2 Ways to Manage Anger in Relationships

When I do couples therapy, I often notice issues with anger management. Anger issues are so common in relationships that most couples I see have some sort of an encounter with angry episodes. Sooner or later.

Anger is a natural emotion. The problem is that anger can be so powerful that it can damage relationships. Along with romantic relationships, anger can strain friendships and family ties. Uncontrolled anger usually leads to hurt feelings. Over time, hurt feelings turn to resentment. Eventually, resentment may lead to a temporary or a permanent break up of your relationship.

There are two main schools of thought on anger management in psychotherapy in general and in couples therapy in particular.

1. Regulating the anger.

This approach deals with the regulation of anger itself. There is an assumption that anger is just anger, with nothing underneath. The person is labeled as angry. Therapists then recommend that the person learn to manage their anger by either taking a walk or counting to ten or breathing to control their emotional dysregulation.

The first step is to recognize the situations that trigger your anger. Finding your triggers is a very important part of anger management. You can avoid the situations that trigger your anger. A time out or walking away can help if you sense the trigger. You can use conflict resolution skills like negotiation and compromise.

A healthy outlet to express your excessive anger is another option. Some people go to the gym for an intense workout. Others go for a jog. Some people are very successful in anger management by putting their angry thoughts into a journal. That way nobody sees it. No damage is done to your relationships.

When anger is the main reason for relationship distress, the above strategies can give very good results. One of the partners may be truly an angry person with nothing underneath that anger. In that case, they do need straightforward anger management. I would not then recommend couple therapy or marriage counselling. In that case, individual anger management in a psychotherapy clinic would be ideal.

2. Processing underlying vulnerability.

More often than not though, I see the second school of thought, where underneath the anger there is a great deal of pain. That pain may consist of past and current hurts, fears, embarrassment and shame, as well as sadness. There is often unresolved grief for some significant losses in life. Whether the loss is that of a close person or a significant loss of income or a loss of a relationship – it is still a loss. You need to properly grieve it. Not everyone is comfortable with the grieving process. Are you?

If you do not process the vulnerable feelings like sadness, fear or shame, they accumulate inside. You need to let those feelings out. They cannot just disappear. Those vulnerable feelings and emotions end up coming out as anger. Why? Because, often, anger is more acceptable to express than vulnerability. Especially for men. Your anger may literally be modified sadness, fear or shame!

Example

Let us use a simple example to demonstrate how that concept works in couples therapy or marriage counselling. A couple comes to me with communication issues. The wife complains that her husband gets irritated and then outright angry when she tries to bring up difficult issues. What is really happening for him is that a difficult conversation brings up vulnerable feelings inside. He does not know what to do with it. He literally feels too vulnerable.

The wife thinks that her husband has anger issues and that he needs anger management. She goes by the first school of thought. It is hard to blame her because she is not a psychotherapist or a marriage counselor. She assumes that her husband is just angry. In fact, he probably thinks that too. He blames her for provoking him though. This is a very familiar pattern that I see in my psychotherapy practice in Vaughan of the Greater Toronto Area. I am certain that other therapists near me and outside of the GTA are seeing similar relationship dynamics.

I hope you can see that labeling that husband as angry and sending him for anger management may not be the best course of action. It may work of course. An individual psychotherapist can help him connect his anger with the underlying sadness, fear or shame. The benefit of doing it in couples therapy is even greater. Why? Because a skillful couples therapist can then help that husband express the underlying vulnerability to the wife. It can be done directly, in the joint session.

If the wife can actually see with her own eyes that her husband is not some angry person looking for a fight but rather a sensitive human being who needs help grieving or simply telling his shame story without being judged, it would make it easier for her to relate to him with less criticism and more compassion. It would also make it easier for the husband to connect his anger to sadness, fear or shame and to become more open with his wife about what is really happening for him inside. He can also use some anger management techniques like breathing, counting or taking a time out. Those techniques would be supplementary though rather than primary. That combination usually works best in properly managing anger in couples therapy.

Takeaway message

Remember, that anger is not necessarily destructive. When anger is communicated properly, it can lead to better understanding the situation. It can also lead to a closer bond between partners when the underlying vulnerability is expressed.

The key is to build an understanding and empathy for each other rather than resentment and hostility. If you can do that as a couple, your relationship will become stronger and more satisfying.

Interested in finding out whether anger management would help your relationship? Click here to get more information or book an online consultation.