E29: Anger in Relationships: Is There a Cure?
Updated: Sep 30, 2022
Today we're going to be talking about anger in relationships. Not having emotions is not helpful in a relationship. But being able to experience your emotions in a healthy way is what is good for a relationship. And mindfulness can play a huge part here because mindfulness allows us to experience our emotions in a healthy way. For example, we are more aware of our emotions. Mindfulness helps us be able to tolerate our emotions. For example, without mindfulness, we can get triggered into fight or flight. Mindfulness helps us be more aware of the thoughts associated with our emotions, which can be a huge game changer.
Mindfulness can also help us become aware of what experts call blends of emotions. For example, a primary emotion of hurt is masked by a secondary emotion of anger. So that would be a blend--the hurt, and the anger, blend. And when we're in conflict, being mindful of how we are blending these emotions is really key. I refer to primary emotions as heart emotions. And the secondary emotions would be mental emotions, because there's so much logic and thinking that's wrapped up in these secondary emotions.
But we can't say that we can't get angry because it's human. Anger is a human emotion. It's a natural response in a lot of situations. From an evolutionary perspective, the purpose of anger is to push a person to take an action to survive physically. Same thing for rumination--we've evolved to ruminate. To keep us safe, we've evolved to have negative bias to keep us safe. We've been evolved to experience anger. One way to look at it is that it's possible that our society has evolved faster than our brain have been able to keep up with it. So we're using a brain that was designed for 1000 years ago, maybe we can use mindfulness to overcome this lapse in evolution in our in our brain.
When you said some of our thinking is 1000 years old. Sometimes I feel like my thinking is 10,000 years old.
You're operating on a 10,000 year old designed to brain?
Have an early hominid brain, it just never, never went into the next level of evolution.
Not true, but joke accepted!
The problem with anger is it is usually devaluing. We are either devaluing ourselves, or we're often devaluing another person. And that's when anger becomes destructive, difficult, hurtful. Devaluing is thinking or saying something that insinuates that the other person is lesser of a person or that we are lesser of a person because of what happened. It’s important to think about the way it's perceived. We might not consciously think this person is lesser of a person, but what we say might reflect that.
A devaluing statement might be, “I would never do that.” That could be interpreted as devaluing. It might be interpreted as there must be something wrong with you, because you did that. Another devaluing statement could be, “I can't believe you did that” which could be interpreted as there must be something wrong with you, because you did that. “Are you kidding me,” that can also be interpreted in that way. “Whatever,” that could be interpreted as, what you're saying or doing has no value to me.
“It's none of your business.” That could be interpreted as I don't value enough to share this with you. “I'm done talking about this.” That could be devaluing because it could be interpreted as I don't value you enough to continue this conversation. The silent treatment, removing yourself from the situation can also be interpreted as devaluing for the same reason--I don't value you enough to continue this conversation. That's a fine line because some of us need to separate ourselves to process through our anger. And I totally support that. To avoid that coming across, as “I don't value enough to continue this conversation “ say, “I do value you, I do value, our relationship, I just need this time to process through my emotions, on my own.”
Be careful of cliche statements. A lot of the statements that we say in anger are often cliches, that's a boundary that you can set with yourself, or maybe that's a boundary that you can talk to your partner about. For example, “Let's stay away from cliche statements, let's say in our own words, maybe it'll come across better, maybe it'll give us pause, to reflect on what we're saying.”
When I met my wife, I felt like for the first time in my life, I was in a mutual, respected, mature relationship. But with that being said, a lot of your stuff is going to come up basically, right, a lot of your conditioning and things. We had to learn how to argue with one another, which sounds silly to somebody.
I ended up going to therapy, and then read a few different books. And that was kind of my process and then meditating a lot. And it's still an ongoing thing. And I still have to go back and reread books, I need to go back and listen to “Nonviolent Communication” again, which by the way, that book was absolutely pivotal.
When I first went to therapy, one of the first things I had to work on was just how to even identify my emotions, because the only emotion I knew I had was anger and maybe sadness and happiness. There was a lot of subtlety there that I had no awareness of whatsoever of like, I'm feeling confused, or conflicted. Or I'm feeling anxious, I'm feeling shame. I'm feeling regret. I didn't have any of those subtle emotions. And that is a language. Literally, it was like I was speaking in new language.
