I spent a long time reacting to anger rather than actually learning to deal with it healthily. Before I knew how to manage anger, my relationship was centered on the axis of a power struggle. Whoever yells the loudest wins. Whoever gets angrier gets what he or she wants. Finally learning how to deal with both my partner's anger and my own anger has radically changed the quality of our partnership. Here's how I got there.
The Emotional Shift That Saved My Marriage
Dealing with my own anger:
It's easier to say, "I’m angry" than it is to say, "I’m hurt." What's beneath anger, more often than not, is pain.
When he was busy and I felt like he didn’t have time for me, I got angry. I got angry because I was hurt. It brought up the unconscious fear that all men will abandon or reject me. My dad did that; my first boyfriend did that; all my other boyfriends did the same. Why would he be any different? I was hurt, and it brought up the hurt I'd been feeling for decades.
Admitting to being hurt forces us to be vulnerable, which is, in and of itself, an act of trust.
Every time he worked late, I got angry. Every time he worked on the weekend, I got angry. Every time he hid in the room to play games, I got angry. Every time he chose to do something other than spend time with me, I got angry.
Anger is a signal, just like any other emotion. It tells us something is wrong. When we have an open wound that hasn't healed, it doesn’t take much to trigger the pain. Dealing with the anger in the moment is just doing triage—it doesn't address the root cause. I had to look at my decade-old open wound and the fresh new cut together and work on healing both.
I had to remind myself not to misdirect with anger. I had to reach deep into my heart and let myself feel the pain. I had to actually utter the words, "You hurt me when you weren’t there for me. I felt abandoned when you worked on the weekends."
Admitting to being hurt forces us to be vulnerable, which is, in and of itself, an act of trust. Speaking the words aloud is how I could begin taking responsibility and allowing myself to heal from my hurts.
I had to do the same thing on a macro level to heal from my childhood wounds: After 30 years of pain, I finally owned and admitted it: "My dad hurt me when he abandoned me."
It was a simple sentence, but its power was overwhelming.
And, it wasn't a one-and-done experience. I would peel away one layer only to find another beneath it. Now, I'm much quicker to address my emotional wounds, which makes the healing considerably easier. We will never be impenetrable to pain or rejection, but beginning to take ownership of it allows you to feel capable and whole in a way you can't when you refuse to acknowledge your wounds.
Dealing with his anger:
Until I had dealt with my own anger, I couldn't even begin to think about trying to deal with his.
Whenever he got angry, I tried to minimize it. That only made him angrier and always led to some kind of verbal explosion or wall-punching.
It turns out, if he’s not angry at me, I just have to get on his team. And most of the time, his anger isn’t directed at me. It’s anger at other people or situations being spilled out, and I feel it because I’m in the same space. It’s like being in the path of a hurricane. It might not be coming for you, but if you're in its path, you're in trouble.
"Getting on someone's team" in this context means actively listening, offering support, and/or giving advice—depending on what the individual needs in a given moment. It doesn’t matter, in that moment, whether I really understand the problem or not—making him feel heard is all it takes for him to start unwinding.
When he's angry at me, however, it's a whole different ballgame. It feels more like having a revolver pointed directly at me—no question I'm the target of this destructive force.
His anger usually stems from a feeling of being disrespected. In the same way I have to express my feelings of hurt in order to stop feeling angry, he has to express his feelings of being disregarded.
In these situations, the way I "deal with" his anger is just to stay calm and hear him out. I don't do anything or say anything from a place of self-defense or to get a rise out of him; those things are counterproductive. Until the anger has passed, we won't be able to have a safe, healthy conversation about how to avoid that situation in the future.
Someone being angry with you—especially someone you love—can be scary and uncomfortable, and you have to learn how to deal with it. And if it's something you're OK dealing with indefinitely.
If someone's anger ever reaches a point of verbal or physical abuse, know that that is never your fault, nor is it ever something you have to "tolerate." If you're not sure of the definition of an abusive relationship, read more about them here.
In my case, I realized it is something I can deal with. I don't feel abused. My partner feels anger at a different level than I do. While my anger is the size of an ice cube, his is more like the size of an iceberg. By saying nothing, by letting him feel heard, I show him that I respect him.
When it’s all said and done, he feels restored simply because he feels heard. I've shown him that I respect him, even at his worst moments.
No man likes to see a woman cry, just like no woman likes to see a man angry.
(Again, to clarify, I’m not talking about the situations in which someone treats you like a verbal punching bag. In that case, just run. I’m talking about the healthy expression of anger.)
Anger is a valid emotion, and everyone expresses it differently. An emotionally authentic relationship includes anger. That's just the way it goes. Learning how to deal with your anger and your partner's anger can truly make the difference between a relationship that lasts and one that dissolves.