When working with couples in therapy, I’m sometimes struck by how reactive people can be to each other’s anger. Some couples find it virtually impossible to allow each other to be angry. Soon, both people are so busy defending themselves that nobody is able to listen to what is being said.
I’m sure we’ve all experienced something like this in our own relationships. Unless we happened to have had excellent relationship role models, many of us get stuck in unhelpful and frustrating patterns where we attack and defend, but seldom really communicate.
What is so threatening about angry feelings? Why do we feel we must defend ourselves when someone is angry, rather than simply acknowledging that person’s feelings and trying to understand what went wrong?
I think many of us are afraid of anger because there are so few places in today’s world where it can be safely expressed. We can’t be angry at work, school, in a plane, on a train, or in any public gathering place. We punish and discourage healthy expressions of anger in order to avoid embarrassment and because of our collective anxieties about violence. We actively avoid confrontation, and many of us are only comfortable communicating angry feelings through indirect, passive-aggressive means – something made much easier by social media. With anger being such a taboo, how can we reasonably expect to know how to tolerate it in our relationships?
Whether or not we like it, we’re stuck with anger. It’s hard-wired into us. Even if we could banish anger from the human genome, would we want to? Anger tells us what we care about. It’s nature’s way of motivating us to take action.
Anger inevitably shows up in our most important relationships because that’s where we often have the most at stake. When we learn to stop treating anger as a problem and instead treat it as an important and valuable sign that we have some skin in the game, it becomes easier to accept both our own angry feelings and the angry feelings of our partner. Anger is basically a way of saying, “I care.” That doesn’t mean we should give ourselves permission to be cruel or destructive. Anger can be expressed in healthy and productive ways that actually bring people closer rather than driving them apart.
The next time you and your partner have a disagreement, try acknowledging your partner’s anger instead of going straight to the defensive. Maybe say something like, “I hear that you’re angry about…. I’m angry, too.” The simple act of acknowledging and accepting anger can go a long way toward helping you both to really communicate.
To read more about how to communicate effectively when angry, see this article, posted by Dr. Ettensohn on Examiner.com
Sometimes you have to get angry to get things done.”
– Ang Lee