Because you always have a choice.
Think about the last time you were angry with your partner.
Did you feel it in your body? Did your heart speed up, your head pound, and your ears start to ring? Did you wonder how it was possible for someone you love so much to make you so incredibly mad?
Now think about how you responded to that anger.
If you’re like most people, you did one of two things: you either lashed out and picked a huge fight, or you swallowed it back and tried to just forget about it.
The first option can feel extremely satisfying in the moment, but do lasting damage to your relationship – not to mention making you feel terrible and forcing you to request forgiveness for losing your temper later (even if you were justifiably angry and absolutely in the right). But the second option is even worse, leaving you seething – nursing a grudge that will never go away, and will subtly insert itself into every conversation you have until it’s finally aired out, possibly in more explosive fashion than if you’d just had it out in the first place.
So, what’s the right thing to do when you’re furious with your partner?
As usual, the right thing to do is also the hardest thing to do. The hardest, and also the simplest: be kind.
Time and time again, marriage therapists and relationship experts have found being kind to your partner is the biggest indicator of whether or not your relationship will thrive. Love researcher and author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman has identified four common attitudes he says are the hallmarks of a marriage that’s headed for disaster: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The thing they all have in common? Unkindness. All four of them are different ways of running your partner down, making them feel unimportant, and refusing to acknowledge their needs.
But how can you be kind to someone you want to throttle? Someone who makes you so mad, you want to hurl dishes across the room? Who clearly doesn’t deserve your kindness, or for anything good to happen to them, ever again?
Gottman’s wife, Dr Julie Gottman, who’s also the cofounder and clinical director of the Gottman Institute, says being kind doesn’t mean holding our anger back. Rather, she explains, “kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and angry, and that’s the kinder path.”
In other words, you’ve got to put on your big girl panties and have a calm, respectful conversation, spelling out exactly why you’re mad. This is much less fun than smashing things and screaming, but also much better for your relationship.
So why is it so hard to be open and honest with our partners when we’re angry? Maybe it’s because underneath that fury usually lies a fair bit of vulnerability. Anger is often a cover for hurt feelings and disappointment – the feeling that we aren’t being seen by our partner, or that we aren’t loved the way we want to be. Maybe our partner doesn’t have to be our best friend, but they should still be our friend. They should be on our side when the chips are down; a person we can pour our hearts out to, who offers us love and understanding. But when we’re hurt, disappointed, or angry, it’s hard to feel like the person who made us feel that way is on our side, much less that they’re our pal.
Give the signal
When your anger feels like a runaway train and you just don’t know how to summon any kindness for your partner, the Gottmans recommend giving yourself a break. That heart-pounding, fist-clenching anger is a sign you’re emotionally flooded. Being flooded is a physiological response, and when you’re in its grip, nothing constructive can happen. Essentially, you’ve got to call a ‘time out’ until you calm down.
It’s a good idea to come up with a signal – either a phrase or a hand gesture (think Ross and Rachel’s classic ‘screw you’ fist clash from Friends) – that you both understand to mean you need a break, and can use in the heat of the moment, before things start to really escalate. If it’s something silly that will lighten the mood, all the better.
Then, give yourself a good half hour or so to calm down (Gottman says it takes at least 20 minutes for your body chemistry to return to normal once you’re ‘flooded’), and do something to soothe yourself during that time. Take a walk, do some yoga, write in your journal, practice mindfulness exercises – whatever brings your heart rate down.
Once you’re feeing better, consider doing something together that will solidify your friendship, before you hash out your conflict. Go have dinner (never fight hungry!), or maybe head to the bedroom and reconnect that way. Remember, it’s easier to talk over problems with a friend than an enemy, so make a conscious choice to nurture friendship and intimacy, even when you’re upset with one another.
And don’t only practice kindness when you’re trying to subvert your anger. Make a habit of it. Take five minutes every morning to think of little things you can do to make your partner’s life easier. (Here are a few more things you can do to nurture your relationship, while you’re at it.) Build a foundation of love, trust, and kindness, and it’ll be easier to work through your anger when it pops up – as it will from time to time, in even the healthiest of relationships.
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