Dr. Steven Lake explains the importance of taking ownership of your anger
Constant anger in a relationship is soul-destroying. It can break apart a relationship. I see it all the time. I remember one client who no matter how hard he tried, could not control himself when his emotional buttons were pressed. He could not manage his behaviour when his emotions welled up (shooting off his mouth and trying to control what his wife thought and did). Even though his marriage depended on it—he could not do what he needed to for the relationship.
His need to control the situation and his inability to stay in an emotionally uncomfortable place (i.e., feeling insecure or anxious) resulted in him making bad decisions. He could not “understand” why she was not home with him. It was “unbelievable” that she walked out. Well, you had better believe it, because until you do, until you are able to see life from the other person’s perspective, you are doomed. Doomed.
Your emotions can hit you in the blink of an eye. They are fast. However, your thoughts are faster. It is in that quarter second gap between emotion and action that you need to learn how to slip in at least one tiny thought, even if that thought is . . . breathe. This one action will shift your perspective from being out of control to being in control. You cannot control your emotional reaction. You can control your response. And you can control your behavior.
I used to work in a maximum-security prison hospital. We had guys from across the nation who were so difficult to manage in their home prisons that they were sent to us for treatment. These men were extremely violent with little or no impulse control. They reacted instantly to any perceived threat. If someone looked at them in the wrong way they attacked, either verbally or physically. My challenge was to get them to think before they acted—to respond rather than react.
One of the most common arguments used to justify anger is that we are not in control of their actions. For example, many inmates claimed the following: “It happens automatically. I’m not in control.” One day during an in-group session, a patient used this very excuse, to which I said: “Really? Well tell me, if you were on the street having an argument with your wife and wanted to hit her but saw a cop standing across the street watching you, would you hit her?”
“No, of course not, he said. “Do you think I’m stupid or something? I would take her home and then beat the crap out of her.”
“Well,” I said, “then you are in control of what you do.” Slowly the lights would come on as he realized that he was indeed in control of his actions.
Realizing that you can control your behavior is crucial to actually controlling it. If you keep saying things like, “S/he made me do it, I don’t know what happened, and I can’t help myself,” you are not taking responsibility. I know it’s hard. When locked in an argument with someone where the feelings rise up, it feels impossible not to react. But the control you need is not over the other person but over yourself, and this can be learned. If murderers can learn it, so can you. We have all had murderous thoughts and fantasies. The difference between us and men and women in prison is that we have not acted out on our impulses. If you can control the most extreme behavior, then you can control less dangerous behavior too. You can control screaming, cursing, pushing, hitting, and throwing things.
The first step is to realize that you have given yourself permission to act. You are in control. Now, you have to tell yourself that no matter what, you will not do certain things. Write a list of these behaviors down. Now write a list of simple strategies that you will follow when you feel tempted to react in the old way. This list might include general things like walking away, taking a time out, taking a breath or telling your partner that you are extremely upset and need a minute to compose yourself to personal things that you figure out for yourself along the way.
If you still find that anger is getting in the way of a healthy relationship, do something about it. Read a book, practice the interventions described earlier, and if necessary, take an anger management course or workshop. If this is not enough, look at individual and/or couple’s therapy. This may sound like a lot of work but it’s worth it. Imagine a life where you have discussions instead of arguments, where love is the predominate feeling in the household, and where you are in control of your behaviour. There’s no price for that.
image credit: Flickr/Stéfan
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