Anger Triggers and What to Do about Them

Angry Brain

In relationships, some people are quicker to feel anger than others. Yes, not having your expectations fulfilled or not getting your needs met can cause frustration. But some people seem to have shorter fuses when these situations occur. And some people allow anger to propel them into using strategies that hurt the ones they love and hurt the relationship.

Judgments Trigger Anger
Judgments about what your partner is saying and judgments about yourself can lead to anger. Instead of simply seeing the situation as it is, you put your own spin on it. For example, your partner is scrolling through the messages on his phone while you are talking to him. You judge his actions as showing he does not really care about what you have to say. You might even go a step further in your mind to think, “He never really listens to me because he doesn’t think anything I have to say is worthwhile.” Now you have fueled your anger with that interpretation.


Or you may interpret your partner’s request to take out the trash as a demand that you do it immediately, which causes you to feel controlled and angry. Your judgments can then lead to an angry outburst or even a turning inward with troublesome ruminations.


Sometimes it is the judgments you make about yourself that are behind your anger. For example, you might judge yourself as inadequate or defective. Then you base your self-esteem on your perception of the way others feel about you.


Notice it is your perception of the other person’s words or actions, not what they actually said or did. Your feelings of being inadequate are aroused by interpreting what was said as criticism. Feeling criticized triggers your anger.


Then again, you might actually be in a relationship where your partner often complains about you. If you are also self-critical, this combination can lead not only to anger but also to depression.


Sensitivity to Rejection Triggers Anger
Some people are extremely sensitive to rejection. They have an anxious expectation of rejection. Even when there is little possibility of it, they still readily perceive social threats. This sensitivity motivates them to react with anger, hostility, or withdrawal.

There’s the skittish wife who, at the first sign of trouble, flies out of the house, leaving behind only the admonition, “You won’t be able to find me.”

And then there’s the fortified husband who, when threatened, marshals all his defenses in readiness for a fight. It is the mere anticipation of potential hurt that triggers their reactions. They are so vulnerable and insecure that they don’t have to be actually hurt to feel wounded; the threat is enough.

One concern about the defensive reactions used in the face of rejection sensitivity is that these reactions can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the reaction itself causes the feared rejection. One member of a couple in a conflict situation can seek support but not receive it, or be on guard for any cues that might indicate rejection. If that person begins to defensively start losing their temper, insulting their partner, or swearing, it can incite the partner to do the same. Then the negative interaction causes the anger to remain and the conflict to become unresolved.


Research has demonstrated that the brains of these people are different from the brains of people who are not so sensitive to rejection and do not act so defensively.People low in rejection sensitivity have a more active prefrontal cortex, which allows them to be less emotionally reactive and more self-regulating.Yet there is hope for people high in rejection sensitivity. Emotional self-regulation can be taught, and a supportive romantic relationship itself can mitigate rejection sensitivity.     

 
Strategies to Defuse Anger
Why do you sometimes say hurtful things to your loved ones? It can be because you are too fused with them. When you and your partner are fused, what your partner says or does often feels like it has something to do with you. And then you react accordingly. You lash out or raise defensive walls. Or even worse, you blame yourself.


Your partner leaves the dirty dishes in the sink all day and night—again. You think, “If they really cared about my feelings, they would put the dishes in the dishwasher.” Or you criticize yourself with, “I am probably expecting too much.”

With these thoughts, you end up saying, “Must take too much of your energy to put the dishes in the dishwasher. How lazy can you get?” You know you’re not going to change your partner’s behavior with this criticism, but it slips out anyway.


Your partner’s behavior annoyed you, but it is the judgment you put on that behavior that caused you to lash out. More than likely your partner did not leave the dishes in the sink to purposely annoy you or as a lapse in caring for your feelings.


If you see your partner’s behavior as independent of your connection with them, you won’t be pressured to say something hurtful. Instead, you will find a way to let them know that you noticed without the hurtful words. You might even joke. “Maybe we could make the kitchen sink into a dishwasher.” Indeed, those partners who each have a sense of their own autonomy will be less defensive during a conflict and will be more satisfied with their relationship.


The time between a trigger and your angry reaction is generally only two to three seconds. So, try to cut the link between the trigger and your anger by taking a slow, deep breath the moment you notice that you are upset.This will help you to cool off the hothead feeling, not bite the bait, and take a moment to think about a way to express your needs in a helpful way.


After the deep breath, you can respond rather than react, and then you will remain in control. You can respond with an “I” statement that lets your partner know what you need at that moment. For example, if your partner forgets to pick up the dry cleaning that has your work uniform in it, you could take a deep breath and then say, “I really needed my uniform for work tomorrow.”

By just describing your needs, you are putting the issue on the table instead of blaming your partner. An angry retort has been taken out of the interaction. Then the two of you can work on finding a resolution to the issue.


Even if you are the recipient of your partner’s anger, you can still have some control over their angry reaction. When you see your partner starting to tense up, you can remind them to first just breathe. Or you can model the necessary action by taking a slow, deep breath yourself. Initiating the first step in calming the hot responses down will give both of you a chance to approach the situation in a more helpful manner. Instead of a fight, flight, or freeze reaction, you are using a calming strategy.


REFERENCES

Kross, E., T. Egner, K. Ochsner, J. Hirsch, & Downey, G. (2007). Neural dynamics of rejection sensitivity. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19 (6): 945–956.

Romero-Canyas, R., G. Downey, K. Berenson, O. Ayduk, & Kang, N.J. (2010). Rejection sensitivity and the rejection–hostility link in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality, 78(1), 119–148. Https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2009.00611.

Hadden, B. W., Rodriguez, L., Knee, C.R., Porter, B. (2015). Relationship autonomy and support provision in romantic relationships. Motivation and Emotion, 39 (3), 359-373. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-014-9455-9.
 

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