Do you feel as though you are always angry at your partner? Do you feel as though your partner is always angry at you? Do you question why you are often fighting about mundane issues? What you or your partner are experiencing may not be anger. Anger often masks more vulnerable emotions that are difficult to both identify and express.
The case of Katie and John
For example, John tells Katie that he will not be able to take her out for dinner as he had promised. He was asked to stay late at work again to attend an important meeting. Katie gets angry when she hears this and hangs up the phone. She hardly ever gets to spend alone time with John and was really looking forward to this night. She believes that he is always prioritizing his work. John feels anger towards Katie because she doesn’t understand the pressures he faces at work. He keeps a job he doesn’t enjoy to provide for her and the family. They stay angry at each other for a few days until they eventually sweep it under the rug. Unfortunately, because nothing has been resolved, the same argument presents itself again…and again…and again. Each time they argue, the distance between them starts to grow and their lack of understanding, compassion, and empathy for the other’s person’s stance takes a toll on their relationship.
Breaking it down
Was it actually anger that Katie was experiencing? Was John really angry at Katie? Or was there something else underlying these strong emotions? When we look a little closer, we can identify what may have been hiding under the mask of anger. Katie was feeling rejected, hurt, and unimportant. Maybe she was even feeling scared that she was losing John and the connection they once had. If Katie could have identified and expressed these emotions to John, maybe John could have reassured her and it could have brought the two closer together. If she was able to express these more vulnerable emotions, John would have been more likely to empathize with his partner. He would then be able to comfort her which could have created an opportunity to bond and build attachment. Unfortunately, Katie was quick to react and respond with the protective emotion of anger.
John also missed the chance to identify and express his more vulnerable emotions. John was hurt because he felt unappreciated for his hard work. He also believed he was disappointing Katie which brought up feelings of sadness. If he could have shared this with Katie, she would most likely respond with compassion. Instead they have built walls to protect themselves.
This is often what happens when we are experiencing anger. It protects us but it also shuts the other person out. We are no longer a team with our partner which turns them into the enemy. It is difficult to express our vulnerability because there is often the fear that the person we are being vulnerable with may not respond in a way that we need or want. Unfortunately, we are never giving that person a chance when we shut them out with anger.
Changing the pattern
So how can we correct this when we have used anger as a tool to hide our more vulnerable emotions for so long. For starters, take a moment. Ask yourself:
- What am I really feeling?
- What triggered this feeling?
- Could there be another emotion hiding underneath this more obvious emotion?
- Am I feeling rejected? Unappreciated? Unimportant?
If any of these are true, perhaps you are feeling sad or hurt. Maybe you are feeling scared that your partner is slipping away. Maybe this is what should be expressed to your partner. Your partner can respond to sadness, hurt, or fear more effectively than your partner can respond to anger. This gives space for your partner to apologize, reassure, or comfort you in a way you need. When we explain that we are sad, hurt, or scared we are asking for our partner to come closer. When we get angry, we are pushing our partner away. This may be exactly the opposite of what we need in that moment.
Learning to communicate
It is important to learn tools to express yourself in a way that is neither an attack nor defense. Communication tools, such as the “I statement” and starting your statement with empathy, can help your partner understand and receive what you have said.
For example, Katie could have said:
“I understand how difficult your job is but I feel sad when we don’t have alone time. Sometimes I feel scared that we don’t have the time to connect like we used to.”
John could have responded:
“I can see that you are disappointed but I have to attend this important meeting. Why don’t we make sure to have a night with just the two of us this weekend? It is also important to me that we have alone time together.”
This reassures both partners and allows for a solution to the perceived problem.
Bottom line, first identify what the underlying emotion is and then learn tools to express that to your partner.