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August 31

How to Control Anger in Relationships With 100% Success

How to Control Anger in Relationships With 100% Success

How to Control Anger in Relationships

In this article, you will learn how to control anger in relationships based on science, not pop psychology or 20th century psychological advice not grounded in neuroscience. There’s a lot to learn so bookmark this page and come back to it as you need time to digest the information and the skill sets.

What Is Anger, Really?

Anger is both an affect and an emotion. Affect is the physiological state of feeling pleasant or unpleasant. We are born with affect; we are not born with emotions. There is some controversy over how many affects we have. I use the 9 affect model developed by psychologist Sylvan Tompkins.

The 9 affects are:

  • Distress-anguish
  • Interest-excitement
  • Enjoyment-Joy
  • Surprise-startle
  • Anger-rage
  • Fear-terror
  • Shame-humiliation
  • Disgust
  • Dissmell

Emotions are constructed from affect starting about 18 months and continuing to around 5 years old. Emotions are cognitive constructs that associate words with affect or feelings.

As an affect, anger develops within the limbic system of the brain and is a neural network that intensifies to demand some kind of change.

As an emotion, anger can vary in intensity from rage to mild annoyance.

Without getting into the brain science too deeply, when anger arises, the limbic system, the unmyelinated polyvagal system and the medial prefrontal cortex dominate consciousness. The remainder of the prefrontal cortex is overwhelmed, making so-called “rational” thought impossible.

Neuroscientists have established that we are 98% emotional and 2% rational. Thus, anger, as an emotion, is normal, not irrational, evil, or bad. The problem is that because our culture has a strong bias against emotion, we are not taught how to be emotionally competent. As a result, we are generally poor at self-regulating emotions in general and anger in particular.

Myths About Anger

  • Myth: I shouldn’t “hold in” my anger. It’s healthy to vent and let it out.

TRUTH: This myth is based on Freud’s ideas developed in the 19th century during the age of steam. He analogized emotions to steam. If a steam boiler is over-pressurized without a relief valve, the boiler explodes. Freud speculated that emotions worked the same way, and he created psychoanalysis as way of relieving emotional “pressure.”. His idea was that if people “vented” their emotions, they would find relief from their “neuroses.” Although Freud was a genius, his theories have proven to be wrong. Nevertheless, his ideas persist in pop psychology in the 21st century. The truth is that if you “vent” your anger, you just get angrier.

  • Myth: Anger, aggression, and intimidation help me earn respect and get what I want.

TRUTH: Anger may intimidate some people, but it will only create fear, not respect. You earn respect by being emotionally competent and in control.

  • Myth: I can’t help myself. Anger isn’t something you can control.

TRUTH: When you say you cannot help yourself, you are really saying you are too lazy or indifferent to learn emotional competency. Managing all of your emotions, including anger, is like playing golf. There are skills you must learn and master. Fortunately, your brain is hard-wired for this work.

The Six Needs of Anger

As a professional peacemaker and mediator who has seen 1000s of conflicts, I have identified six needs that anger cries out to be satisfied. These needs are the starting point for learning about how to control anger in your relationship.

Vengeance

Vengeance is an anticipatory emotion related to the dopamine receptors in the brain. We get enormous pleasure imagining how good it will feel to hurt the other side. What is really going on is a huge dopamine release as we imagine retribution. We are motivated to take action to protect ourselves, which is a strong evolutionary advantage.

The problem is, our brains let us down in the end. There is no dopamine release when we are able to exact revenge on our partner by making some snarky remark or put-down. Revenge does not give the pleasure imagined because dopamine is not released during retribution.

Vindication

Vindication is the need to be right. Essentially, it’s the desire to feel “I’m right and you are wrong.” By itself, vindication is a zero-sum condition. Unfortunately, there are very few relationship arguments where one side has the clear moral standing to be declared right. As a result, both sides rationalize and justify their conduct (and the continuation of the drama) with the goal of seeking a feeling of vindication. When you can satisfy your mutual needs for vindication (I’ll explain how to do this below), you move a long ways towards controlling anger in your relationship.

