Anger Triggers and Resolutions

anger cartoon

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

Common Anger Triggers

Judgments and sensitivity to rejection are two of the main triggers of 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 their phone while you are talking to them. You judge their actions as showing they do not really care about what you have to say. You might even go a step further in your mind to think, “My partner never really listens to me because they don’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 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. If your feelings of being inadequate are aroused because you see the other person as being critical, your anger can get triggered. Of course, 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.1

Sensitivity to Rejection                                                                                               

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.2 It is the mere anticipation of potential hurt that triggers their reactions. They are so vulnerable and insecure, they don’t even have to be actually hurt to feel wounded; the threat is enough.

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.5.33 People low in rejection sensitivity have a more active prefrontal cortex, which allows them to be less emotionally reactive and more self-regulating.3 Yet the good news for people high in rejection sensitivity is that emotional self-regulation can be taught, and a supportive romantic relationship itself can mitigate this sensitivity.

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 conflict to become unresolved.

Strategies to Defuse Anger

Why do we say such hurtful things to our loved ones? Often it is because we are too fused with them. When we are fused, what our partner says or does often feels like it has something to do with us. And then we react accordingly. We lash out or raise defensive walls. Or even worse, we blame ourselves.

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 “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 negative reaction. 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.4

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 a trigger. 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.” You are putting the issue on the table instead of blaming your partner. 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 the angry reaction. When you see your partner starting to tense up, you can remind them to 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 have used a calming strategy.

  1. Whiffen, V. E. and J. A. Aube. 1999. “Personality, interpersonal context and depression in couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 12 (3): 369–383.
  2. Romero‐Canyas, R., G. Downey, K. Berenson, O. Ayduk, and N. J. Kang. 2010. “Rejection sensitivity and the rejection–hostility link in romantic relationships.” Journal of Personality, 78 (1): 119–148. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2009.00611.
  3. Kross, E., T. Egner, K. Ochsner, J. Hirsch, and G. Downey. 2007. “Neural dynamics of rejection sensitivity.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19 (6): 945–956.
  4. Knee, C. R., C. Lonsbary, A. Canevello, and H. Patrick. 2005. “Self-determination and conflict in romantic relationships.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89 (6): 997.

Assumptions that Cause Disillusionment

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You might see your partner and yourself through the lens of many assumptions.  Then you begin to act toward your partner in ways that confirm these assumptions.  Instead of changing your assumptions, you become disillusioned that love is not what you thought it should be.

 

Loving relationships never follow a smooth path but there are some assumptions that make dealing with the bumps even more difficult. Some of these assumptions may be only yours or some of them might be shared ones. Look at the following assumptions about love that can hold you back from fully loving and check off those that ring true for you.1

 

  • Someday My Partner Will Find Someone Better Than Me

You don’t trust that your partner will always love you.   Your insecurity then leads to jealousy and suspiciousness that alienates the very person you want to love you.

 

  •      I Need Everyone’s Approval to Feel Worthwhile

This assumption keeps you in a submissive position in order to be approved.  You have given your partner tremendous power—-the power to approve or disapprove of you.  In doing so, this assumption is self-defeating because it stops you from being able to grow in the relationship.

 

  •      I Can’t Feel Happy and Fulfilled Without Being Loved

Tremendous insecurity results from this assumption because there will be times you will not have your partner in your life or your partner’s love.  This assumption may cause anxiety just thinking about the possibility of losing love.  It makes you feel like you are walking on egg-shells.

 

  •        If I Don’t Meet All of My Partner’s Expectations and Demands, Disapproval and Rejection Will Follow

When you have this assumption, the relationship becomes a burden that eventually leads to resentment.  Either you continue to be a slave to your partner’s demands or you run away, carrying this assumption with you, to start the whole process over again with a new partner.

 

  •       My Partner Is Not What I Need

You find your partner lacking so you try to make him into what you want him to be.  You look disapprovingly or nag when he does not do what you want.  Does this get you what you want or does this change him?

