I recently had the honor of facilitating a class about healthy relationship practices. During one discussion about the importance of anger as an emotion, we examined how anger in relationships can be detrimental if we are not gentle with those we love. Anger is neither good nor bad. In fact, it is an essential emotion for our health and safety, and part of a healthy human experience. Anger can alert us to unjust treatment, and gives us needed energy to address harmful behavior.
“Negative emotions most likely aid in our survival. Bad feelings can be vital clues that a health issue, relationship or other important matter needs attention. The survival value of negative thoughts and emotions may help explain why suppressing them is so fruitless. Even if you successfully avoid contemplating a topic, your subconscious may still dwell on it.” (Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being, Scientific American, 5/1/13)
But anger is not a thinking emotion. Our ability to think clearly is diminished when we are angry. The front part of our brain goes dim. In the midst of conflict we can say and do things we later regret. We can protect our relationship when we first cool down and then seek to understand each another.
Seek to Understand
The goal of conflict in a relationship is to understand each other. The relationship loses when someone has to win. During times of conflict, relationships can actually grow and become stronger when our conversation focuses on understanding and care. If you argue well, it is even possible to feel closer. Unfortunately, people are often more focused on “winning” than understanding. This often occurs when the intensity of the anger becomes greater than the desire to seek meaningful solutions. With this in mind, we need to develop strategies to decrease the intensity of the anger and increase our ability to listen to one another.
Learn to Cool Off
Learning to control your emotions rather than allowing your emotions to control you is an important skill to develop. Instead of allowing your anger to build up until you “explode,” it is more productive to disengage until you are able to think clearly and feel at the same time.
Once both people in an argument have “cooled off,” it is easier to re-engage and reach resolution. Unfortunately, many people want to “finish” the argument immediately, rather than allowing “time-outs” to occur. Frequently, this results in one person pursuing and the other person running away until they feel cornered. When this occurs, the argument often becomes destructive. Remember, in a relationship, you do not have to resolve everything “right now.” It is appropriate to cool off and re-engage when the anger has subsided.
Boundaries that Protect
Creating safety is essential for a relationship to thrive. The behaviors listed below are destructive and will harm the relationship. When we draw the line at these behaviors, we create a foundation that protects and respects the relationship.
- No hitting
- No cursing
- No name-calling
- No yelling
- No throwing
- Stay focused on one issue at a time
Commit to Resolving Issues
It is important to remember that calling a “time-out” does not mean that you never have to talk about the issue again. A designated time needs to be established to re-engage in the discussion. If you do not create a time to return to the discussion, the anger tends to re-emerge in later arguments. “Time-outs” only work if both people are committed to continuing the discussion until true understanding is reached.
A number of communication tools are available to help couples communicate with understanding and care. One of my favorite tools is L-O-V-E Conversations. If you are unable to work through issues without anger dominating your relationship, couples therapy can provide support, as well as healthy alternatives to address conflict.
In the following video, Bruce Muzik uses the metaphor of a game of tennis to illustrate healthy communication skills. His video is informative, witty, and fun to watch. Many of the couples I work with in my therapy practice have found this useful in their efforts to improve their communication skills.