Anger outbursts can rip apart the fabric of a healthy relationship until both partners no longer feel safe or desire to be intimate. It is important to understand that there is a difference between the use and expression of healthy anger, and an angry outburst which is like emotional dumping. Anger is a natural, normal human emotion, but we need to learn how to have and handle it in a mature and loving manner.
A healthy communication of anger might begin with taking responsibility for your own emotional state. It often starts with an “I need” statement. It expresses your personal truth and is a request for a specific behavior to satisfy a basic need you have. An example might be “I need to study for my test tomorrow, and I need some quiet.” Or “I need you to take what I am saying seriously.”
The person making these statements may have intensity and even anger when they say them, but they are mature, responsible communications. They do not berate the other person. They do not call names or blame the other person for what you are feeling. They do not assign character judgments or negative roles to the other person.
Anger problems, on the other hand, often start with “you” statements. They accuse the other person of being something negative, or of always doing something you don’t like. Anger outbursts send both people into opposite and oppositional corners. Over time this turns into roles in the relationship that may be hard to crawl out of or change.
How Roles Ruin Relationships
We'd Have a Great Relationship it if Weren't for You! That is the name of an extremely insightful book by Dr. Bruce Derman and Michael Hauge. Dr. Derman talks about how much couples have invested themselves in what he calls "The Difference Game." These are all the ways in which one person is either "better" or "worse" than the other. In this game we have a whole list of "er" words, which cause emotional "emergencies." They can really ruin our chance at having happiness together. Many anger outbursts involve calling somebody with a word ending in “er,” or assigning them a role.
What are these deadly "er" words? One person is sexier, or neater, kinder, smarter, more responsible, etc. And, if one person is more "er" than the other, than of course the "other" partner has to be less sexual, or less neat, less kind, less smart, less responsible, etc.
These labels are more than verbal traps. They keep people stuck in their respective roles of "more" or "less" of a given quality. It now becomes "a position." As in: "I'm the together one, you're always a basket case," etc.. Then, these positions become familiar (or even comfortable) and habit forming. The person becomes (perhaps unconsciously) attached to their role. After all this time, and reinforcement, at least they know they can play "dumber" or "smarter" very well. But if these roles become fixed they erode flexibility, and can ruin the relationship. These statements often turn into an anger outburst when the person feels frustrated by them.
It is as if each person finds their "role" in the relationship and plays out their part perfectly. This “rule-bound, role-bound” game is the source of constant problems, endless anger outbursts, and it can be a disaster in the bedroom. Let's have a look at how Sara plays her role as "the person who wants less sex," and Tom is left to read his lines in a fine performance of "the person who never gets enough."
TOM: Do you want to have sex tonight?
SARA: Didn't we do it last night?
TOM: Yes, but that was the only time this week.
SARA: Well, ok. If you really want to.
TOM: You don't really want to?
SARA: It's ok. You start.
TOM: I always initiate. You never start. You're never turned on!
SARA: Of course I am!!
Sara tries awkwardly to approach Tom, but now it seems forced.
TOM: Oh, why don't we just wait. We'll do it in the morning.
SARA: I have an early meeting. Let's just do it now.
TOM: Forget it...I'm not in the mood anymore.
Tom punches his pillow and rolls over to go to sleep. Sara is left feeling guilty for being "less interested." Tom feels unsatisfied and blames Sara, accusing her of being the one who "has no desire." The next day at breakfast, the toast is burned, and he has an angry outburst and calls her frigid. This hurts her feelings and causes her to have an angry outburst in return. They start arguing about who should be watching the toast, which is not really the issue that is driving the anger outburst. Neither one of them has expressed an “I statement,” including a need, and asking for a specific new behavior.
Communication comes to a standstill when partners rely on anger outbursts to resolve their problems. It causes both partners to get stuck in their roles. They have no new "lines" to read, so they play out the same ones over and over. The moody silence is palpable as they both turn their backs, trying to sleep, feeling miserable. The curtain slowly comes down on their love life.
How can we reverse these toxic patterns and anger outbursts and begin to regain intimacy in our relationships?
1) Make an agreement that anger outbursts are not the solution.
1) Recognize that you and your partner may be playing fixed roles.
2) Recognize what those roles are, and commit to not perpetuating them either verbally (accusing) and behaviorally (acting them out with anger outbursts).
3) Talk to each other about these roles. Make an agreement to not stay trapped in them. Make a commitment to not let anger outbursts replace healthy communication.
4) Switch roles! Do it as a playful game! Exaggerate doing the opposite role to the one you play. You’ll learn a lot by walking in the other person’s shoes about how they feel and why they are behaving the way they are.
Intimacy lost can be regained if you let go of your attachment to focusing on the differences in each other. Start seeing how, if you've been playing roles, you've both been playing a losing game. Unhealthy expressions of anger are a losing “blame game.” Nobody wins.
By dropping the "Blame Game" you can get your love life back on track. Love is a great game for those brave enough to play without rules, and without rigid roles. Choosing to not let anger outbursts be your main style of communicating will raise the trust and good feelings between you. Even though it may seem to feel good in the moment, if it isn’t cleaned up quickly, it erodes love. Choose to have a more loving style for managing your emotions. It will pay off forever!
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Help For When You Are Stuck In Your Anger Or Grief
Jon Terrell, M.A., specializes in helping people work through their stuck emotions and come to the other side. The other side of anger is passion, aliveness, excitement.
Jon leads emotional healing retreats several times a year. For more information go to Breaking Free Of The Old Story Retreats