What Everyone Should Know about Anger. Part 2: Why People Explode in Anger.

Scenario: Mary sighed. She’d blown her top – again.  After the last time she’d promised herself that she would not do it anymore. It hadn’t happened in a long while, yet 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 there on the floor was a pile of sweaty stinky clothes that he’d just stripped off.  Annoyed Mary swept up the clothes and put them where they should go. This is an ongoing struggle between them. Mary had asked him many times to put his dirty clothes in the clothes hamper. She got what she had come for 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!  She went into a rage. She grabbed the towel and stomped off to find him.  He was resting on the patio drinking some water.  Seeing him resting infuriated her even more. She threw the towel at him all the while screaming. She yelled obscenities at him. She assassinated his character. She said many hurtful things. Spittle flew from out of her mouth. Finally, she stomped off. Ralph sat there in shock and confusion wondering what had just happened.

Often there is a cycle to anger and peace. A person blow-ups and then there is a period of peace. But life is life. Things happen. They often are not even big things. A small annoying event will happen and it will get dismissed. There is tension. Another irritating event happens – it gets pushed under the rug because the event is not considered significant enough to make a fuss about. Tension increases. Another frustrating event – anger is pushed aside. More tension. Another event – the anger is swallowed. Tension builds. After several more frustrating events, (none of which, in the whole scheme of things, is a big deal) 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 left on the bathroom floor or the bedroom floor, the dirty socks on the floor, the jacket hung over the back of the kitchen chair instead of hung up in the closet, the newspapers scattered on the floor by the couch, the scattered shoes at the door, dirty dishes on the coffee table, the cleaning she’d just done all morning while he was playing soccer, all of her efforts to keep a tidy home that did not seem to matter to Ralph.

Underneath the anger Mary felt out of control and unappreciated.  She tried everything she could think of to get Ralph’s cooperation in keeping their home clean and tidy.  When the home was in order, Mary felt calm inside.  She could relax.  If there was something that needed doing she could not rest.  She wanted a pleasant environment that they all could enjoy.  She felt resentment 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.  Mount St. Helen’s erupts.

How to make change.

Make change by interrupting the cycle at some point.  Bring up unresolved issues during the phase when tension is building.

Mary could feel her annoyance and frustration building.  She did not want to get angry.  She did not want to blow up.  She did not like herself when she acted like that.  But each incident seemed so trivial.  She told herself other people handle these things easily, so she could too.  Besides, she did not want to break the peace.

Finally, she realized that if she did not address this with Ralph she was going to blow-up again.  She could feel the tension building. She asked him to set a time when they could talk.  Together they picked a time both were available. Mary felt less frustrated just 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 with solutions before they figured out what the real problem was between them.  This helped them feel connected to each other.  Once 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 them is co-created by the two of them.  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 issues.  The exercise “Sooner Rather than Later” is a useful tool that gives couples a protocol to follow when addressing and resolving issues.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea

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