Anger Is Energy
Anger expressed positively can convince a lover or child that he or she is loved. It can help you get a job done when you’re tired. It can be motivating. Tiger Woods, one of the top golfers, says, “I sometimes lose my temper on purpose to fire myself up.”
Anger expressed negatively can devastate a child of any age, but especially when they are very young. Anger can destroy relationships and ruin things of value. People can hurt others when they get angry, but they often hurt themselves.
There are times when it is appropriate and productive to get angry. But often, getting angry can be dangerous, even embarrassing. It is helpful to know the difference and have the impulse control to carry out the choice. Most important is how a person acts when angry.
Scenario: Sam pulled into her garage after a long hectic day at work. As she got out of her car, she heard glass breaking. She went around the corner of her home and saw the shattered living room window. Her son and his friends stood on the street, frozen. One of the boys had hit the baseball through the window. Sam was enraged! Last time, it was the neighbour’s bedroom window. She’d told them many times to practice in the schoolyard nearby. She wanted to scream at them and slap them silly!
Sam knew that she was too angry to deal with the boys right then and told them so. She sent her son to his room and sent his friends home. She changed into her jeans and a T-shirt, went into the backyard, and chopped some wood. As she chopped, her rage dissipated. She was still angry but not enraged. Then she got her son to help her put some plywood over the broken window. Later that evening, she and her husband sat down with their son to deal with the problem.
Sam did not blow-up, nor did she block her anger. She allowed her muscles to do what they needed to do—attack. But she did not attack her son or his friends; she attacked the wood. She destroyed and created something simultaneously.
When people get angry, their bodies pump adrenaline into the bloodstream, preparing their muscles for fight or flight. Their muscles are primed to act, and as they do, the adrenaline is processed. However, if the anger is blocked, then the muscles do not do what they naturally do. The adrenaline stays in the muscles, often causing side effects, such as shakiness until it is eventually processed. Blocked or unexpressed anger builds up over time. The brain and the body need to deal with it in some way. Some people blow-up because they can no longer tolerate the tension. Others suppress and repress their anger, which can lead to physical and emotional illnesses. Depression is often the symptom of repressed anger. Neither is healthy, and both can cause a lot of harm.
It is not easy to find wood to chop, but there are many other ways to express anger constructively and productively, like throwing a rug over a railing and whacking it with a broom.
Scenario: Mary sighed. She’d blown her top—again. After the last time, she’d promised herself that she would not do it anymore, but she’d just lost it again.
Mary had been cleaning the home for a couple of hours. Ralph had come home from soccer and was in the shower. She walked into the bedroom to get something and found a pile of his sweaty clothes on the floor. This was an ongoing struggle between them. Mary had asked him many times to put his dirty clothes in the clothes hamper. Annoyed, Mary swept up the clothes, put them away, and went back to cleaning the home. Half an hour later, she walked into the bathroom and saw his wet towel lying on the bathroom floor. She lost it and went into a rage. She grabbed the towel and stomped off to find him. He was sitting on the patio, relaxing. Seeing him relaxed infuriated her even more. She threw the towel in his face and yelled obscenities at him. Finally, she stomped off. Ralph sat there in shock, wondering what had just happened.
Often there is a cycle of anger and peace. A person blows-up, and then there is a period of peace. But life is life. Things happen, and often, they are not significant. A small annoying event will happen, and it will get dismissed. There is tension. Another irritating event follows, and it gets pushed under the rug. Tension increases. Another frustrating event and anger is pushed aside. More tension. Another event and the anger is swallowed. Tension builds. After several more frustrating events, another small event happens, and a person blows up in rage. Usually, there is confusion because the nature of the event did not warrant the intensity of the anger. Others will ask, “How could you get so mad about that?” However, the tension is released. Now there is peace again—at least for a while. The building process starts again. It’s like a stack of coins; each coin is like a frustrating event. The stack gets high, then one more coin is put on the stack, and the whole stack falls over.
For Mary, it was not just the wet towel on the bathroom floor; it was the many wet towels on the bathroom floor, the dirty socks around the house, the jacket hung over the back of the kitchen chair, the newspapers scattered near the couch, the shoes cluttered by the door, dirty dishes on the coffee table, etc.
Underneath the anger, Mary felt out of control and unappreciated. She tried everything to get Ralph to help around the house. She felt resentful that Ralph was playing while she was working. It seemed to her that she did the major share of keeping the home in order. Finally, she snapped and went into a rant.
Blow-ups happen because of ongoing difficulties that are not resolved. There is a buildup of tension that is not released. At some point, the buildup gets so intense that it cannot be contained.
How to Make a Change
Make a change by interrupting the cycle. Bring up unresolved issues during the phase when tension is building. In this scenario, Mary realized that if she did not address this with Ralph, she would blow-up at him again. She asked him to set a time when they could talk. Together they picked a time they were both available. Mary felt less frustrated, knowing that the problem was going to be addressed. When the time came, they sat down together and explored the issue. They did not come up with solutions before they figured out what the real problem was between them. This helped them feel connected to each other. Once they were connected emotionally, they came up with solutions to experiment with. Each felt better about the other.
Ralph, too, could have initiated the discussion with Mary. After she calmed down, he could have asked her for a time to talk.
Each Partner Has a Part in the Cycle
No one person is at fault. Whatever is going on between two people is co-created by them both, and each needs to take responsibility for his/her part in the negative cycle.
When issues have been discussed unsuccessfully before, couples need to change how they address them. The exercise “Sooner Rather Than Later” is a useful tool that gives couples a protocol to follow when addressing and resolving issues.
