Anger in relationships is inevitable. When two people- married, dating, even friends- spend time together, it is almost inevitable that they will disagree at some point. Anger is a natural physical (yes, your physical body will be affected) and emotional human reaction. It should also be addressed- ignored anger only builds up.
But how should anger be addressed? What are the do’s and don’ts of anger? And what is healthy anger and unhealthy anger?
Do: Own Your Anger and Acknowledge It
The number one thing you have to do is acknowledge your anger and own it. Ignoring anger doesn’t work. In the vast majority of people, it will simply build up.
To be bluntly honest, this is a problem in my relationship. My husband- naturally- gets annoyed and angry at times. But he doesn’t like to express it. I’m not sure why- I think it’s because I’m bipolar and he doesn’t want to add stress to me. Inevitably, at some point, he expresses this anger. Usually once every 3-4 years or so. Yes, seriously, only that often. Those arguments- of which I (inappropriately) respond without listening and lashing back- are horrible. There have been 2 of them throughout our marriage and I don’t think I’ll ever forget them. I’ll also never forgive myself for being so horrible in them.
However, these episodes have taught me something, which I why I feel comfortable sharing with you.
Don't: Blame Others for Your Emotions
Tied to owning your anger is its converse: don’t blame others for your emotions.
Yes, they might do something that angers you. But YOU’RE the one who is angry. This is a big problem and hard for many people.
And people in unhealthy relationships, especially narcissists (one of whom I’ve known well), blame others for their emotions. Then they demand an apology. Then they get angry when the person who “made” them angry isn’t abjectly sorry. It’s a vicious cycle and many, many people are caught in it- either as the person blaming others or the one who is blamed.
Do: Recognize Your Anger
You need to recognize your anger. Along with acknowledging that you are angry (the easy part), you need to understand why you are angry.
Be clear what the real issue is.
Some arguments fall under what husband and I call “potato chip” arguments. This is when one person is blowing up because the other went to the grocery store, got a snack for themselves, and didn’t bother grabbing the potato chips you ask for and were really craving. Chances are good, while you might be annoyed over the chips, it’s not the real reason you’re yelling.
So take a step back. Recognize not only your anger, but what you’re really angry about.
Some questions to ask yourself:
• What is it about the situation that makes me angry?
• What is the real issue here?
• What, specifically, do I want to change?
• What things will I do (and not do) in order to help bring about the change?
If you’re honestly really angry over the potato chips, but recognize it’s because you’re having a bad day…it’s one of those occasions to just let the matter go. It can be an act of maturity to just let something go. Not every irritation you feel is a giant matter that needs to be addressed.
Don't: Ignore Your Feelings
The converse: don’t ignore your feelings. In order to acknowledge what you’re really angry about, you need to dig deep into your feelings. Sometimes it’s easier to argue over potato chips rather than what might be the real concern- does the other person care for you as much as you care for them?
Your “real” cause for anger might be a feeling you are avoiding or a fear that you don’t want to acknowledge.
This was something I used to have a real problem with. My own particular history includes being bipolar…and I spent a lot of years telling myself “I don’t feel” anything. In fact, my first therapist had to give me a chart with faces and emotions labeled because my default answer to how I felt about anything was “fine.” Apparently, fine isn’t an emotion (haha). It’s still not easy for me to acknowledge feelings, but I am better at it.
Do: Take a Time-Out
Thomas Jefferson famously said, “When angry, count 10, before you speak; if very angry, 100.”
It might take time to clarify exactly why you’re angry. Thus, if appropriate, take a time-out. Step back. Don’t argue. Take time to acknowledge: that you’re angry, why you’re angry, and what you would like to fix.
Seek temporary distance, and say something such as “Let’s figure out another time to talk about this.”
Don't: Just Leave
While you might need a time-out, don’t just leave.
Walking out of the room or giving the silent treatment is not only childish, it’s unhealthy. And hurtful to the other person.
Tell them you need some time. Another healthy adult should respect that. If they don’t, simply repeat that you need a little time.
Do: Ask "How am I Wrong?"
Very, very few arguments arise because one person is completely right and other completely wrong. No matter how black and white the situation appears to you, take a moment to ask “how am I wrong?”.
They may have been insensitive. But unless you’re qualifying for sainthood, you’ve probably been insensitive to them too at one point or another.
Part of this is acknowledging that everyone is responsible for their own behavior. Don’t blame others for your behavior (or for someone else’s behavior).
Don't: Ignore the Other Person's Perspective
Every single person in this world is different. We all have different experiences, perspectives, and opinions. They may see things completely differently from you: that doesn’t make them wrong. Don’t try to tell another person how they think or feel (or what they “should” think or feel).
Different perspectives/ways of reacting do not necessarily mean that one person is ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong.’
(Side-note: too much of what’s wrong in the world today is people thinking they’re always right and refusing to acknowledge another point of view.)
Do: Express Your Anger in a Healthy Fashion
Once you’ve identified why you’re angry, it’s best to clarify to the other person not only why you are angry, but what’s needed to fix the situation. If you have an honest grievance, be clear about what you need.
Don’t make vague requests: I need you to be more sensitive to my needs. Clarify specific actions: I just need you to listen right now, not offer suggestions.
All healthy relationships include the occasional fight. It can be a good chance to clear the air. But use the opportunity to not only express your anger, but figure out what the other person needs.
And while it’s probably cliche by now, use “I” feel/think/want statements. This allows you to express yourself while simultaneously taking responsibility for your emotions and actions.
Don't: Be Rude, Mean, or Abusive in Expressing Yourself
It’s never appropriate to use abusive language or behavior.
You may be angry. You may even be angry for a good cause. But turning around and acting even worse than they did is not right.
And acknowledge that if they’re doing that to you…it might be time to leave the relationship. Everyone makes mistakes. But if abusive language is a repeating pattern of behavior, it’s not healthy for anyone.
Other rude methods of speaking to them that you should avoid: blaming them (without acknowledging your part in it), diagnosing or attempting to psychoanalyze them, preaching, moralizing, or lecturing them.
Do: Apologize for What Your Need To
If you did something wrong, apologize.
An apology should be specific and honest. Along with apologizing, acknowledge any apology they’ve made. And forgive them. And remember- forgiveness is for you, not them. Even if they’re NOT sorry, try your best to understand and forgive. Forgiveness is given, not earned.
Don't: Just Say "I'm Sorry"
Don’t just say “I’m sorry.” Express what you are sorry for.
Also, don’t just say “I’m sorry”…especially when you don’t mean it. Feeling forced to say you’re sorry when you’re not is only going to cause resentment on your side.