“When one partner is really upset at the other, is it better to just outright express the anger, or to hold off? I’m trying to get better at expressing myself, and my friend’s trying to get better at not yelling. Which is better and how does one find a happy middle ground?” asked a friend. Dealing with anger in a relationship is a pretty common topic of conversation.
Neither option is ideal!
One is being passive and the other is being aggressive. Traditional wisdom says that the best path is being assertive, which I’d agree with.
Check in with yourself
But the real question is this: why are you so pissed off? That’s the thing to deal with first. It’s about checking in with yourself, going the inside route instead of the outside one.
Not “I’m pissed because my partner left me waiting on the corner for an hour,” which is assigning responsibility for your anger to your partner. If you know your partner is chronically late, why set yourself up to wait in an uncomfortable place. Why not agree to meet in a place where you’d be okay to hang out for a bit, such as a bookstore, bar, or coffee shop? Or calmly set a boundary: “I’m not going to keep making plans with you if you keep me waiting.”
Remember that there will be subway delays and emergencies, but if your partner is chronically late, not just the five or ten minutes that most people can overlook, then there’s an issue involved, which is for your partner to figure out or not. Maybe he or she has a time management issue or is hostile or feels guilty leaving the office before completing things and there’s always more to do. Who knows? Again, that’s for your partner to deal with or not. It’s not your place to point out your partner’s issues and fix them. That’s your partner’s choice to deal with or not.
Work on your side of the fence
Your issue is why you keep setting yourself up to be angry by continuing to believe that this time will be different. So first you want to check in with yourself and see what’s going on with you, why you’re so angry.
When you’re calm, you can discuss things in an assertive way, if there’s something that realistically needs to be dealt with: “Can we make an agreement to talk with each other before buying things that cost more than $_____, since we’re saving for a down payment? That way we’re are in agreement before buying a big-ticket item. Or do you have another idea to deal with our spending? Let’s figure out a better way.”
Going off on your partner is never a good idea. Yelling isn’t communication; it’s acting out. If you’re trying to deal with a problem, you need to communicate with your partner. And, again, yelling isn’t communication. If you’re angry, you’re not going to be able to communicate—which involves a mutual discussion, not a one-way “dressing down”—till you’re calm.
You know that sense of urgency that you’re feeling? That’s a signal that you need to wait till you’re calm! Anger is akin to temporary insanity, and you can’t have a productive conversation when you’re temporarily insane.
…or to “stuff” your anger?
Stuffing your anger and being passive isn’t a good idea either. You will collect your resentments and when you’ve stored enough, you’ll probably have a nuclear explosion and blame the other person for making you so mad. But you’re responsible for not dealing with things in a timely manner, for agreeing to do things that you’re not really okay doing (this is a big one), or whatever your part is.
Taking ownership of your part in the situation is important. Are you unconsciously mimicking a parent who was passive and felt victimized, and never examined his or her role in an unsatisfying relationship? Or one who was a martyr and got his or her self-esteem from how much he or she could put up with? Or one who needed to prove his or her superiority, felt humiliated when there was a difference of opinion, and therefore justified in letting the anger rip?
There can be any number of other ways of looking at yourself and others that you learned growing up and are unaware of that influence how you experience and interpret situations and interactions with others.
Respond, don’t react
This is something that I often help patients explore in therapy, because the answer isn’t just a behavioral change—yell or don’t yell, express your anger or stuff it. The answer is to go deeper to understand yourself, your motivations, and to learn what you unknowingly absorbed. This understanding allows you to calmly respond to others and deal with life, rather than to be consumed with the destructiveness of reactions, whether rage or passivity. This is part of the road to a more satisfying life.
Diane Spear, LCSW-R, is a “Huffington Post”-quoted relationship expert who owns a private practice in the Union Square/East Village area of Manhattan (New York City). She specializes in anxiety, depression, couples, and parenting treatment, and has been helping people find the joy in everyday life since 1995. She is accepting new patients. To learn more about Diane’s approach to couples treatment, click here.