Validation

Validation is the need to be honored and respected as a human being. Couples suffer injustice, betrayal, loss of connection, loss of love, and loss of emotional attachment. You and your partner have a need to be loved, honored, and respected as good decent people. When anger erupts in your relationship, one or both of you often feel like you must have done something wrong, pissed off God, or are undeserving of being hugged. The need for validation is deep-seated.

The Need to Be Heard

We all have need to be heard. We need to tell our story and share our emotional experiences so that we have been deeply understood. In couples’ arguments, one or both of you will continue to tell your stories, over and over, until you finally have been heard. This need is the secret key to all of the other needs. If you and your partner can feel heard, all of the other needs will go away. I will reveal the secret to this in a few moments.

The Need to Create Meaning

Our brains have systems call cognitive operators. These cognitive operators operate on the information received through our senses to organize it into meaningful stuff. For example, the binary operator is excellent at sorting information as good-bad, up-down, hot-cold, left-right. As far as the binary operator is concerned, all data is divided into polarities. Another cognitive operator is the causal operator. This function is designed to create meaning so that our experience is not a jumble of unrelated thoughts.

The causal operator attributes cause and effect on the flimsiest of evidence, which is how urban myths become so powerfully attractive. If it sounds plausible, it must be true. Fighting couples have over-active causal operators that are struggling to make sense of the drama or conflict. There must be a higher meaning to all of this. The need to create meaning is therefore an attempt to achieve a sense of transcendence over the drama, which soothes anxiety and restores order to the universe. When both learn to help each create meaning from arguments, you gain another tool to control anger in your relationship.

The Need for Safety

Safety is obvious. However, the need is as great for emotional safety as for physical safety. Plenty of drama arises in perfectly safe physical space, but is emotionally radioactive. You and your partner need emotional safety. Unfortunately, most “normal” people do not feel emotionally safe. One of primary reasons for anger erupting in relationships is because one or both of you do not feel safe. You are using anger as an unconscious mechanism to feel safe. Of course, it never works.

Diagnose Your Angry Moments

Which of Your Needs Are Not Being Met?

Think about the last time you were angry with your partner. Answer these questions:

  • Did you want revenge? (“I’ll show him/her!” “I’ll make him/her pay!”)
  • Did you have an overwhelming need to be right and your partner to be wrong?
  • Did you feel disrespected or invalidated by your partner?
  • Did you feel like you were not heard?
  • Did you feel emotionally unsafe to talk about your feelings?

If you answered yes to any of the questions, your anger arose from an unmet need.

What Might Be The Underlying Emotions That Your Anger Is Masking

Is your anger masking other feelings such as embarrassment, insecurity, hurt, shame, or vulnerability? In relationship fights, both of your will experience uncomfortable vulnerability. Rather than embrace vulnerability as a path to emotional intimacy, you may use anger to hide it. This is very common in relationships. Learning how to control relationship anger takes courage to face each other’s vulnerable selves without fear of rejection or hurt.

Other Clues

You may have developed deep emotional defenses to protect against childhood emotional injuries inflicted unconsciously by your parents. Do any of these statements ring true for you?

  • You have a hard time compromising.
  • You view different opinions as a personal challenge.
  • You have trouble expressing emotions other than anger.

If so, you have become emotionally rigid and protective. You will flare in anger when someone gets too close to you or threatens your identity.

Diagnose Your Partner’s Angry Moments

After you have examined yourself for deeper insights into your anger, do the same with your partner. You can answer these questions by yourself in private. If your partner is willing, you can both answer these questions and share your perceptions of each other.

What Needs Are Not Being Met?

Think about the last time you were angry with your partner. Answer these questions:

  • Did he/she want revenge? (“I’ll show him/her!” “I’ll make him/her pay!”)
  • Did he/she have an overwhelming need to be right and you to be wrong?
  • Did he/she feel disrespected or invalidated by you?
  • Did he/she feel not heard?
  • Did he/she feel emotionally unsafe to talk about feelings?