Every couple needs to develop a good working relationship that enables them to resolve differences and solve problems. Some couples do this well while others do not. When problems are addressed rather than ignored, resentment and tension do not build up. When couples have the tools to address problems, they are more likely to use them. This results in less conflict and more good times together.
Avoiding conflict is a common mistake. One way couples do this is to dismiss issues that crop up as too small to deal with. However, small issues that are dismissed tend to build up over time. Often, a big fight breaks out due to the backlog of small issues. In the long run, it is much healthier to deal with small issues as they come up.
The following exercise provides a guide for couples to quickly, easily, and effectively address issues Sooner Rather Than Later.
When these instructions are followed as given, the exercise will help you and your partner:
It is recommended that couples use a time-limited format to listen to each other’s issues, stay on track during a discussion, avoid bringing up past hurts and failures, avoid deflecting from the issue in focus, and use the creative resources of the relationship to solve the issue.
You will need about 30 minutes.
STEP ONE: PICK AN ISSUE. SET A TIME.
One person chooses an issue to be resolved. Choose only one issue and leave other issues that may come up to another time.
The person who has chosen the issue invites their partner to engage in the Sooner Rather Than Later exercise.
Together, set a time when both of you are free to devote 30 minutes to your relationship.
Make that time a priority in your relationship. Do not cancel it unless it is necessary to do so. If you have to cancel, make a new date that you will be able to keep. (If couples treated their spouse/partner as their best client, best student, best customer, best patient, best contractor, best supplier, best employee, etc., relationships would be much better.) In a healthy relationship, couples make their spouse/partner a priority in their lives.
Do not expect or demand your partner to address an issue right away. Your partner may or may not be ready. If necessary, give yourself some time to think about it.
Deal with issues when they are small and when the resentment in the relationship is minimal.
They are much easier to resolve Sooner Rather Than Later.
STEP TWO: PLAN FOR AFTER.
Plan something fun/pleasant to do after the 30 minutes is up. (No sex.)
STEP THREE: OPEN UP. LOOSEN UP.
Open your mind to the process.
Keep in mind the following:
STEP FOUR: EXPRESS YOURSELVES
5 minutes each.
Each person takes 5 minutes to express his/her concerns about the issue without being interrupted by the other. Allow for periods of silence during the 5 minutes of talking. (Often, after a period of silence, the concern deepens to another level.) Do not take longer than 5 minutes. Some people tend to repeat themselves and lose the effect of what they are trying to get across.
STEP FIVE: REFLECTIVE LISTEN TO EACH OTHER.
2.5 minutes each.
Each person expresses what he/she thinks the other person’s concerns are, that is, their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours relevant to the issue. Allow for clarification.
Say – “You think . . . (about the issue) . . .”
and/or “You feel . . . (about the issue) . . .”
and/or “You do . . . (describe behaviors) . . . because . . .”
NOTE: “You feel that . . .” is not a feeling; it is a thought.
STEP SIX: BRAINSTORM – Write ideas down.
Brainstorm together, allowing each person in the couple to suggest as many solutions as he/she can think of. Do not evaluate or judge any suggestion during this process, as fear of criticism will shut down the creative process. Be aware of your non-verbal communications, as partners and spouses are very sensitive to non-verbal messages.
Allow each other to suggest silly, impossible and exaggerated solutions. Have fun with this. It stimulates the creative process. A silly solution may generate a plausible solution.
Add in what you know about how other couples handle this issue without thinking that any one way is the right way. You are exploring all possible ideas. The right way for the two of you is whatever way works for both of you. How you decide to resolve this issue may differ from any other couple, and that’s okay.
STEP SEVEN: AGREE ON A SOLUTION TO TRY.
From all the solutions, choose one that you think would work. Look for a solution that each person will be 80% satisfied with. This is not an either/or situation. Look for a win-win solution. If one person is unhappy with the solution, it won’t work. If one person tries to press his/her solution on the other, it won’t work.
A new solution may emerge out of this process.
Say what you are willing to do, not what you’re not willing to do.
If a solution looks possible but isn’t quite right for your spouse, ask, “What would you need to have happened or changed to get this solution to work for you?” (Caution: do not try to force a solution on your spouse or try to manipulate your spouse into accepting a solution – it will likely backfire if you do.)
Do not refer to past times when things did not work. This format is for now and the future.
If you cannot agree on any solution, pick one that you agree to try.
STEP EIGHT: PLAN HOW YOU WILL PUT THE SOLUTION INTO ACTION.
Agree to do this solution. Plan how and when you will do it.
NOTE: Be prepared to work out bugs in the plan along the way. Set another time to give and get feedback about how well or not it is working.
STEP NINE: IF YOU ARE NOT IN AGREEMENT.
If you still cannot agree on a solution, decide on another time and set another date and go through the process again. Until then, get more information about possible solutions. For example, read books, ask other people how they handle this issue, etc. and bring this information to the next brainstorming session.
STEP TEN: GO AND HAVE FUN.
Let go of the issue for now. You know there is a time set to address it again so that it will not get ignored. It will percolate while you are involved in other activities. When you come back to it, you will both be fresh about it.
Repeat this process until you’ve reached a solution that works for both of you.
If you are unable to find 30 minutes to do this, consider that it means you are avoiding dealing with important issues in your relationship. If this is the case, your relationship may be in deeper trouble than you realize. Seeking professional help may be a necessary next step if you intend to stay in your relationship.
Avoiding issues creates more problems than it solves.
NOTE: These procedures are a guideline. Customize this format to your unique relationship.
© Dr. Bea Mackay 2007