If you’re in a high-conflict relationship and find yourselves arguing frequently, chances are you’re probably trying, without success, to reach a particular understanding or to correct a failure in understanding between the two of you. Your lack of success in all likelihood has more to do with the challenge of working with anger—yours and your partner’s, and not with the topic itself.
Healthy couples work very carefully with anger. Whether they’re fully aware of it or not, they do two things that unsuccessful partnerships don’t do: healthy couples don’t use anger as a weapon to inflict injury on the other, and they also don’t take anger personally as intended to cause harm. These complementary positions are two sides of the same coin: when one partner is angry, she is careful to express her anger authentically but also careful not to use it to injure the other. And, the other is careful to listen to the anger, but not to view it as intended to cause injury.
This paradigm is why couples’ counselors typically teach partners to articulate their anger in a two-part sentence like this: “When you forget our anniversary, I feel unimportant to you.” This two-part presentation is a better alternative to “you’re thoughtless because you’ve forgotten our anniversary,” because it prevents anger from becoming a weapon and helps prevent the speaker from using her anger to insult and injure the other. The sentence also doesn’t contain any put-downs that would injure the listener. Instead, it simply tells the listening partner about an event and about a resulting painful state. It gives the listening partner some room to think and feel, rather than have to defend against attack.
Just as the distressed partner works hard not to use her anger as a weapon, the listening partner works hard not to view the anger as intended to injure. The anger is understood—not as a criticism or a put down—but as the expression of pain. The listener can feel compassion for the other’s distress and can offer the longed for soothing, recognition and affirmation.
You may be thinking that this is so much easier said than done. Anger, we know, is a defensive maneuver, a reaction that can be generated in a flash to an injury. It can be explosive, unpredictable, and seemingly beyond our control. Yes, this is true. But it’s also true that with help, practice, and commitment, anger, like most bad habits, can be reigned in. And in the meantime, until we’re perfect, there’s always the apology.