It’s not a surprise that many of the couples I see in my practice come in angry with each other. I am always glad they they came in, because anger, if not properly expressed, can ruin a relationship. My job is to reach the feelings underneath the anger, and help each partner be vulnerable enough to share these with the other, giving them an opportunity to respond in a way that connects them.
This is not easy. However, it is the best way I know to avoid ending a relationship that does not need to end–a relationship that may have several wonderful things going for it!
Let’s face it–we all get angry at times. Anger is not the enemy, but the reality I see is that few people actually feel genuine anger and express it at the time they are feeling it. Instead, they find themselves acting out of aggression or rage, both of which are behaviors and not feelings, according to Anita Avedian, LMFT, author of Anger Management Essentials. These behaviors are also, unfortunately, destructive and sometimes deadly.
So what do we do? Well, the first step is recognizing what anger is, and what it isn’t, and looking at which you are doing in your relationship(s). The next step is learning and practicing expressing healthy anger, while acting to stop aggression and rage before they ever get going. This can take weeks of work, but I am happy to share the basics with you in this article. So when is anger okay?
THIS IS NOT ANGER: Anger is an emotion that is not valued properly. Healthy anger is basically about letting someone know that something is not right, because you are feeling upset with them. For the receiver, this is good to know! But what often happens is that we equate anger with aggression, which is not a feeling at all, as I mentioned above, but instead a behavior.
Avedian writes that aggression is “an abusive was of behaving verbally, emotionally or physically”. Sound familiar? I see this in the world and in relationships everyday. The reason this is not anger is because anger’s intention is to let someone know important information about your boundaries and triggers. Aggression, however, has no intention of letting anyone know anything–the goal of aggression is to hurt the other person.
Rage is another behavior that can, according to Avedian, result even in death. “Rage”, she writes, “is a response to a threat to pride, status, or dignity.” Its intention is to “control or silence the other”. When you read about a murder/suicide, it is most likely the result of rage. Both aggression and rage occur because we are too often discouraged from feeling anger, as though the feeling itself is the problem instead of what triggered it.
THIS IS ANGER: So how do we feel and express anger in way that is healthy to both us and the receiver? First of all, we have to even know that it is there–we need to be tuned in to our emotional world enough to know when we are feeling upset about something. Our bodies help us to do this. When I get upset, I notice my heart rate increasing, my face getting flushed, my attention sharpening. Noticing what happens in your body will help you to recognize anger before it turns into aggression or rage. As Avedian says, anger is “a signal, or alarm, that something is not right, that we don’t feel okay about what we’re observing.”
When you notice feeling upset about something that someone is doing, the best way to express this upset is to use an emotion tied to a person and an event. It might look like this: “I am hurt that you didn’t return my phone call for two days.” Why is this okay? Because there is no judgement in the statement about what the other person was thinking or doing–the statement just includes what happened (the call was not returned for two days). While this approach won’t guarantee that the receiver won’t get defensive, it has the best chance of being responded to in a caring way. That is healthy anger, and when expressed well it can lead to positive change.
We get angry at people we love–it is part of being human and in relationship. In my experience working with couples and individuals, I observe that most anger comes from feeling not understood, disrespected, or not cared about. Anger in these cases is a notice to the other that something is lacking, NOT a notice that they are necessarily doing anything wrong. Most couples never intend to hurt their partners, but sometimes we do. If the hurt is expressed in a healthy way, we can respond to it in a way that increases connection, safety, and trust. This is why anger is not a bad thing.
If you want to practice this in your relationships, use these tips:
- Start paying attention to the messages your body sends you when you get upset.
- Address the anger as soon as possible instead of letting it smolder.
- Talk about what you are feeling, not what you think the other is feeling.
- Turn any statement you have about the other into a question for them to answer.
- Show curiosity about their intentions instead of assuming that you know what they are.
If you are mindful to practice the above steps, you may see a shift in how you feel about both conflict and your loved ones. You will learn that at times, anger is okay!