I, along with clients, friends and colleagues, have been pondering about how to deal with those times when I am angry with my partner and can’t figure out how to get over it. Although each of us tries to contain her anger to minimize conflict, the feelings are still there, and are causing tension in the relationship and deeply affecting her inner peace. Exploring this quandary are couples who know that they love each other and want to make things better. They know that whatever is contributing to the anger needs airing and correcting, but can’t figure out how to get past the emotionality in order to relax and talk in a productive way.
One reason that anger escalates, instead of petering out on its own, has to do with the way in which each person typically deals with her emotions — a behavioral style that tends to be the opposite of her partner’s. When it comes to expressing emotion, Imago Couples Therapy calls one person the “maximizer,” the one who typically wants to talk things through until they get figured out, and the other the “minimizer,” the one who gets overwhelmed by all the emotional talking and needs time to calm down, not wanting to deal with it at the moment.
The maximizer’s style can be felt as overly emotional, controlling, and unsatisfiable; the minimizer’s style can be felt as not caring enough to want to work on the relationship. When anger is present, maximizers are emotionally intent on making sure their partners see their side, emotions escalate, and they just get more and more furious when their partners don’t listen. Minimizers, on the other hand, get angry and overwhelmed by the constant barrage, try to escape to seek safety, further alienate their partners, and then feel even more frustrated and unsafe.
No matter who is the maximizer and who is the minimizer, one partner’s way of handling emotional conflict can feel like an aggressive or hostile act to the other, adding to the anger that is already there. What we forget at these times is that our partners’ behaviors, as well as our own, are part of a natural temperament and coping style that each of us was probably born with. As a matter of fact, these complementary personality styles no doubt attracted us to our partners, and we do enjoy them when things go well. The other side of these complementary styles is that, at times, the differences can drive us crazy.
So, in a couple where anger is taking over, the maximizer is upset that her partner is withdrawing and keeping quiet, while the minimizer is overwhelmed, afraid to approach, and guarding against all this emotion in the other that seems ready to explode. When couples are stuck in this dynamic — upset, and speaking or acting angrily, or withdrawing into a self-protective state — it’s a truism that there are no improvements or resolutions in sight. No sense talking at these times, it’ll just make things worse. So, since we all find ourselves in this state from time to time, what are we supposed to do next?
If you had the chance to say what you want, you would say that it would be great to get past the anger and be close again. So, the struggle seems to be to look within yourself and decide that you’re going to be the one who is strong and courageous enough to do the hard and risky work of letting go of your anger to move on to a more promising place. Letting go of anger is an act of will: you just decide you’re going to do it, and stick with the hard work of making it happen.
What helps with this noble act is reassuring yourself that you’re not just going to let go of the anger, shut your mouth, and go along with whatever has been bothering you. Instead, decide that you’re still going to get your needs met, but in a way that works.
Step one is to reassure your partner that you’re back, and that you’re sorry that things got out of control. In addition, express the commitment to work on accommodating your partner’s personality style so you can find a more productive way of resolving things. If you say this in a gentle way, while looking into your partner’s eyes — and perhaps reaching out with a gentle touch — you’re on your way toward peace.
Step two is agreeing on a good time to have a calm talk about what upset you and how you can handle things better in the future. When you get to this talk, the listener should just listen and thank the speaker for shedding light on what was so upsetting. The best that can come out of a talk like this is an agreement, and a reliable follow-through, making sure that regular talks are scheduled to head off the upsets before they become unmanageable anger.