“Most of the time our relationship is good, but when it’s bad…it’s really bad.” I’ve heard similar sentiments from couples over the years. They say they have fun together, share the same humor, enjoy the same things, and really love each other.
Yet, they find themselves on the brink of divorce due to the “when it’s bad its really bad” part of their relationship. More times than not, what they are referring to is how they are managing anger during conflict.
Have you ever had an argument that quickly escalated and days later realized it didn’t have to get that bad? The original thing you were arguing about was not that big of a deal, but how you both chose to handle the argument- the words you said and the intensity of anger you displayed- was what made the situation worse.
Now you are having to recover from more than just the initial disagreement. You can’t take back the words you said, even though you’ve apologized. And you can’t un-hear the words said to you by the person who has promised to love you the most, even if they have also apologized.
How do you manage anger outbursts?
Managing anger during conflict minimizes the collateral damage of the argument. Put it is difficult to hold on to sanity when things get heated.
I am certainly guilty of this as well, and what a shame it is when so much damage is done by words that we don’t even mean.
Conflict is inevitable and is actually a good thing for a relationship, but how do you deal with conflict in a highly emotional situation is what makes the difference between having a successful or detrimental outcome.
Difficulty in managing anger during conflict is what often gets in the way of having a successful outcome, so it’s important to learn how to manage your anger before it adds any further damage.
Here is all you need to know about anger management and conflict resolution-
The key to managing anger during conflict
A wife of a couple I was working with asked me “How can I control my anger during a conversation?”. After several sessions with me she said, “What we learned in counseling saved our marriage.”
Reflecting back on their work in counseling, I realized that it was one specific thing they learned to do that set the rest of their success in motion.
What they learned was how to respectfully and effectively take a time-out.
I believe this is the key to managing anger during conflict. By implementing the time-out, they each were able to calm themselves down, return to the conversation, and reach a mutual understanding much faster (and with less collateral damage) than they would have if they’d let their anger take over.
Additionally, the time-out represented a sense of respect for each other since it communicated an overall desire to prevent further harm to each other and the relationship.
Guidelines for an effective time-out
One of the best things you can do for managing anger during conflict is to recognize when your anger is rising and call a time-out.
There are several reasons for what causes sudden outbursts of anger, but the important thing is to control yourself from speaking to yourself at that moment.
Once you take a time out, you need to do something that will get your mind off of the source of your hurt or anger so that you can calm down, think rationally, and respond with respect and control. Here are some guidelines for managing anger during conflict and helping you implement an effective time-out.
1. Call the time-out for yourself
Don’t tell your spouse they need to take a time-out. Pay attention to yourself and recognize when your anger is rising or when you are beginning to feel overwhelmed. Then call a time-out for yourself.
Communicate that you are feeling overwhelmed and that you need to take a break to calm down. Feel free to come up with a code word or hand signal (make sure it’s a respectful one!) that works for both of you.
Utilizing humor also helps to break the tension, so many couples prefer to choose a funny code word or gesture to signal the need for a time-out.
2. Respect the time-out
If your partner calls a time-out, it’s important that you respect their need for a time-out for managing anger during conflict even if you may not need one at the moment. It can be helpful to view the time-out as a sign that they respect you and don’t want to say or do anything that will hurt you, rather than as a sign of avoidance or abandonment.
3. Be specific about when you will return
It is important to communicate that you are taking a break in order to calm down and become better able to discuss the issue at hand. Otherwise, leaving without explaining why and without stating an intention to return may trigger fears of abandonment within the other person.
This can make it difficult for them to accept the time-out you are needing. Taking a break for at least 30 minutes is recommended.
4. Use your time to intentionally calm down
It can be tempting to stew over the problem while you are taking your break, but if you do this you will only ramp up your negative feelings and will not be able to effectively calm down. You must be intentional about what you do during your time-out for properly managing anger during conflict.
What to do during your time-out
The following are some things you can for calming down and managing anger during conflict when taking a time-out. Do as many or as few activities as you’d like during your break. The goal is to choose something that will distract your mind from the argument and negative thoughts you may be experiencing and engage your mind with something new.
Take a shower or a bath
Intense exercise such as push-ups, jumping jacks, sprints, sit-ups, etc.
Play a game on your phone
Watch TV (just not anything too emotional or intense)
Meditate on Scripture
Progressive muscle relaxation (a gradual tensing and relaxing of the muscles in your body, one at a time starting with your head down to your feet)
Read an interesting book or article
Work on a puzzle
Do yard work
Mindful, relaxed breathing
After you calm your body and mind, it may be helpful to consider some of the following thinking prompts as you prepare to reunite with your spouse.
Put the situation into perspective. Have you faced and come through a more difficult challenge before? Will this matter a month, a year, 5 years from now?
Also watch: What Is a Relationship Conflict?
Look for the grain of truth in your spouse’s perspective.
Visualize yourself acting according to your values and overcoming this successfully and maturely.
Why this works
When we feel overwhelmed during a conflict, we often experience something known as flooding. Flooding is when our bodies reach a state of physiological arousal (increased heart rate, reduced oxygen in the blood, decreased blood supply, etc.), and when this happens we lose the ability to think and respond rationally.
Cloudy or foggy mind
Decreased ability to absorb information
Decreased ability to creatively problem-solve
Reduced ability to listen and empathize
Sound familiar to anyone? No wonder a pleasant conversation is nearly impossible to achieve at this point. Our bodies are shutting down and we are physiologically losing the ability to listen and respond like our normal selves.
What keeps us in this flooded state is our thoughts. Our emotions are directly related to our thoughts, so the more our thoughts loop the more we will feel that emotion.
The truth is, an emotion left alone will naturally run its course in a relatively short amount of time– may be a few to several minutes. The reason we can feel a certain way for hours or even days is because we keep re-firing the emotion with our thoughts.
Taking a time-out and doing the skills and activities listed above will help you distract your mind and create new thoughts, which will result in new emotions or at the very least less intense emotions. Your mind will start working rationally and normally again, which will help you think more clearly, listen and respond to your partner respectfully and honestly, and increase your ability and willingness to problem solve and reach a compromise if needed.
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.
Amanda is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who enjoys working with individuals, couples, and families. She received her undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of Mobile before moving to Atlanta, Georgia where she obtained a Master of Arts Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She has experience in working in a variety of clinical settings including private practice, day treatment centers, and mental health hospitals. Her goal as a counselor is to meet people where they are and help them find freedom in their lives, enjoyment in their relationships, and hope for their future.