How Anger Derails Communication — and What to Do About It

Couples Therapy Bethesda MD

One of the things we deal with most frequently in couples therapy is communication, and on that topic, anger comes up an awful lot. In this week’s post, I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts and observations about how anger — a very normal, expected, and natural human emotion — gets in the way of healthy communication in relationships.

As I’ve shared before, anger functions in a couple very important ways that we need to understand in order to get our heads around how to handle it. When our immediate emotional reaction to something is anger, that is a sign that another feeling — one that is harder to confront and share — is hiding underneath. We use anger because it is safe. Anger is about the other person and what s/he did “wrong,” rather than about you and where you have a vulnerability. So rather than telling your partner that you feel abandoned, scared, or hurt, you lash out in anger about whatever words or actions of theirs helped create those feelings for you.

Another important piece of this dynamic is that the natural reaction to anger is defensiveness. If I yell at or otherwise attack my husband, I have to expect that he’s going to respond by arguing back and advocating for his position, or by attacking me in return — by defending himself. In this situation, my underlying need to have my other feelings understood (e.g., abandonment, fear, or hurt) is virtually guaranteed NOT to be met. Instead of connecting on a vulnerable level and having a conversation in which we both have an opportunity to feel understood, we’ll go around and around in a cycle of reciprocal blame and criticism, never feeling safe or calm enough to say what we really need to say.

Anger has a way of taking over a conversation. As soon as one partner starts to get angry, and shows this by raising their voice, closing off body language, giving terse answers, etc., anger becomes the focus. It can also be pretty contagious, in that one partner’s anger is likely to elicit anger from the other partner in response — often leading to a chicken-and-egg conversation about who is responsible or whose anger is more problematic (you can guess how productive that usually is!). The blame/defense cycle takes over. Connection becomes a hundred times more challenging to achieve.

Sound familiar? That’s because it’s incredibly common. If you can relate to this pattern in your own relationships and feel hopeless about changing it, I have good news for you: it IS changeable! Below are a few tips for getting control of anger in your communication dynamic:

  • Work on recognizing the early signs of anger in yourself. For many, anger starts to percolate a while before it is expressed, and if we work on it, we can get better at recognizing that this is happening and getting it under control before it becomes a problem. Do you get sweaty palms? Do your ears get hot? Do you start to feel your heart pounding or beating faster? Think about your own cues to anger and focus on identifying them as soon as they start to happen.
  • Ask for a time-out. Once you’ve noticed that your anger is on the rise, the healthiest thing you can do is to step away from the conversation and process your feelings. Calmly say something like, “I’m feeling myself start to get angry, and I know that’s not going to be productive for us. Let’s take a 15-minute break; I’ll meet you back here and we can pick this up again.” You may need to start with longer breaks (even overnight!), but eventually, try to get to breaks for no more than 30 minutes. This will become easier when you’ve mastered the steps below.
  • Use that time to both calm down and identify your softer feelings. I promise you, they’re always there, and the more you work on recognizing them, the easier that process will become. I often share this list of “feeling words” with my clients — one way to work on this step is to just pull out the list, read through the words, and see which ones resonate for you in the moment.
  • When you resume the conversation, approach the other person with the intention to understand, rather than to be understood. If both people focus on the goal of understanding the other, the conversation will naturally feel collaborative, caring, and calm. Focus on one partner’s feelings at a time, and let that person feel understood before swapping roles.
  • Share your soft feelings without blaming. One easy trick to help accomplish this is to avoid the word “you” as much as possible. Rather than saying, “I feel overwhelmed when you leave me with all of the dishes,” say “I feel overwhelmed when our division of responsibility gets out of balance.” Your partner will be much more likely to truly hear and respond to the latter than the former.
  • Be willing to own your part of the problem. One of the reasons anger so often gets out of hand is that partners feel a sense of desperation to have the other person admit their responsibility for a problem. You can totally defuse this part of the problem by willingly accepting your part, trusting that your partner will do the same. Don’t get caught up in who is MORE at fault; that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that both parties own their piece.

These tips are powerful, but they won’t change things overnight. To truly change the dynamics around anger in your communication with your partner, both of you must commit to really working on it for as long as it takes to overcome the problem. Putting some effort into improving this can have a powerful positive impact on your relationship, and get your communication back on track.

Lindsey Hoskins provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both the Bethesda and Sterling offices. Call 240-752-7650 or email hello@lindseyhoskins.com to schedule a first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation.