Anger is a volatile, sometimes violent emotion that can arise in a variety of settings, but nowhere else can anger be so devastating as when it arises during a moment of impassioned conflict with the one you love. Unchecked anger can turn an otherwise kind, connected, loving relationship into a veritable war zone.
“I hate you!” “I don’t know why I married you!” “You miserable slob!” “I’m so mad I can’t even stand to look at you right now!” “You think YOU’RE mad! You haven’t even SEEN angry yet, you jerk!”
If you’ve ever been the hurler of such verbal grenades, then you know how easy it can be to get swept up when the whooping war-cry of anger is sounding off in your mind, even despite your best intentions to remain calm.
You’re probably also familiar with the emotional carnage left behind once the battle is over. Words of anger—often triggered by a sense of injustice or misunderstanding—lobbed viciously across the battlefield with reckless abandon, have the potential to do more damage to your relationship in a single breath than months of cumulative day-to-day stress could ever do.
In a moment of intense anger, it is almost impossible for us to look at the cause of our distress and still see the awesome, caring, amazing person that we fell in love with. Instead, in that moment, sheer survival instinct prompts us to see an adversary, an outside entity who is causing us PAIN, and we want to do whatever we can to make the pain stop. Oftentimes, just like animals in the wild will attempt to claw and tear at whatever is attacking them, that means that we lash out at the perceived “attacker,” the source of our pain.
Anger Never Equals Conflict Resolution
Ultimately, however, the knee-jerk counterattack that we launch at our partners is often laden with hurtful statements that we don’t really mean and that many times are not even remotely relevant to what the true problem at hand is. Ever wonder why nothing ever seems to get resolved or solved in a moment of anger? The explosion of verbal grenades all around us creates a heavy smokescreen, beneath which the true issue behind the conflict, the actual thoughts and feelings that need to be discussed and dealt with, are completely hidden.
A Dangerous Cycle
Anger also tends to generate more anger, as it undermines your partner’s sense of safety and security in your relationship, and may thus trigger them to launch their own counter-counterattack. This cycle is easy to get trapped in, and it can wreak incredible emotional havoc. Because just like you can’t unring a bell, hurtful words can’t be unsaid, and apologies after-the-fact often don’t erase the damage done. Attempting to rebuild a loving, connected relationship in the wake of such a battle often requires significant effort.
How to Break the Cycle
For many people, learning to understand and manage their own anger can be the thing that makes all the difference in achieving long-term relationship satisfaction. There are a multitude of different anger-management techniques out there, of course, easy enough to find in a simple internet search, some involving counting and some involving breathing and numerous other things. Different techniques work better for different people, but one important aspect of implementing any anger-management technique in your relationship is to agree ahead of time with your partner on an acceptable anger exit strategy that each of you can use when the heat of your own anger gets too hot.
Be Your Own Anger Bomb Squad
It may help to think of tackling the task of managing your anger like you’re handling a dangerous, ticking bomb. You can’t just shove it away or ignore it, because it needs to be dealt with as soon as possible, before it explodes. More importantly, any bomb-defusing attempts need to be conducted in a safe space where innocent civilians won’t be harmed by an accidental detonation.
This is where your anger exit strategy comes in. When you feel that moment of anger, turn to your anger exit strategy. Take the anger bomb somewhere safe, somewhere away from your partner, where you can defuse or release that anger bomb in whatever way works best for you (maybe by going on a long run, getting in a good workout at the gym, taking a walk in the park, having a heart-to-heart talk with a close friend, hanging out in a pleasant social setting, doing an hour of yoga, practicing some deep meditative breathing, or listening to music).
Planning Your Anger Exit Strategy
What does an anger exit strategy look like? It’s essentially a calm, preplanned alternative to blowing up or storming off wordlessly. For instance, you and your partner might agree on a simple, easy codeword that you can say to one another that communicates, all at once:
“I need you to know that I’m feeling angry right now, and I’m not saying it’s your fault even though I might feel like blaming you right now, and even though I might not be able to verbalize my love and respect for you right now, please know that I still love and respect you, and because I love and respect you and want to honor your love and respect for me, I need to take a time-out from this conversation to cool off, and thank you in advance for respecting me by respecting my need for a time-out.”
Yes, that’s a mouthful indeed, and it’s a mouthful that most of us are simply unable to get out in a moment of anger, because our brains are operating on a totally different, much more survival-based, instinctive level. “Hey, honey… umm… codeword waterfall, okay?” on the other hand, tends to come out a lot easier, even when we’re seeing red.
Be a Relationship Boy Scout (or Girl Scout)!
Emergency preparedness is just as important when it comes to nurturing your relationship as it is when it comes to riding out natural disasters. Plan out your anger exit strategies and stock up on anger defusing tools now. Protect the sanctity of your den of love; don’t let it turn into a battleground.
Want to have a happier, healthier marriage?
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
More by Trish Alderman