If you answered yes to any of the questions, your partner’s anger arose from an unmet need.

control anger in relationships What Might Be The Underlying Emotions That Your Anger Is Masking

Is your partner’s anger masking other feelings such as embarrassment, insecurity, hurt, shame, or vulnerability? Write down those feelings and acknowledge that they are real.

Other Clues

Just as you examined yourself for rigidity, think about your partner. What clues indicate an emotional wall possibly caused by childhood trauma (intentionally or unintentionally inflicted by parents).

  • Does your partner have a hard time compromising.
  • Does your partner view different opinions as a personal challenge.
  • Does your partner have trouble expressing emotions other than anger.

If these statements describe your partner, you know that underneath, there is a lot of pain and fear that drives the anger.

Tools For How to Control Anger in Relationships

What Doesn’t Work In Angry Relationship Moments

If you read many articles on the subject of how to control anger in relationships, you will come across three recurring ideas. They don’t work, yet psychologists and advice givers continue to talk about them because they simply don’t know any better.

Active Listening Doesn’t Work

Some experts suggest that you engage in active listening by paraphrasing what your partner said. Active listening does not de-escalate anger, especially if it is used with an “I” statement. For example, “What I hear you saying is XYZ…” is a classic example of active listening. While there is a time and place for paraphrasing words, active listening fails to validate, vindicate, or create a sense of being heard. You know this as well as I do. If active listening worked, you would use it.

Taking Time Out Doesn’t Work

Another common piece of advice is to take a walk or go out on the balcony. There are times when exiting the argument or fight is a good idea. However, leaving the room does nothing to de-escalate or calm the relationship. By physically leaving, you are signaling that the relationship work is too hard.

Deep Breathing Doesn’t Work

Some experts advise you to take 10 deep breaths. Physiologically, this is good advice as deep, slow breathing is a way to activate the myelinated portion of the polyvagal system. However, you have to have the presence of mind and the self-control to remember to do this when anger explodes in your relationship. The bigger problem is that deep breathing does not calm your partner down.

Ways to Bend the Anger to Peace

Know the difference between “I” and “You” statements

Use “I” statements to talk about your own anger. You might use an “I” statement like this. “I feel angry when you are not ready to leave on time. I feel disrespected and annoyed.” Speaking this way removes any blame and asserts your feelings.

Use “You” statements to reflect your partner’s anger. To do this, you must ignore your partner’s angry words. Listen to your partner’s emotions. The anger will be obvious. If you have thought about your partner’s unmet needs, you will detect deeper emotions like shame, sadness, disrespect, unworthiness, and so forth.

Reflect back those emotions with a “You” statement. You might say, “You are angry and frustrated. You don’t feel listened to and you feel disrespected. You feel sad.” This is a process called affect labeling. Brain scanning studies have shown this to be a powerful way to de-escalate anger in relationships. As a peacemaker and mediator, it is my go-to tool in any heated conflict.

Reflect your own anger and emotions to yourself. Affect labeling works on you too. Whenever you feel angry, annoyed, or frustrated at your partner, tell yourself, “I feel angry, annoyed, and frustrated right now.” Just acknowledging your emotional experience to yourself will calm you down almost instantly.

Next Steps

If you’ve made this far through, you might be interested in next steps. As a human, you have the capacity to grow and develop in transformative ways. Here is where your mastery could take you:

When you master these skills, you will have the tools necessary to control anger in relationships. Sign up to receive all of my thinking on these topics and to receive advanced announcements of my online courses and master classes. Subscribers receive deep discounts on all of my trainings and materials, and it costs you nothing.

Controlling anger in relationships requires you to abandon pop psychology and follow science.

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De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less

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    About the Author

    Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA left a successful career as a trial lawyer to become a peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning author, speaker, teacher, and trainer. He is a highly experienced mediator. Doug’s work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts.

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