Transforming Anger

Written by Naomi Grunditz

How many marriages fall apart because the fighting just won’t stop? What’s worse, those who split up without learning how to deal with anger–their own and others’–will only face the same problems with any new partner down the road. And what will that accomplish, but another broken family? [1]

Psychologist and therapist Dr. Susan Heitler has spent the majority of her life teaching couples how to stop fighting. Because it is possible.  While good communication skills are a huge part in avoiding upsets, I’ve been very drawn to her advice on how to receive and diffuse anger.

Dr. Heilter’s approach relies on a path of self-exploration and skill learning for each individual as well as more traditional problem solving as a couple. It all boils down to the fact that the only person who you have control over is yourself. “If your partner is going to be difficult, that’s his or her choice,” she writes. “It is not your role to control him or her. You alone, however, have the power and the responsibility at every point in your shared dialogue to determine what your contribution will be.”[2]

The greatest contribution you can make to a volatile situation is to not become angry yourself. Here are three tips for receiving anger in a way that de-escalates the situation and sets the stage for valuable problem solving.

1. Don’t take it personally

Spiritual writer and philosopher Eckhart Tolle says that there can be no anger or insult without the ego. The ego is the “little you” that bristles at the hint of any attack to its dominance–anything that threatens its sense of being right. The ego is an expert at interpreting everything as an attack and quickly spinning the story to see itself as a victim. And boy, does it love to fight back!

When your spouse gets angry, especially if it’s about something you had a part in, it’s easy to let your ego rise to the counter-attack. Try to ignore the ego and remember that the nasty words coming from your spouse are really just her/his own angry ego speaking. Keep in mind you are not responsible for your spouse’s anger — each individual is only responsible for his or her own reactions. Therefore, if your spouse is angry, it is not about you — it is about your spouse.

This kind of detachment takes a lot of practice and the more your spouse’s anger involves insults directed at you, the harder it is. But it gets easier every time you try!  Remember, this does not mean you’re to become a doormat or let the problems go.  This merely sets the stage for de-escalation and better problem solving.

2. Listen for information

Anger is useful because it lets you know something is wrong. It is a stop sign that signals it’s time to investigate an issue. Ignoring the ego’s call to fight back and defend yourself leaves your mind free and clear to dig deeper into truth. You can then listen productively to learn about why your partner is upset, instead of focusing on what he/she believes you did wrong.

Listen with compassion. Try to approach the upset like a mystery to be solved.  Looking at it objectively — like putting together a puzzle — can help you from becoming emotionally involved and heating up. Now you can ask questions and use insight to figure out what exactly happened. How did things you did and things your spouse did play a role? What outside factors (bad luck, exhaustion, hunger) contributed?

3. Disengage

Anger is highly contagious. The longer your spouse remains angry, the greater your risk of being drawn into the fire. Therefore, if your presence is not contributing to your spouse’s self-soothing, or you start to feel irritated, disengage. Tell your spouse, “I need a drink of water,” or, “I need some fresh air,” and take a break. Removing yourself physically will help you stay calm and give your spouse time to cool down. Just make sure you come back to the conversation later. Unaddressed problems will only lead to simmering resentment and more anger later on.

One Last Note

Learning to react calmly is a huge part of dissipating anger. After all, it takes two people to have an argument. If your spouse finds he is the only person angry, your partner’s anger will likely soon start to fade. Following your lead he or she will be able to start analyzing and problem solving, and with solid apology skills you’ll find the conflict resolved and your marriage strengthened.

No matter where you are in your marriage — fine, on the rocks, or near divorce — now is the best time to start learning and strengthening these skills. When left unregulated, arguing only tends to get worse, and times of stress make the process for change more difficult. Start now and you will realize that anger masks the fact that you and your spouse are on the same team — and always have been. You are partners. And together, you are capable of solving any problems that come your way.

___________________

[1]Even the most level-headed spouse will get upset once and awhile. Knowing how to receive that anger calmly and practically instead of fighting back will contribute to a happier household. At the same time, an emotionally or physically abusive spouse will not respond to this practice. In fact, how a victim responds to their abuser’s anger — from fighting back to reasoning to withdrawal — has little impact on the abuser’s behavior. If you find yourself in a situation where your spouse’s anger is controlling or hurting you emotionally or physically, it’s best to remove yourself from his or her presence as soon as possible and seek help.

[2] The Power of Two, 1997, New Harbinger Publications, p. 157

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  1. This is a very practical and empowering article, reminiscent of some advice that my beloved spiritual teacher, Swami Bhaktivedanta told me almost 40 years ago. He said “if someone mistreats you because of the color of your skin, that’s their ignorance. And, if you accept it, that’s your ignorance.” For me, these were very liberating words and I’ve learned over the years to take things less and less personal and that while I can’t control another’s behavior, I can control my reaction to it. This instructions, like the suggestions you give above, Naomi have helped in my marriage and in all of my relationships. People need more and more practical, effective tips and tools to have healthy relationships. So we genuinely appreciate your article.

  2. Thank you for your kind words–you’ve given me the best compliments I could hope for. It is so vastly challenging to learn how to not take things personally. Equally hard is finding the balance between when non-engagement and acceptance is appropriate versus when action and change-making is called for.
    I am saddened when I find relationship advice that ignores the individual for the sake of the relationship. Relationships are made of individuals and whatever they do to strengthen, love and collect wisdom themselves, their union will be doubly improved. Working on oneself is not selfish–far from it, when we make ourselves whole and happy, only then can we do real good work for others.
    One of my favorite quotes from the Bible illustrates this wisdom:
    Luke 6:42–How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? First take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

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