The High Costs of Anger
author:Dr. Tony Fiore
‘Dr. Fiore,’ the voice on the phone pleaded, ‘I need anger management classes right away. I blew up at my girlfriend last night and she said it’s over until I get help.’
As Kevin recounted the first night of class, he and his girlfriend had argued in the car over which route to take home from a party. Events progressed from mild irritation, to yelling and name calling.
Things escalated at home. He tried to escape, but she followed him from room to room, demanding resolution of the conflict. He became angry, defensive and intimidating.
Frightened, she left. Later, she left an anguished message saying that she loved him, but couldn’t deal with his angry, hurtful outbursts.
Kevin said that he normally is a very ‘nice’ and friendly person. But on this occasion, his girlfriend had been drinking before the party. In his view, she was irrational and non-stop in criticism. He tried to reason with her, but it just made things worse. Finally, as Kevin saw things, in desperation he ‘lost it’ and became enraged.
How should Kevin have handled this situation? What could he have done differently? What actions should you take in similar situations?
Option 1: Time out. Take a 20 minute time-out (but commit to returning later to work on the issue). Take a walk. Calm yourself down. Breathe deeply. Meditate. Do something else for awhile.
New research by John Gottman, Ph.D., at the University of Washington indicates that when you and your partner argue, your pulse rate goes above 100 beats per minute, and you enter a physiological state called DPA (diffuse physiological arousal). Once there, it becomes nearly impossible to solve the problem. You lose perspective. Your reasoning ability, memory and judgment greatly decline.
Taking a time-out allows both of you to return to your normal state of mind.
It is neither healthy nor necessary for you to explode as a result of being provoked by your partner. Our recommendation: Turn the heat down rather than intensify the pressure.
Option 2: Interact differently. Many couples like Kevin and his partner develop patterns of behavior that create miscommunication and conflict. Do you interact in one or more of these ways?
Inattention; simply ignoring your partner when you shouldn’t. This is also called stonewalling or being emotionally unavailable when your partner needs you, or not speaking to your partner for long periods because you are upset with them.
Intimidation; engaging in behavior intended to make your partner do things out of fear. This includes yelling, screaming, threatening and posturing in a threatening way.
Manipulation; doing or saying things to influence your partner for your benefit instead of theirs.
Hostility; using sarcasm, put-downs and antagonistic remarks. Extreme or prolonged hostility leads to contempt a major predictor of divorce.
Vengeance; the need to ‘get even’ with your partner for a grievance you have against them. Many dysfunctional couples ‘keep score’ and are constantly trying to ‘pay back’ each other for offenses.
Option 3: Positive interactions. Start by actually listening not only to what your partner says, but what he or she means. Partners in conflict are not listening to understand; rather, they listen with their answer running because they are defensive. Unfortunately, defensiveness is another predictor of divorce.
Stick to the issues at hand. Seems obvious but is very hard to do in the heat of battle. Focus and stay in the present.
Learn to forgive. Research by Peter Larson, Ph.D., at the Smalley Research Center, suggests a huge relationship between marriage satisfaction and forgiveness. As much as one-third of marriage satisfaction is related to forgiveness!
Communicate your feelings. Tell your partner how you feel about what they do, instead of accusing them of deliberately offensive behavior. Use ‘I’ statements rather than accusatory, or ‘you’ statements.