It sometimes seems as if anger is especially heightened with the ones we are closest to.
Sometimes when I am working with couples I notice the anger they are each expressing prevents them from hearing what the other person is saying. At those times I act as an interpreter. Through me they are often able to hear more clearly what the other person is saying. I do my best at translating what they are saying through what I understand each one to be feeling and needing. This enables them to have the experience of being understood by both their partner and me; which can help in decreasing their anxiety and anger and allow them to be more fully available to listen to what is being said by their partner.
Our anger can often decrease, when we feel we are being heard and understood. The irritations and frustrations couples sometimes have with each other are often focused on times when one or the other person is judging them or making generalizations-not really seeing them, only seeing the judgments of them. These judgments and generalizations can show up in seemingly benign ways like “You never say goodbye when you leave the house.”, or “Why do I always have to put the groceries away?” These statements can be really frustrating for the person they are addressing because they are not including the times when the addressee did say goodbye and did put the groceries away. It may be true that they don’t do it as frequently as their partner likes, but 9 times out of 10 I have found that when we explore these statements it is not true that these things were “never” done. If we start with words like “never and always” we have a much higher chance of stimulating irritation and anger in the person we are addressing. It is my experience that people do not like to be told what they always and never do. I know I don’t. By using “never and always”, we are essentially saying I don’t see you, because if I really saw you, I would remember the times when you did these and other things like them. Generalizations and judgments very often lead to frustration and anger. I have found that human beings have a strong desire to be fully seen, accepted and included. It can be very painful to be judged and pigeonholed. It is no wonder we can sometimes react in anger.
Learning to use anger to help us identify what is going on internally can teach us to know ourselves better and so be better equipped to articulate what it is we want.
When we know what we want we have a better chance of getting our needs met. When we feel heard and understood by our partner we generally feel better and are often more compassionate. We may find ourselves wanting to hear and understand our partner’s needs and as a result might want to support each other in getting needs met. For instance if partner A says “You never say goodbye when you leave,” and that stimulates anger in partner B, this is an opportunity for partner B to use the reactive response as time to take some deep breaths and take a moment to see what is really happening inside. When we understand more fully what our reactivity is we can often calm down and speak. We could say something like:
“When you say things like I never say goodbye, I get really frustrated because I remember plenty of times when I’ve said goodbye and I’d like to be recognized for that. “
“Well I don’t remember. When?”
“Last week when I left for the gym and you were on the computer, I actually kissed you on the cheek and said goodbye.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right.”
“Well, I’m glad you remembered. Now do you see why it can be frustrating for me to hear you say, “I never say goodbye”?
“Yeah, I can see that”
“Why is it important for you to hear me say goodbye when I leave? If I know what it means to you I might remember to say it more often.“
“I don’t know, I guess it shows that you care about me and that you are thinking about me, that I’m important to you.”
“Oh, well you are important to me and it didn’t occur to me my not saying goodbye would indicate that you weren’t. I’ll try and be better about remembering to say it.
“Thanks, that would be nice.”
Are you interested in hearing what’s going on for me when I don’t say goodbye when I am leaving?
“Usually I am running really late, as you know I do and it takes all my focus just to get out the door.”
“I know, and that’s probably another reason I get upset when you don’t say goodbye. I hate how you can be so late sometimes and get so crazed before you leave. And I especially hate it when we are going someplace together!”
“Yeah. I guess you’d probably like it to be easier, less chaotic and more peaceful.”
“I understand that, I would actually like that too. This is an issue I have struggled with for so long that I have given up trying to change it.”
“Sounds like you feel pretty hopeless about this-you’d like to change but don’t know how.”
“Would you like some support from me around this? Is there something I could do that might be helpful to you?
Conversations about particular issues may often take longer than we like, however I have found that if we take the time for a clear focused conversation expressing what our needs are i.e. consideration, awareness, support, we can create a foundation for more understanding and ease for the future.