My wife's amazing. And she recognized I was trying to get out what I was feeling specifically. But that was very intense, I felt like a little kid, it was very intimidating. But once I started to get better at communicating what I was feeling specifically when we were having a conversation, I could meet myself where I was, and not be like, I'm so mad at myself for not being able to handle this better right now.
My wife needs space when there is conflict. I grew up seeing once the family gets in the fire, we stay here till it cools down. We do not leave, we stay with this argument until it is done. And she came from a family who got some space, and then came back. Her backstory about her way of arguing provided me a lot of compassion for her in those moments.
So it sounds like a good tip based on your experience is when things are calm, to have discussions about why do you argue in the way that you do? Is it because of your family dynamics in your past? Is it because of past trauma? Is it because of your beliefs systems? Why is it that you argue in the way that you do? And I think that when you have those discussions in a calm state, then when the arguments come up, you have the understanding and compassion for the other person, for why they are reacting the way they are?
My definition of compassion is different than the normal definition. But my definition of compassion is not wanting to devalue yourself in your thinking, and not wanting somebody else to feel devalued. When we come to the situation with that mindset, it completely changes the way that we're going to approach the situation. A homeless person, for example, what can I do to help that person feel valued? Maybe eye contact, maybe a short conversation, it doesn't always have to be money. And then when you are in a relationship remembering, “I don't want to get my point across in a way where the other person is going to feel devalued.” So that's a really great way to bring compassion into the relationship.
Can we be angry without devaluing? Is that possible?
For me, it was all about learning to communicate clearly and say things like, “I'm experiencing anger right now. I'm having anger because of this thing.”
“I” statements are probably one of the most common ways that we can learn how to express our anger without being devaluing. But the problem with that is it only works if you're with someone who can process and understand “I” statements. Some people struggle--it doesn't really register or bring the conversation to a better place.
If you can help somebody else identify their feelings and needs, you can actually help them get to the bottom of what they're saying. If they say something like, “I am pissed at you.” Okay, well, why are you pissed? What's happening? Well, because you didn't do the thing that I asked. Okay, so you, you wanted me to do the thing that you asked me to do? And I forgot it? Yes. So you have a need for me to hear you and then do the thing that you asked me to do in a timely manner. And I did not do that. Correct. You did not do what I asked you to do?
You can dig down and then hear what the other person is really saying, “Now I realized that you have a need to feel like you're important in my life that I actually listen, when you say something, and it doesn't just fly past my head.”
What you're talking about is a perfect example of being aware of these blended emotions. So we have this secondary emotion of anger, because the other person isn't doing what was asked. And then you have this primary emotion of feeling insignificant, not important. That's the primary emotion. And that's why it's so helpful in relationships to get to that primary emotion, because that's really what it's about.
When you can come to understanding on that level, it's going to be so much more effective, which is what you're sharing.
Going back to what I was saying about the problem with the “I” statements is you need to be with somebody who can process that kind of language. When I was married, that was a problem because I would use that type of language, I would approach things in a calm manner. But nothing was being changed. Nothing was coming out of it. But he did respond to anger. It got to the point where I was consciously getting angry. That can be a drawback.
Another drawback is logic. We all have our own logic. Logic is unique. And so our logic can conflict with someone else's logic. Some couples have similar logic, because maybe they have the same religion, or they share the same code of ethics. Maybe they were brought up in a similar upbringing. But I wouldn't say that this is the norm for the most part, couples come together with very different beliefs about what should happen. Logic is--if this happens, then this should happen. Or if this happens, then this shouldn't happen. It's very conditional. When you have two people who are angry and they're operating on conflicting logic, you're never going to solve the situation because your logic just doesn't match up. There's no way to overcome it unless somebody's willing to change their logic.
Can you give an example of that?
Let's go with your example. You have someone who is asking their partner to do a chore such as the dishes and you've asked them repeatedly to do it. And the person isn't coming through. The one person's logic is, if your spouse asks you to do something around the house, then you do it in a matter of 12 hours. That's their logic, right. And the other person's logic is, if a spouse is asked to do something around the house, I have about three or four days to get to that. And if I have a very long list of things I need to do for my job, then I actually get excused from that chore.
