After several pleasant hours together with Pete at home, Karen says in a moderately toned voice: “I would appreciate it if you would put your dishes in the sink instead of waiting for me to do this for you.”
Pete immediately reacts to Karen by saying in an intensely angry (almost shouting) tone of voice: “There you go again — telling me all the time what to do! I’m fed up with your treating me this way. I want you to cut me some slack. I don’t appreciate your constant nitpicking and criticism. Get off my case. You sound just like my mother.”
In response to this unexpectedly intense and provocative outburst from Pete, Karen is surprised, taken aback, resentful, angry in return, and preparing to blast back. At this point, I could do much analysis (and so could you) commenting on in this deteriorating, fictitious interchange (scenario), but I will take another direction here, and make some other, broader, wide-ranging comments instead.
As a psychotherapist and couple counselor, I frequently see partners in couples overreact to one another. They are often reacting (without conscious awareness) not just to the immediately preceding triggering event, but to many different triggering events or cues that have been accumulating, between them, up to that point. The typical pattern is that partners have gotten into the habit (usually with good intentions) of allowing numerous grievances pass without saying or discussing anything about their inner negative feelings. They push these unpleasant and disturbing feelings out of their consciousness, mistakenly believing that these bad feelings will somehow just be forgotten or will go away on their own. However, this learned strategy for dealing with their feelings only works for a short period of time.
In the medium and long term, however, these short-term strategies to avoid direct and overt conflict break down and lead to further problems. Much of the negativity that has been pushed underground, at some point, resurfaces and bursts out with the intensity connected to the accumulation of unspoken about, and perhaps unthought about, anger (and other negative emotions). Given enough stored and accumulated negative energy, a tipping point occurs and the quietly angry person finally blows his or her lid. The volcano which has been simmering underground for quite some time, suddenly erupts. The good news is that with the appropriate skills training, this sequence of events – this particular cycle of unprocessed emotions – can be headed off, and eventually, virtually eliminated. With time, constructive and functional (adaptive, mentally healthy) behavior when practiced can replace nonconstructive, dysfunctional (maladaptive, poorly working) behavior.
Below are some suggestions and ideas for both the individual who struggles (chronically or occasionally) with anger management issues, and the individual who is challenged by how to deal with being the recipient (or target) of their partner’s angry outbursts (which can frequent or occasional). (Note that both individuals in a relationship can have anger management problems, at times, or at the same time. That is, both can alternate between these two roles — taking turns in these two seemingly opposite roles. There can be variations on a theme here, with, for example, one being more of the initiator of direct, rageful, outbursts, while the partner predominantly [or usually] only becomes emotionally dysregulated [that is, loses his or her emotional control or cool] in reaction to the other’s provocations.)
In all the variations possible, it is important that both parties (individuals involved in this interpersonal system of loss of control) take responsibility for their contributions to the breakdown of fair fighting, good judgment, and psychological maturity in their relationship together. This is particularly important when a couple has children who witness (by seeing or hearing, or both) – and thus are adversely affected by – the psychologically damaging role model they have been exposed to. Remember that children often learn more by what they observe and experience with parents than by what the parents tell them in words.
Further suggestions and ideas for understanding and dealing with anger management issues:
- Keep a written log of the “anger management” issues you encounter in your daily life. This log can include both the incidents where you yourself have angry outbursts, and when another (as your partner) loses emotional control (even briefly). Review this ongoing list with the goal of identifying the patterns you discover in what sets (triggers) you or the other off. In this way, in part, you can learn about your and the other’s unique (idiosyncratic) sensitivities and vulnerabilities (your trigger points, hot buttons, or psychological allergies).
- On an ongoing basis, try to connect the present with the past. Ask yourself if the person you are presently in conflict with reminds you in any way of a significant person from your past. As well, you can ask yourself if your reaction in the present (when you are emotionally dysregulated – emotionally triggered off) is similar in any way to how someone in your past reacted or treated you. Put another way, are you identifying with (acting like) a victimizer from your past, or internal world (as when you dream at night of someone trying to do something bad to you)?
- Keep in mind that anger is only one of many different kinds of emotions. Being human, you can experience a full range of a variety of emotions. By keeping a psychologically focused (daily) journal you can become more aware of the many different kinds of feelings, thoughts (including expectations and assumptions), and behaviors that affect your life on a moment-to-moment basis.
- Be aware that anger can be used defensively in ways in which you may not always be aware. For example, many people feel empowered (psychologically strong and powerful) when they are angry. This is more acceptable to them than feeling weak and vulnerable. So, sometimes anger functions as a secondary emotion, not a primary emotion. That is, sometimes people prefer (consciously or unconsciously) to feel angry instead of experiencing other more difficult, painful, or distressing emotions – such as sadness, grief, inadequacy, anxiety, depression, shame, fear, etc. In other words, sometimes anger helps a person to cover up or to distract themselves from feelings that are much more difficult for them to face, bear, or tolerate.
- Remind yourself to be curious about why, when, and how you find yourself becoming angry in reaction to both internal and external triggers (cues, stimuli). (An inner or internal trigger is something that sets you off without your needing to interact with another person. For example, you might become aware of having an angry reaction to someone you had interacted with in the past.)
- Keep in mind that you have a choice of whether or not you verbalize (express in words) feelings and thoughts that come into your awareness. You can catch yourself from automatically expressing yourself in angry ways. That is, you can “press the pause button” before you automatically express yourself in ways that can cause damage or harm to yourself or to another. This is a behavior you can learn to change with repeated practice. Learning such (an emotion regulation) skill can be compared to building up muscles in your body, through repeated exercises. Granted, this changed behavior can be particularly difficult to learn if your current behavior has been part of you for a very long time — if not a habit of a lifetime. But it can be done. Achieving this goal requires patience and hard work — but it’s well worth the effort in the long run.
- Remind yourself repeatedly that just because you have an urge to angrily lash out at someone, doesn’t mean you have to act on this urge. You can exercise (practice) self-restraint. Brain (neuro-) science teaches us that when emotions are very intense, the part of the brain that thinks may become disabled. By thinking before you speak (even for a few seconds) you can avoid some damaging consequences – such as the loss of a valued relationship or job.
- A word of warning: There are times when you may later regret what words and feelings come out of your mouth when you are angry, and you are not thinking of the consequences. Sometimes these words – which cannot be taken back — cause long-lasting or permanent damage that can never be repaired.