lead to this situation, what are their deeper emotions. Ask clarifying questions such as; “you are saying… is that correct?”. Active listening doesn’t mean agreeing with everything that they are saying. It is about recognising and considering the other’s perspective.
3. Compassion and Patience
It is important to understand the more vulnerable emotions that anger is hiding, such as fear, hurt, sadness, or pain. It is likely that your partner is not able to safely access these emotions or address them.
Anger allows your partner to feel powerful and in control in the face of these unwanted vulnerabilities. Be patient with your partner. It may be too painful for you to confront them with these deeper emotions, but understanding the reasons behind the anger might help you to take a step back and re-evaluate the situation.
4. Lose the battle to win the war
It is often said that we need to pick our battles; that we need to be selective about who, what, and when we fight. We only have so much energy and if we are to win in the long-run we might need to concede or lose in the short-term. This is also true of arguments in a relationship. Let go of what matters the least. You may not win the argument but you will strengthen your relationship in the long run.
5. Take some responsibility
To be responsible in a relationship is to take responsibility for your role in being frustrated with your partner’s anger, and reflecting on what actions may have triggered their anger. In the same way, it is important to look at what triggers you to behave in the way that you do. The more aware that you (and your partner) become, the less reactive and the more constructive you can be.
6. Address the conflict when you are both calm
As mentioned before, when you or your partner are angry or emotionally charged, your cognitive state is likely to be impaired. Avoid storming out and slamming doors. Instead calmly let your partner know that you need some time to calm down, or that you are giving them time to calm down so that you can later come together to have a rational conversation. Use the time to gather and organise your thoughts so that you can have a constructive discussion later.
7. Lead by example and set boundaries
Trying to control someone who is angry is like waving a red flag at a bull. It is only going to escalate their anger. Angry people often see themselves as simply reacting to an unfair world, so they are likely to feel attacked if you try to point out that they are being unfair.
Lead by example by remaining calm and coherent. If you are able to calm your partner down in this way then do so. If not, then assert your own boundaries by disengaging from the conversation until your partner is calm. This not only gives you both space and time to think but also shows your partner a different way of dealing with anger and arguments.
If you are struggling with anger issues, or with dealing with someone else who has anger issues, and would like to talk to someone about it, call 020 8673 4545 to book an appointment with one of our therapists at our centres in Clapham and Tooting. You can also email us on [email protected].