As a relationship therapist, I receive many questions from my clients regarding how to manage an angry partner.
What do you do when your partner gets angry? Do you get angry back, or shut down and withdraw, or give yourself up, or freeze?
In this article, I’m referring to the common anger that we all sometimes express. I’m not referring to physical abuse, or to verbal or psychological abuse such as name-calling, threatening, insults, gaslighting, or to a partner isolating you. When abuse is occurring, you need to leave.
But if you're dealing with common, everyday anger, there are ways to tap into your evolved brain rather than getting trapped in your lizard brain.
Here are three questions clients have asked me about how to deal with their partner's anger, and my advice to help each of them love themselves and their partner during difficult situations:
1. On making boundaries:
"Dear Dr. Paul, I feel like sometimes we all get angry and the anger needs compassion. For instance, if my spouse is angry or frustrated, I am compliant because I understand that he suffers. But I often feel that he is gradually losing respect for me because I "lack backbone." How do we know when we need the courage to get angry as well, versus having compassion and seeing his point of view?"
In this situation with her husband, Anna sees only a few options: to give herself up, to have compassion and see his point of view, or to get angry back. But instead of appreciating her compliance or compassion, her husband is losing respect for her, so this clearly isn’t working for her.
So, what should she do instead?
Yes, we all get angry at times, but it’s very important to understand and accept that when we are angry, we are not operating from our higher brain. Instead, we are stuck in our lower mind, our amygdala, the seat of our fight-or-flight mechanism. And when we are in fight-or-flight, we can’t hear or understand the other person. So Anna’s husband can’t take in her compassion when he’s angry. And like a child who is acting out and loses respect for a parent whom he or she can manipulate, her husband is losing respect for her when she doesn't take loving care of herself in the face of his anger at her.
Anna needs to let go of trying to control her husband’s anger by being "nice" and instead focus on taking loving care of herself, which would mean disengaging as soon as he gets angry and re-engaging when he’s calm.
2. On taking responsibility for another's anger:
"When someone is angry at me, why do I put myself down for being imperfect or not good enough and imagine that they hate me and are disappointed in me? Why do I want to be so perfect?"
Haley wants to believe that by being perfect she can have control over others not getting angry at her, and she also wants to believe that by telling herself she isn’t good enough, she will motivate herself to be "perfect." As long as she is operating from these false beliefs, she will abandon herself rather than love herself when someone is angry at her. Again, loving herself would mean disengaging from the angry person rather than judging herself.
3. On staying present during emotional stress:
"My parents were rage-aholics. As an adult I have difficulty dealing with anyone who is angry or excessively aggressive because I flood and essentially 'leave.' Typically, I am unable to speak. How can I help myself to calm down and deal with the situation?"
This is a challenge that many of us who were raised by an angry parent face. Some form of trauma therapy (EFT-Emotional Freedom Technique; EMDR-Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing; TRE-Trauma Release Exercises; or SE-Somatic Experiencing) might help, but again, the best thing to do is to disengage. Trying to speak when feeling frozen is not possible, and even remembering to disengage might be very hard when you are feeling traumatized.
The best thing to do in the face of another’s anger is to honor your nervous system and take care of yourself. As stated above, when anger becomes routinely abusive, you may need to consider leaving the relationship or at least separating in order to get out of range of the abuse so that you can determine what is most loving.
Getting angry back, giving yourself up, or shutting down and withdrawing are all ways of abandoning yourself. Disengaging for a brief time to let things cool down, keeping your heart open, and then re-engaging is the best way to love to yourself, no matter what.
Want more insight on whether your relationship is healthy and the reasons it might not be? Check out these seven signs you’ve found the one and learn how to rewire your brain to have a more secure attachment style.