When someone you love is angry it can be hard to manage your own feelings about their mood. Anger serves a really useful purpose. It is a defender, and it can be a creator. Most of all it is a signal communicating that underneath the anger lies the feeling that make the person vulnerable enough, that they need to defend using anger.
This makes anger a secondary emotion. It is there as a defender against other feelings like sadness, worry, fear etc. Often we are not very skilled in using anger effectively – instead of noticing the anger building and working with ourselves to understand why our defender is activated, we ignore or redirect our feelings away. This often leads to destructive behaviour and feelings – we might blow up at someone, or take our feelings out on someone unrelated to the triggering experience.
When it is our significant other who is angry at us, it can feel overwhelming, if we don’t know how to respond to it and feel safe in it. If you are not safe in the presence of someone else’s anger, you need to leave and seek help immediately through the police. If you remain, you are choosing to be somewhere and with someone who is expressing a normal, healthy emotion. This is a first step in being able to let anger live at your house.
It is helpful for couples and families to have a way of talking about complex and heightened emotions like anger, before someone is angry. That way you have set some boundaries about how to conduct yourself. Things like ‘being angry is ok in this house, but taking it out on someone else and hurting them, is not’. That way if the anger starts to become too big, there is language around resetting the person ‘you are scaring me, I think you need to take a walk and let’s talk about this later’. As a couple, knowing that anger is a defender, is the most helpful thing. You can ask your partner questions to try and unpack what has happened to make them feel threatened (i.e. in need of a defender). You can also do your best to listen to really understand what has happened, and feedback your hypotheses to your partner.
If that’s not working – and it might not, because often the brain is temporarily shut down due to the chemical release associated with anger, it might be time for your partner to do some work on their own.
The following exercise will help:
Bring the heightened emotions down – This is known as the refractory period (where the chemical release has temporarily shut down rational thinking). Pause and do not react.
Focus on the body, return the breath to an equal rhythm and perhaps move the body if you are feeling unsettled. When you have moved towards equilibrium, try sitting somewhere quietly, closing your eyes and noticing the sensations in your body.
Name emotions that bubble up. And follow pain with your attention, noticing what your body is trying to communicate with you. When you name an emotion or sensation in your body, without judgment, this will start to decompress the feeling. Feelings, emotions and sensations are usually getting you to pay attention, so this is a good way to do it.
Out of this process will come some personal insights. Often we are angry because someone has violated a personal boundary. Ask yourself where or why you needed a boundary so that when you have reduced the emotional charge, you can take the required action (calmly) to restore or maintain the boundary.
How do you manage anger at your house?