How To Deal With Anger

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HOW TO DEAL WITH ANGER 1

CASE HISTORY ALICE AND MATT AN EXPLOSION OF SEX

 Sexual reactions to anger are surprisingly varied. Some people get so turned on by it, they get addicted. Was that what was happening to Alice and Matt? Their relationship was exceptionally fiery in spite of their being in love.  MATT is 23 and a public relations officer for a publishing company. He’s Span ish looking in appearance and would be extremely handsome if it were not for very bad skin which is pitted with acne scars. “Alice and I have been living together for a year now and we are extremely sexual, I’d say. We still make love just about every night. But I’m feeling worried because we are having more and more rows. They blow up out of noth ing until we become incandescent with rage. We then have rather different reactions.  “I feel completely turned off. As a result Alice gets very upset and implores me to make love. We end up with me reluctantly getting into the mood and usually sex is absolutely amazing. But afterwards, we both feel bad – as if there’s somehow, nowhere to go. This doesn’t feel at all healthy. But I don’t know what to do.”  ALICE is also 23 and a sub-editor on a local newspaper. She has short, bright blonde hair, is dressed as if for hiking, with laced up canvas boots, white socks and buff-coloured shorts and she’s surprisingly shy.  “I don’t know what gets in to me. I find myself needling Matt for no real rea son. He’s a lovely man and I’ll never find anyone as attractive. I can’t imagine life without him. But he’s right about things feeling very unhealthy. I find myself feeling really flat after the rows and the sex. And I can’t imagine, at those times, how we can last out, with such nothingness between us.” 

THERAPIST

 When I asked Alice and Matt to identify what they were arguing about, they proved unable to do this. Small things, seemed to be the answer, and they both looked baffled. But when I moved to the pattern of the argument the following facts emerged.  It was always Alice who instigated them. And she would do so at perfectly ordinary times when the couple were just watching television or even lying, quietly together in bed. Outwardly, at least, Matt would have done nothing to provoke her attacks. When I asked Alice what else was going on in her life, apart from having a relationship, the answer was very little. She was extremely bored with her job. The couple hardly ever went out because they had very little money and their best friends lived miles away.  It began to look as if Alice’s problem was boredom. As we talked more Alice agreed that maybe she was taking her boredom out on her partner in the shape of anger. The angry scenes had the effect of, at least temporarily, dispelling the boredom. But Matt was right, This wasn’t a healthy way to behave. 

HOW TO DEAL WITH ANGER 2

 We talked at length over the next few sessions about taking responsibility for your own life and not pressurising others to entertain you. When the couple ended counselling, they had made several resolutions. Each were going to take nights off when they pursued interests that had nothing to do with the other.  As a couple they were going to make a point of developing new friendships jointly and to socialise more, albeit cheaply. I also encouraged them to develop some kind of joint project or interest, so that sex didn’t remain the only stimu lus in their lives. A follow-up session a year later showed the couple in healthier shape. The arguments had stopped and instead Matt and Alice were pouring their energies into a joint free-lance business that was proving usefully lucrative. 

HOW TO DEAL WITH ANGER 3

Anger affects us sexually in a complicated fashion. When anger is relatively new it can be exciting. Even though you’ve just shouted and screamed at each other, you can still get turned on. In fact, all that rowing can actually raise arousal levels so that it predisposes you for some hot sex. One woman who was a member of my women’s groups decided to try out her new vibrator shortly after having a huge row at work. She had never experienced climax previously. Within minutes she found herself swept away in an easy and over powering orgasm. Which really puzzled her because, she said “I felt so mad”. But anger that drags on and never gets dealt with and is never listened to, eats away from the inside. It affects attitudes of respect so that a formerly loving wife, for example, may suddenly become very obstreperous with the hus band she is fed up to death with. It affects willingness to compromise and make amends. If left long enough it can form a silent barrier where the angry partner sabotages the other on every possible occasion. In other words, if you don’t deal with anger, it can be powerful enough to permanently damage your relationship. 

THE RULES OF COMBAT

To combat hostility, expressed or otherwise, the lines of communication have to be wide open between partners. Maybe you’re being over-assertive or super-sensitive to criticism (you fly off the handle). Maybe your partner is unhappy or extremely jealous or creating problems with other members of the family. It is vital and unavoidable that what is implicit must be made explicit. In other words, there has got to be a showdown. You cannot expect to solve anything without making super-clear what the grie vances are. You can forget about any stratagems until you have gone through the first confrontation. It’s the only way you have of demonstrating that you know there are problems and that you care about them. If you can’t do this initially, nothing can be put right. The mechanics of the first exchange there fore are crucial.  Rule 1: It has got to be an open-ended period. It can’t be a snatched quarter of an hour, you can’t do it while feeding the baby. You must be pre pared to spend time on it, as much as several hours. Rule 2: Make sure you will both be comfortable. You must not talk in someone else’s presence (mother-in-law, chap next door).  Rule 3: But when you draw your partner out, you also have to be assertive and this is what can be tricky. For “assertive” don’t read “aggressive”. Being assertive means being clear, straight to the point and sure about what you are saying. “We’re having a lot of quarrels lately, Jack. The problem is that I’m finding coping with the baby too exhausting.” Don’t be vague. Don’t use too many “I thinks” and “how do you see this?” Be direct but sympathetic.

YOUR ATTITUDE

Three major qualities are called for in this situation: genuineness, warmth and empathy. It can be difficult being spontaneous when you’re actually feeling bored at having to go through a wearing emotional experience. Yet it’s not a

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 good idea to fake caring and spontaneity since this is easily picked up. Simi larly this is not the time to “suck up”. But even if you dislike your partner at present, bear in mind that in the long term you want to make the relationship work. So show that. Be genuine. Use no subterfuge. Be warm. Don’t give out a patronising cuddle but do get your partner to feel at ease by sitting them down in a favourite chair, and brewing a cup of coffee. Then sit down close by. Don’t make the mistake of adopting a typical interrogator’s stance. An interro gator sits formally upright, directly in front of the victim, often with hands on thighs, leaning forward intensely so as not to miss the slightest flicker. That kind of approach instantly creates feelings of paranoia, resentment, defensive ness and mistrust in the person in the hot seat. Warmth comes through best by establishing yourself as a vulnerable fellow human being, perhaps by lounging on the opposite side of the same sofa. Empathy means picking up on what the other person is thinking and feeling. If you don’t naturally possess this ability, it can be learned. (See Listening pages 00). This warming up should take no more than ten to fifteen minutes because it’s vital to get to the heart of the matter. Starting with an item of self-disclosure can be effective, proving that you are human and not the monster your partner has lately been picturing. For example if you say “I know I haven’t done my fair share of the housework in order to give you a break” you should then fol low this up with “Is there anything you want to say about it? I’d appreciate it if you would”.

REASSURANCE

 Perhaps your partner is afraid that if they truly speak their mind, what they have to say will prove so unpalatable it will break up the relationship. It’s important to reassure your partner that this is not what you want. This reassurance can sometimes be hard to offer, as for example, when you both know the fact they have previously had an affair still makes you very angry. But there has got to be reassurance, otherwise your partner won’t be able to come clean. And for the relationship to work well again, you must both be able to talk about what is really worrying you. So:  “I care for you very much indeed. It makes me unhappy to see you unhappy and I’m willing to make a lot of changes to improve things between us which is why I want to be open with you.”  Please also see page 00 for further methods of offering reassurance.  Having heard everything your partner has to say, you will have to bring about a specific agreement of change. It is valueless entering into a row or crisis without being prepared to make certain changes in yourself. Rows may be cathartic but unless the dangers exposed by them are dealt with, there will only be a lull before the next storm. There is no point however, in making changes that are not realistic. So keep to what you know you can achieve.

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 As with any problem-solving conversation there still needs to be discussion, negotiation and compromise, then taking action. The pathway is just the same. You may need to begin with considerable reassurance (see page 00). So the conversation might go as follows:

OPENING STATEMENT

 YOU: “The problem is that I’m fed up with you waking me every night for sex, just as I’ve gone into a deep sleep. I need my sleep to work well the next day and once I’ve been woken I lie there restless for hours. It’s reached a stage where I’m beginning to feel you’re doing it on purpose.” (This is direct, brief, comes from “I” which demonstrates your feelings rather than being solely directed towards “you” which sounds accusatory and throws your partner into instant defense mode. Avoid the traps of trying to put yourself in a better light because that can escalate to disagreement. And so can putting down your opponent in self-defence.)

INVITE MORE ANGER

 PARTNER: Your partner is however very angry indeed and reacts by swearing, shouting and screaming. So what should you do? Rather than put up any self-defence, rather than retreat terrified, you should actually invite more invective. “Is there anything else? Let’s have it all out.” But don’t do this patronisingly. Rather, be ingenuous. This means that facially you are wide-eyed and bodily your arms are spread out, saying in effect “I’m open to you, I’m vulnerable.” Your angry partner usually does launch into another tirade. So you use the scratched-record technique – “OK. Anything else? OK. Anything else?” Until eventually it has all been said and your partner is spent. They’ve been encouraged to drive themself out of steam. And it is cathartic. In such situtions, don’t sound condescending, and do try to vary the way you draw your partner out. Rows can be very productive, but they can take a long time to work through, even on the scratched-record basis. Which is why you need open-ended time.

LET THEM KEEP FACE

 Once the tirade is over, don’t leap in and take advantage. The person who’s sounded off has got to keep face. If you were standing when the row erupted, sit down. By doing so you are putting yourself into a submissive position, you are allowing them to have advantage over you. Get more detail: “What started this off?”

KEEP IT PRIVATE

Never allow this kind of confrontation to occur in front of anyone else. If your partner does start berating you at a party, either suggest going home or into a private room or, if they refuse to budge, simply leave, saying quite firmly that you are not going to be drawn into a public debate.

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DEALING WITH YOUR OWN ANGER

Of course, someone else’s anger can spark off your own. Naturally an onslaught will trigger your own defences. But see the occasion as your partner’s catharsis and not yours. If you have anger to express tell yourself to do this on another occasion – not this one. 

WITHSTANDING THEIR ANGER

The great difficulty of course is in not letting their anger arouse yours or make you so fearful that you can’t cope. One exercise to help you to detach enough to follow the procedure outlined here is Behind the Glass Window. See page 00. 

NEGOTIATION

 The catharsis is fine. But it’s not enough. There have to be working solutions. And so the time for negotiation needs to begin. YOU: I do see the point you’ve made about feeling passed over in favour of my career. And I certainly don’t want you to feel this. I also love making love with you and long for rather more than we’ve had recently. However I also don’t want to put my career at risk. So let’s work out times which fit into our leisure time rather than the middle of the night. And just so that my job doesn’t seem to consume all my attention, I promise I will stop working every Saturday as well. I do see that the two of us need attention.

TAKING ACTION

And having made the agreement, you must stick to it. Because if you don’t the whole exercise has been pointless and worthless.

WHEN ANGER CAN’T BE RESOLVED

 There may of course come the time when no amount of psychological skill is going to work. As for example, when your partner has taken steps that are truly unforgivable. It doesn’t happen very often and when the complaint is focussed on sex there are usually avenues the two of you can pursue. But on exceptional occasions a sex problem is used as a language for airing other prob lems. Sometimes the only feasible resolution to the confrontation is splitting up. If the reason for a mans moods and bad behaviour for the past six months is that he’s been having an afair with your sister and if there’s one thing you can’t tolerate and that’s infidelity, let alone in the family, there tends not to be too much choice in the outcome. On the other hand if you can see that the infidelity is merely a symptom of something wrong between the two of you that could still be mended and the choice of lover is merely incidental, then there is still a relationship left to work on.  Of course there is a risk in going through a big row. But the likelihood of enriching and improving the relationship after surviving a crisis together and working things out realistically is far greater. It is through such episodes that both partners learn and mature. HOW TO DEAL WITH ANGER 7 WORK PAGE

BEHIND THE GLASS WINDOW

You imagine that the other person is emoting behind a glass window. This ima ginary window is a safety barrier and prevents the anger from going any further than the glass itself. It can’t reach you. It can’t “get into you” and disrupt you because it stops at the glass. The effect is a bit like watching television with the sound turned down. And it allows you to suddenly see your partner quite differently.

TALKING TASK

When the relationship problem that is examined during a row or angry dis cussion is an affair, even though you may be able to come to a useful working conclusion, the hurt partner may need to talk about the affair many times more. This can be hard on the “guilty” partner since they may be trying to put it behind them and to get on with the marriage itself. The task is therefore to contract a regular hour each week where the hurt partner can say anything he or she wants on the subject. The agreement is that given this forum they do not bring up the subject at any other time dur ing the week. The role of the person who has had the affair is to listen without interruption of any sort. They do not have to reply or give further information. The object of the exercise is to give the speaker the occasion to vent their feelings and feel listened too. Often the reason there’s a need for this is because they are actually being blocked out and unacknowledged by their partner. The listener has to give clear signs that they are listening to make the exercise effective.