The logic is conflicting. So if you're both in an anger place, then you're not going to be able to get through it. Because your logic is gridlocked. You're stuck. So the remedy for that is bringing yourself out of the logic place. Anger operates on logic, the reason you got angry was because of the logic. If you move into the heart level, this person feels like “I'm not prioritized, I'm not important in the other person's life.” That's not based on logic, that's just something of the heart that could be based on past trauma that could be based on just human genuine emotions. When you're both in that place with those deep human genuine emotions, then you're not operating in logic anymore, you're operating in true genuine feelings. And so you transcend the conflict of logic.
What are the steps that we're going to take to move into more of a heart place?
Here's a process that couples can use to move through this. C.A.R.E. This is how you can show care for yourself. And it's also how you can show care for your partner during conflict.
CARE for Yourself
The C stands for checking in: you take a moment to check in what is this about what emotions are coming up here for me? How am I feeling? What's on my mind?
The A stands for awareness: mindfulness of devaluing thoughts you might be thinking about yourself during this experience.
The R stands for reflection: reflection on a deeper emotion. If you're feeling angry, asking yourself what's underneath this, “I'm feeling misunderstood,” or might be “I'm feeling crushed, or I feel let down or I'm feeling powerless.” Look at the Emotional Clusters tool. The third page of the tool lists the emotions that are the deeper emotions. So you would print that out when you're feeling angry, upset, frustrated, blaming, resentful, then turn to that third page and ask yourself, which one of these emotions is this really about?
The E stands for empathy or validation. Validate yourself. If you are feeling misunderstood take a moment to say to yourself,” it's understandable that I'm feeling this way. Because I wasn't able to get out all of that I was hoping to share with my partner.”
CARE for Your Partner
Checking in: checking in with your partner, noticing that maybe they're a little bit off, something's going on that can be so helpful to creating that trust and that support.
Awareness: Be mindful of what devaluing thoughts you might have about your partner. And also being mindful of what you're speaking. And how those words might be interpreted as being devaluing. This is the step where you're really focused on holding yourself accountable to not be devaluing.
Reflection: Take a moment to reflect on yourself. Maybe you grab Emotional Clusters to see which deeper emotion is under the anger. Then, if you're in a safe space, and then share this with your partner.
Empathy: Empathy can be really difficult to access when you're in heated arguments. And that's okay. Empathy isn't something that you can will to happen, it's something that just happens more naturally and might happen or might not. Validation, on the other hand, is a mental process, it's of the intellect, we can will ourselves to validate the other person. And so what we do in that scenario is the person shares a deep emotion (i.e, I feel let down), then their partner finds some reason why that person might feel let down, it might not align with their own logc. The reason doesn't even have to be the correct reason that the person feels let down. However, coming us with a reason and say it is understandable that you feel this way, is validating. This validation goes directly to your partner's inner child, because that's what the inner child wants, it wants to be validated, he/she wants to know it's reasonable that their having this reaction.
This process can take down the intensity quite a bit. It takes training, this isn't something that you can just hear about, or maybe read a little bit about. And the next day do this. It takes training, to learn how to become aware of your devaluing thoughts towards yourself, and your devaluing words, during an anger episode. Additionally, the reflection part takes training, that one's a little bit easier if you print out the tool, and you look at the deeper emotions, that is something to some degree you could do on your own. But it does help to have training. The validation part takes training. I spend quite a bit of time with my clients, teaching them how to validate themselves for their emotional experience, and how to validate their partners for their emotional experiences. This is not a natural process, I really need to work with clients to learn how to do this, it's can be such a struggle, especially for men. No fault to the men, it's just the culture has made it “not reasonable” for men to have these emotions.
It's really hard sometimes to get my male clients to a place where they can say to themselves, “It's understandable that I'm feeling let down. It's understandable that I'm feeling crushed.” But so healing. So this process that I shared, CARE, it's not meant to solve all the problems. What it is, is it brings everything down to a lower intensity. So you can get to a place where you feel safe with each other. So then you can work it out.
When I work with couples, I work with each person individually for four sessions before I will meet with them together. Each person learns the CARE process for themselves first. And then once they're together, then I'm coaching them to be able to validate one another to be able to become aware of what they're speaking and how it might be come across as devaluing.
Mobile Mindfulness Intervention on an Acute Psychiatric Unit: Feasibility and Acceptability Study JMIR Mental Health; 2017
Intensive Mindfulness-based Resilience Training in First Responders: A Pilot Study
Health Behavior and Policy Review; 2021
Episode Transcript will be posted at a later date.