 

  •       If My Partner Rejects Me, It Proves That There’s Something Wrong with Me

Sure, rejection does not feel good, but that rejection might say everything about your partner and nothing about you.  You have magnified the result of your partner’s actions into feeling devastated instead of seeing it as a momentary glitch in your relationship.

 

Dealing with Assumptions So They Do Not Derail Your Relationship

All of the above assumptions can be changed once they are recognized as just assumptions and not a reflection of reality.  Your assumptions are just the way you see yourself, your partner or the situation, not the way you, your partner nor the situation always is.

Furthermore, these assumptions often are not expressed.  Instead of telling your partner, “I need your approval in order to feel loved,” you say “You’re always criticizing me.” What would happen if you stated your assumption out loud?  Maybe your partner would not feel so attacked and would, instead, understand a little more about where you are coming from.  So, by recognizing, stating, and changing your assumptions, you can change the way you love.

You can challenge each of the above assumptions by replacing them with a more helpful one.  For example, instead of assuming that you have a deficit that will cause your partner to find someone else, you could assume that you are lovable and just need to make sure your partner sees this. Indeed, what would happen if you assumed you are loved even when there isn’t someone in your life presently acknowledging it?  In a subsequent post you will discover how to see yourself as lovable independent of your partner’s actions.

Do you assume that you have to meet your partner’s expectations and demands?  You could, instead, assume that your partner is capable of meeting her own needs.  Then you would just show your partner how she can meet her own needs.

Finally, assuming that you and your partner are okay just the way you are can go a long way towards avoiding the conflicts that occur when you are depending on your partner to fulfill your needs or trying to change your partner.

 

  1. Burns, D. D. (1985). Intimate connections: The new and clinically tested program for overcoming loneliness developed at the Presbyterian–University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. New York: William Morrow & Co.

When the Unpleasant Feelings Emerge

love and hate

In a truly intimate relationship, the rejections, irritations, and disappointments are as much a part of loving as are the securities, pleasures, and dreams.  No marriage is made in heaven and no relationship is built on only the heavenly feelings.  But no one ever forewarns us about the trials and tribulations.     Instead we believe that if it’s really love it will be sunny days forever, with no dark clouds to muddy up the horizon.  After all, we were always told that love is never having to say you’re sorry.

So, with our trusty aphorisms tucked deep within our hearts, we rush off to find the perfect love or, at least, a lover who will never hurt us.  And we begin spending a lot of time and energy just trying to avoid any unpleasantness in our newly-found relationship.

What never bothered our partner before, nor bothered us about our partner can become exasperating.  We notice he isn’t paying attention when we are talking (has he ever?).  Or she has left the door open to welcome the flies again (such a generous spirit).  Each morning he leaves her lists of things to do (does he think he is her boss?).  She tells him he is headed for diabetes if he doesn’t lose some of that weight (as if she has any control over this).  These little quirks and sins against the relationship gradually slip out, with the cumulative effect being disillusionment, resentment, and hurt.  What was comingled starts becoming unmingled.

Often, when this inevitable unpleasantness creeps into the relationship, we don’t know how to deal with it.  We leave our lover (either emotionally or physically), hoping to find a new love, one which will finally measure up to our ideal. Anyone who has ever been left by a lover knows that love hurts but, by then, it’s too late.

But, it doesn’t have to be the end of the relationship, nor does it have to be a relationship of shared misery. You could use your unpleasant feelings to begin a conversation with your partner.  This conversation can help each of you understand the other’s point of view, and even draw you closer together.  Or you could realize that you can get past the irritation into a more accepting attitude towards your partner and yourself.  Yes, sometimes your partner is selfish and sometimes you can be selfish.  So, it is important to let your partner know how his or her behavior affects you.  But it is up to your partner to change this behavior, not up to you to constantly complain about it. So why not just accept your flawed partner instead of trying to change him or her?