Getting to Know You: Anger and Couples
In this chapter, we explore the role of conflict in intimate relationships: how past history can play into a present relationship and how to cultivate a healthy relationship. You will find out how to change destructive patterns. You will learn tools and strategies for expressing anger in ways that support a strong and satisfying relationship with your partner.
The Peaks and Valleys of Intimacy
Sally and Greg's relationship is one of respect and mutual support. In their sixties, they love to play tennis and hike. Yet the two are very different people. Sally has written and posted detailed instructions on how to load the dishwasher. Greg lives for spontaneity and a bit of chaos. He likes to take off skiing at a moment's notice.
Greg compares their relationship to an effective football team: ""The quarterback's skills are different from the linebacker's, but you need both to score points."" Greg accepts that Sally's posted instructions and detailed ""to-do"" lists are symbolic of her skill at organizing the household. Sally realizes that Greg's fun-loving nature and spontaneity are part of what makes the family fun, making it easier for her to tolerate his sudden ski trips. Their arguments tend to stay focused on the specific issue at hand and do not spill over into criticism of each other's personality traits.
It wasn't always like this. Greg admits, ""Early on in our marriage, we both thought about divorce. We were so angry at each other. I guess what kept us together was that we came from broken families where divorce had hurt everybody. We didn't want that.""
The Road Not Taken
It's important to remember that conflict in a relationship actually demonstrates that partners care and that they trust each other enough to face those conflicts. Successful conflict builds trust that leads to true intimacy and love. Most couples face challenges in their relationships. Relationships are filled with peaks and valleys. Often we view the peaks as the end-all and be-all. But while the valley may not have the breathtaking views of the mountaintop, it does have its own gifts: wildflowers, a sparkling brook and wild strawberries to taste and savor.
If you think of the very first mountaintop as the peak of infatuation and lust, you can probably remember a time that first valley seemed like such a disappointment. What a shock to discover you were traversing the mountain with someone who chews cereal loudly enough to wake up the neighboring campers. This progression out of initial infatuation may take you by surprise.
However, those couples who never fight, who never enter the valley, are at the most risk for eventual separation. We are surprised when the ""perfect couple"" separates because ""they never argued."" Exactly. Conflict, successfully dealt with, builds the trust that is necessary for real love. And that is why time in the valley is so important.
Time in the valley can mean fighting about dirty dishes in the sink, coping with different communication styles, noticing little pet peeves or feeling uncomfortable with intimacy. Time in the valley means seeing the person for who he or she really is—not just the projection you fell head-over-heels for in the beginning. Often, people get the urge to exit the relationship when they enter the valley. For some, exiting means leaving the relationship; for others it is workaholism or emotional distance. These couples are missing one of the very first treats of the valley: the wildflowers.
As conflict comes up in a relationship, the wildflowers can be seen as the little (and big) things we learn about one another through conflict: each other's frailties, as well as strengths. If we approach our anger with care, it can open up a new world enabling us to stretch our comfort zones and grow. The sparkling brook may be the time you spend holding each other after successfully negotiating the troubled waters of your first real fight—ah, trust! And the wild strawberries may be the increased intimacy you experience over time: It takes work, but there's nothing like that taste! Once we traverse the valley, the next peak can be higher, offering an even more amazing view than the first.
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Cultivating a Vibrant Relationship: How Green Is Your Valley?
You need the right environment to nurture a relationship and help it grow. Just as you cannot grow petunias in the desert, you cannot deal with conflict constructively if your relationship is arid. Look at the environment in which your relationship takes place: Are you kind to one another? Do you hurt each other often? Do you do special things for each other? Let little annoyances ride? Speak kindly? Say ""thanks""?
Stephen Covey compares a relationship's strengths and stressors to a bank account. If your balance is low, a check can bounce; your account becomes overdrawn. In relationships, we need to make deposits into our partner's account. Otherwise the balance will get low and little things will throw the account into negative territory. Then we will fight about little things—the bed is not made properly; there is not enough gas in the car; the dishes sat too long in the sink; and on and on. (Covey, 1989)
You can make deposits by kind words, hugs, helping out when not expected, a kind note on the refrigerator door, gifts or dinner out together. Here is a secret: Different people like to be loved in different ways. Ask your partner, ""What makes you feel loved?"" For some people, it is a clean living room; for others, it is a loving word or an arm around them while they cook dinner.
When they were first married, Greg felt helpless when Sally cried. Later she told him, ""I come with an instruction manual. When I cry, you don't need to say anything or fix the problem. Just hold me.""
External forces also affect the relationship environment. Are your jobs satisfying, demanding or horrific? Are finances strong or stressful? Are you both in good physical health? If you are feeling resentful for putting things into the partnership, then it may be a sign you need to fill up your tank somewhere. You may find that exercise, a spiritual practice, nurturing friendships, women's or men's groups, or an engaging hobby can be helpful.
If something outside of the relationship is causing anger or stress, try not to take your anger out on your partner. People often project anger onto loved ones, because it may seem to be the safest place. Try to explore honestly where your anger is truly stemming from. Use your own exploration, or ask a friend or counselor for help. Then try to communicate honestly with your partner: ""I'm really angry that my boss changed the deadline on this project. I'm not sure I can finish it in time and I feel like I'm ready to lose my cool at the least provocation.""
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Handling Conflict in Healthy Ways
What Do You Fight About?
There are two reasons to argue: one is to let off steam and the other is to resolve issues. Many times we think we want resolution, but the way we fight actually insures that there will not be resolution. Rather than let off steam, our fight creates a pressure cooker where each issue raised just adds to the pressure in the pot.
Over time couples tend to push each other's buttons, all the things that drive us crazy:
- Household responsibilities/duties: ""Why am I always the one to empty the dishwasher?""
- Money: ""You spent $500 on clothes?""
- How to bring up their kids: ""You're too strict with them.""
- Emotional availability: ""You never want to talk.""
- Sex: In Woody Allen's film Annie Hall, Diane Keaton's character tells her therapist that they have sex ""all the time, at least once a week,"" while Woody Allen's character complains they ""hardly ever have sex, about once a week.""
- Workload/balance: ""You're never home.""
- Neatness or cleanliness: ""Have you forgotten how to use a clothes hanger?""
If you find yourselves having the same arguments over and over, are you trying to change your partner to make him or her neater? More helpful? More emotionally present? What is lurking behind the fighting? Do you start fights in order to get closer to your partner? Frieda, a woman whose partner pushed her around, admitted, ""For me, an angry touch is better than no touch at all."" Or are you picking a fight to release stress? We all know our partners very well—enough to start a fight with them in two and a half seconds!
Examine How You Fight
Greg was a shouter. Sally was the silent-treatment type. She'd get her anger out in passive-aggressive ways, like saying something biting about Greg in front of his friends or implying Greg wasn't doing his share of the work around the house.
The most effective style in conflict resolution is to state the facts objectively, let your partner know your reaction to those facts, state what you need or want, and then listen to your partner to discover his/her perspective and needs.
What's your style? Do you run away from conflict? Do you push your anger down? Or do you get louder and louder as a fight goes on, heaping on larger insults as your stone-faced mate stares you down?
Experiment with your style. Choose one or two new strategies from the menu below and write them on your Mad Pad as a reminder. Try them in your next few arguments:
- Take Two: Taking a ""time-out"" can help you both regain perspective and fight from a ""coole...