Anger is a difficult bedfellow, both in oneself and in one’s closest relationships. And nowhere is it more potent than in a marriage. Knowing how to communicate with your angry spouse, let alone without making things worse, can be frustrating and even frightening.
Anger is a natural emotion. We all experience it and know the adrenaline rush that acts like armor for situations of perceived threat.
As offensive and off-putting as anger can seem when unleashed, it does come bearing gifts. Power, energy, and protection can be strong motivators to someone who otherwise feels powerless, weak, and vulnerable.
When trying to figure out how to communicate with your angry spouse, it’s important to know if the anger is contextual or chronic.
Has a sensitive topic triggered an angry response? Or is your spouse always brooding with a level of anger that can easily be triggered into a more uncontrolled response?
People who are resentful or chronically angry tend to see the world from the viewpoint of a victim. The world is unfair to them, and they are therefore offended because they don’t get what they believe they should get.
They also blame others for their emotional state. They can’t self-regulate and therefore need a place to dump responsibility for how they feel.
And, if you’re the spouse, guess who’s getting dumped on.
Even if you don’t consider yourself an angry person, it’s important to recognize the potential for anger within yourself. Taking personal responsibility for your own triggers and how you respond to them will help you respond to your spouse’s anger in a healthy way.
Think about those moments that have sent you emotionally “over the edge.” Those triggering topics or behaviors that push the start button on a cascade of physiological, emotional, and behavioral responses.
Thanks to the adrenaline rush, your heart races, and your breath quickens and burns in your chest. You lose sight of any collaborative treaty because you are now in fight-or-flight for yourself and your own cause.
All bets are off once anger is in the driver’s seat. Part of you wants the anger (and its trigger) to go away. And the other part is just waiting to be challenged by an angry opponent. “Go ahead. Pour some gasoline on the fire. I dare ya.”
But you’re here to learn how to communicate with your angry spouse without inflaming the situation. And, by recognizing how anger works in all of us, you can make choices to lower the temperature and restore the potential for cooperative problem-solving.
The ability to communicate with your spouse without fighting begins with your own self-examination.
How easy it is to stuff our feelings and/or disguise them as something inauthentic to their truth. Anger, for all its emotional chainmail, is really the tip of an iceberg built on primary emotions like sadness, fear, and disappointment.
Going beneath the surface into your own primary feelings and how you have learned to express them can engender a more compassionate response to your spouse’s anger.
Recognize that you have both come to your marriage with different histories and different modeling of emotional expression.
You probably never imagined the happy couple walking down the aisle while pulling wagon loads of bottled-up feelings. But that’s how marriage often starts off when couples haven’t developed skills for recognizing and managing their emotions.
Whether you’re dealing with a “hot topic” or chronic, quickly triggered anger, there are steps you can take to foster communication.
De-escalate and neutralize.
This primary effort is directed at bringing down the temperature and decreasing the emotional intensity.
It’s only natural to want to lash back at an angry outburst or expression of blame.
However, if you have done the work of dealing with your own emotions, you will better be able to mitigate your spouse’s intensity.
Keep your focus on the cooperative light at the end of the tunnel. And don’t add to the intensity by fighting fire with fire.
Be assertive and respectful.
Resorting to anger is, in large part, due to a mismanagement of primary emotions.
People don’t know how to say, “I’m sad…I’m afraid…when you do (this), I feel (that)…I’m ashamed….” Anger becomes a wall-building way of digging in their heels and blocking the vulnerability of going to “that place.”If you don’t want to escalate an already intense situation, you will need to learn how to respectfully express your feelings and assert your needs.
Being honest doesn’t have to be “brutal.” It can and should be direct, authentic, and respectful of the other person’s feelings.
This confident but measured approach is essential to the growth of compassion and understanding. You have to pay attention to everything — what you’re thinking and saying and how your spouse is responding.
Sometimes just slowing down and thinking before speaking can put out a fire in very little time.
Be patient and compassionate.
Patience and compassion can feel like tongue-biting concessions when you’re in the line of angry fire. But remember that the anger is just what you’re seeing.
One of the beauties of intimacy is that it has the power to heal old wounds. Marriage affords an opportunity like no other in this regard.
But you have to get to the wounds to heal them. And that means breaking through all the scar tissue that covers them.
Compassion inspires the quest for understanding. And patience gives your partner a safe space in which to explore and express a more genuine response than anger.
Listen for what is stirring under the surface.
Learning how to communicate with your angry spouse is, in large part, about learning to listen.
That doesn’t mean you accept abusive outbursts of blame and disrespect. It means that you commit to actively listening — with your heart and body language — for the underlying messages.
Seek to validate emotions that are genuinely, vulnerably expressed and that risk going deeper into painful truth. “What I hear you saying is….That must have felt awful. I am so sorry you experienced that.”This is about employing patience and compassion with intention. You are seeking vital information to help heal your relationship…and one another.
Being patient and compassionate doesn’t sign you up for being a victim of an angry assault on your dignity and emotional safety.
Part of being assertive is establishing boundaries that protect everyone, including your marriage.
Some boundaries will be for you alone: “Regardless of what s/he says, I won’t say or do (xyz).”Some will be for your spouse: “I won’t stay here while you scream or call me names.”
And some will be for your marriage: “Perhaps we should take a 2-hour break to cool down and come back when we’re both calm.”
Pick your battles.
When latent emotions remain unacknowledged or mismanaged, it’s easy to fixate on anything that could be “wrong.” “You did…you didn’t…you don’t…you never…what about this…what about that….”You could spend the rest of your lives battling for power and tossing blame.
Decide what’s really important to work through and learn to let go of those differences that don’t really matter.
When you focus on your priorities, you may notice the smaller issues resolving alongside the bigger issues. At the very least, they won’t matter as much anymore.
Trying to enrich or even save your marriage when anger is always rearing its horned head can feel like a daily uphill battle.
Please be kind to yourself and remember that emotions aren’t taught as one of “the 3 R’s.” Most people come to marriage with little awareness of their unattended emotions, let alone how to deal with them.
There are experts who have devoted their professional lives to helping loving, well-intended couples save their relationships. When you know better, you do better.
Few people go into marriage knowing how to communicate with an angry spouse. More often than not, couples resort to fighting fire with fire.
It all happens so quickly, and wounds get inflicted on top of scarred-over wounds just begging to be healed.
As with any relationship skill, responding to anger calls you first to respond to your own emotions. Only by learning to stand in your own confidence and self-accountability will you be able to see through your spouse’s anger.
After you have asked (even silently in your listening), “What’s under that? And what’s under that?” you will finally get to the simplicity of a heart that yearns to be loved…and to love.
Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats. To learn more about working with Mary Ellen, schedule a ½ hour complimentary consultation.