How Do I Deal with Anger in a Relationship?
Dr. John Schinnerer
The key to managing anger in your relationship is all about how well you deal with disagreement – what you do when you begin to get mad with your significant other (SO).
51% of the couples who are married in the U.S. will end up in divorce (some sources say it’s over 60% in California). The love that you feel for your sweetheart has nothing to do with how long your relationship will survive. So what predicts how long your relationship will last? It’s all about how well you deal with your disagreements.
Amazingly, researchers can accurately predict if a couple will get divorced by watching them talk about an area of difficulty for a mere five minutes. With this little sliver of conversation, Dr. John Gottman, can predict with 93.1% accuracy which ones will thrive and which will tank. 93% is ridiculously accurate so you need to pay attention because this is powerful info.
What Predicts Divorce?
How does Dr. Gottman predict divorce with such accuracy? He focuses on “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”:
Contempt: Contempt is anger tinged with disgust. Contemptuous comments show that one person feels superior to their partner. This one emotion is the biggest single predictor of divorce. Watch for it. Listen to your tone of voice. Watch your words. Example: “You’re a fool.” Any annoyed statement that indicates you know better than the other person is a prime candidate for contempt.
Criticism: This occurs when your complaints about your loved one are worded as a problem with their whole person. For instance, labeling your sweetie with an all-encompassing trait based on small behaviors. For example, one person wants the other to fix the sink which has been put off for a week. The complaint about not fixing the sink (a minor behavior) becomes a criticism about laziness (a trait). So one person might say, “You never do anything around the house. Why don’t you fix the sink. You said you would a week ago. You are so lazy!” The recipient of the criticism responds with anger and fights back with comments such as, “You always criticize me! You don’t appreciate anything I do for this family!” This style of dealing with difficult subjects often leads to an outright refusal to do the task or the task gets done beneath a heavy layer of anger and resentment.
Defensiveness: This is a form of self-protection in which the person refuses to take any blame. A perceived attack is met with an indignant response or by playing the role of an innocent victim. Defensiveness is a corrosive way to deflect an attack or criticism because the root issue rarely gets addressed. Example: “It’s not my fault that we went over budget this month; you need to earn more money. If you earned more money, I wouldn’t have to watch what I spend.”
Stonewalling: This is a complete emotional shutdown which ends the conversation and fails to come to any resolution. Example: The stonewalling partner angrily refuses to speak or actively listen to their SO. They turn away from the SO or leave the room and refuse to continue.
What If I Want to Be Happily Married?
If you want to stay in a healthy marriage, find more effective ways to communicate. Here are a few things to do when you sense yourself getting angry with your loved one.
Things to Do When You Get Annoyed with Your Partner
When you’re annoyed with your SO, begin the conversation at a low level of intensity. Don’t begin with an attack. Instead use an “I” statements. Start by explaining how you feel and why you feel that way. Follow it up with what you would like your SO to do. For example, “I’m frustrated by all I have to do. The house is a disaster and the Johnsons are coming over tonight. I need your help picking up the living room.” This skill takes some practice. However, the results are far more productive.
When your SO tells you what’s wrong, stay calm. In your head, coach yourself with de-escalating statements like … “take a deep breath,” “relax,” “I can handle this,” and other helpful phrases. Be aware of the automatic urge to attack in response to a perceived criticism. Instead, ask your SO to be specific about what he or she wants, “What can I do to help?”
When getting upset, close your mouth. The single best thing you can do when you’re angry is wait until later to speak. Why? It buys you time to calm down and thus, to think more clearly. When you are angry, you are far more likely to say something that you later regret. Learn the art of silence. It is powerful. There is a difference between learning constructive silence and stonewalling. Constructive silence means buying yourself time to calm yourself, remain in the conversation and ultimately, speak your truth. Stonewalling is an angry and unilateral end to the conversation.
Take a Timeout
Think of your anger on a ten point scale where 1 is calm and 10 is enraged. If your anger goes above a 5, take a time out. Walk away. Have a rule in your house that anyone can take a time out whenever things get too heated. Agree to come back to the issue later when things have calmed down. It’s always helpful to have a time out rule where anyone can take a break from a disagreement because they are too angry or emotional to continue. Nothing gets resolved if one or both of you are angry. First, reduce any anger, then address the situation. Have an agreement with your SO that if a conversation gets too intense, both of you have permission to take a break with the understanding that you will come back to the conversation shortly to come to an understanding.
Don’t Make Eye Contact for Too Long
Staring at another person when they are angry increases their irritation. Look away. Look at your shoes, the ceiling, the sky or a picture. Give the other person a minute to recompose him- or herself. Keep them in your peripheral vision. Just don’t look directly at them.
Curiosity is a byproduct of empathy, a hallmark of emotional intelligence. The more you care about others, the more curious you are about what drives them and why they feel the way they do. When your SO is getting annoyed, get curious. What are they getting annoyed by? Is there something else underlying their irritation? Hurt perhaps? Hurt over what? Instead of getting defensive, practice staying open and asking questions to get at the emotion underlying their anger.
To summarize, there are 4 behaviors that you want to avoid for a healthy relationship. These include contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness. Rather than get locked in anger with your loved one, practice curiosity, taking a time out to calm down, not making eye contact, practicing silence until you are calmer, using “I” statements and coaching yourself to stay centered.
Photo: By José Serrano from Guayaquil, Ecuador (Exam’s rage) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons