“Now that we know I’m a full-blown anger problem, and I’m making my family sick with it…What’s next?”
He asked with a longing in his eyes. I’ve seen that look countless times. And I know, it’s the door of his heart now opening to receive Champion truths. I live for moments like these!
“Anger is often blocked from conscious awareness and converted into more tolerable or ‘family-authorized’ feelings, such as hurt or guilt. The person feeling anger no longer feels it; they only feel the ‘acceptable feelings’.”
Dr. John Bradshaw, Healing the Shame that Binds You
Last week I started the process of defining whether anger was a gift or a problem. I provided a little checklist to see if it was a problem and talked about the researched health consequences of anger on yourself, and anyone else that’s exposed to it.
This week I’m continuing.
This is not an anger management course. That’s a totally different way of exploring anger. And overtime research has shown it basically ineffective in most cases.
When anger is an issue, I believe getting to the root is the real key. That’s what I’ve been attempting to do last week … and again this week.
Rather than managing your anger, I would love to see you find the gift of your anger. The gift of power, strength, and motivation.
I am continuing with the client story I began with last week, because not only were they entertaining and, at moments, difficult…But they were also very committed to healing their relationship and any impact on their kids.
I know that you’re like them (and will really likely relate to their story) in wanting to do the very best things for your marriage, for your family, and for you!
I know you’re a Champion and that’s just what Champions do and desire to do!
1. THE RIGHT TO “DO” ANGER VS THE RIGHT TO “BE” ANGRY.
See last week’s blog.
2. RESEARCH ON ANGER & YOUR HEALTH
See last week’s blog.
3. RESEARCH ON ANGER & RELATIONSHIPS
“Oh my God, I knew this was coming!” Continuing with his sarcasm, he stated: “I can hardly wait.”
Before I could respond, he added, “I take all that back. Because if I don’t, you’ll probably use it against me!”
I retorted, “Before I use anything against you…let’s look at what research says about anger and marriage!”
With a somewhat changed tone, he said in a chipper manger, “I can hardly wait!”
If I could sum up what 50 years of research says about anger and marriage (or significant relationships) along with my 30 + years of marriage and family therapy, it would be this:
The success or failure of most marriages is correlated with the way a couple deals with or manages their anger.
A study released by Ohio State University says:
“If we were to give a definition of anger in marriage, it might be said that it’s feeling mad in response to frustration or other circumstances and expressing yourself in an impulsive manner without thought. Anger can be used to justify feelings, displace emotions, or elevate self-worth.
Though anger is one of the most common emotions known, to the human race, few people are skilled at reacting to this feeling with complete effectiveness. Many of us rely on a few specific responses that we learned as children and continue to use as adults. These responses can turn into constructive or destructive behavior.
It’s not whether we get angry, but what we do with it that matters. Expressing anger in a marriage can actually be helpful and draw couples closer together, but it can also backfire if couples don’t use anger in a constructive manner.”
So very well said!
Let’s look at some other insights that come from marital research on anger.
- The spouse of an angry person is at a 10x higher risk for depression and anxiety
- Anger directed toward a spouse:
- Lowers their ability to trust
- Weakens their self confidence
- Increases irritability
- Damages physical health
- Anger is a predictor that divorce is an 87% likely outcome
- Anger is expressed more to one’s spouse than in any other relationship
- Ongoing anger in a marriage, morphs into resentment and contempt
- Energy expended on anger in a marriage borrows from (or steals from) the energy needed to extend the marital relationship and grow it
- Inability to manage anger in the first year of marriage is a predictor that 80% of those will divorce in the following 5 years
I asked him to share what the data spoke to him.
“Well, the only thing we haven’t done is divorce. But I’m sure if I don’t get this anger formula thing mastered, we’ll be another statistic.”
He wasn’t broken but no longer had an edge.
With great firmness, I reassured him, “Well, you don’t have to be another statistic. You can accept this as a blazing red flag waving furiously and a blaring alarm calling to you…and do what you need to do…and you’ll be one of the 10-13%ers!”
He expressed his appreciation with a thumbs up and said, “That’s why I am here.”
What about you? What does it speak to you? Hopefully whether it’s a tinkling alarm or a blaring one, you’ll consider being one of the smaller percentages.
But. NOT just to “make it” …but to thrive together in great, fulfilling love. The kind of love you just cannot experience in the presence of anger.
Drs. John & Julie Gottman are the most prolific researchers in the history of marriage research and couple’s therapy.
I asked my client to bring his wife as we looked at the four anger modes that Drs. John & Julie Gottman, have noted in over 30 years with thousands and thousands of couples. But also, the antidote to all four anger modes.
I’ll explain the four modes as I did with them, and then prescribe the antidote. Hoping that you’ll acknowledge and work through any of those challenges in your marriage as well.
Please note, that all four of these have a component of anger!
Criticisms are not only about what your partner does or does not do, but about “who” they are at/in the core of their character.
When you look at it from that point of view, it’s easier to understand why when we receive criticism, we feel like it’s a dismantling of our entire self.
Anything that causes your partner to feel assaulted, rejected, or hurt fits into the category of criticism. Many couples misunderstand this as meaning that they cannot address issues. Nothing can be further from the truth.
The difference is that you’re addressing a topic when you address issues, and… you’re addressing “a person” not the issue/problem when criticism is used.
This is dangerous because it begins a cycle. Each partner wants to enter a healing process but come to the table so to speak, feeling unheard and bad about themselves. Making time together more and more unpleasant, scary, and unpredictable.
That’s no way to live, let alone love.
Unfortunately, our brains are wired with a natural bias to pay more attention to the negative. We’re all bent that way. When that kicks in and we’re noticing the negative, a downward spiral begins taking over. We must learn to set our brains (our RAS … reticular activating system) to searching for the good in our partner daily … moment by moment.
(Start by treating them at the very least like you would treat a co-worker. We all know we try to respect, and are very careful to never offend, a co-worker.)
The antidote to this is using gentle startups. Or asking for an appointment to share your heart. Research has shown this makes a major difference in how the conversation will go.
With my couple, I asked her to share with me which criticism that she heard most often from her husband that disturbed her the most.
Without even a moment of hesitation, she said, “Oh that’s easy! At least several times weekly he says something like this, ‘You’re just not any fun anymore!’”
I turned to him and said, “How would you imagine that would make her feel?”
He responded, “I’m sure like all of that stuff you just said about being assaulted and hurt.”
I asked him if he’d be willing to talk about that with her in a healthy way. In his normal sarcastic humor, he responded: “Do I have any choice?”
I chuckled as I said, “Only if you don’t care about your marriage!”
“Then tell me how to do this!”
I was happy to oblige!
I instructed him to soften the tone of his voice and ask her if you could speak to her about something that was concerning you. He did a great job.
Then I asked him to talk to me for a moment about why he delivered that gut punch to her so often.
At first, he said just because she wasn’t any fun. But I asked him to dig a little deeper. I asked him a few questions, and finally he said, “I just feel bad having fun when she’s busy taking care of the kids and all of the household chores.”
I thanked him for his courage to dig deeper to his truth.
“So really, you gut punch her to alleviate your guilt and give yourself permission to run and play because she growls at the gut punch?”
He nodded with appropriate shame. “So,” I asked him, “What do you really want?”
“For years she was my best playmate.”
I coached him a bit: “So you miss her playing with you?” He nodded again.
“Do you think the gut punch inspires her to want to have fun with you?” He shook his head as he looked to the floor.
I asked him to share with her how much he missed playing with her. With true sincerity, he looked right at her and said, “I miss you. I miss the fun we had together. I do my own fun but it’s not the same!”
I remained silent, but was quite touched!
They both teared up as I choked back my own tears at his pure honesty.
I asked him what he thought might make that fun possible? At first, he acted as if he was dumbfounded. But when he realized I was not going to break the silence, he mumbled, “I guess if I offered to help her so there would be more time for her?”
He looked at me to see if he was correct, and I directed him to ask her.
Almost like a little boy, he asked her if he offered to help her some, if that would make time for her to have some fun with him?
As you can imagine she melted. Then they had conversations about some chores he could take over, and the fun they could have.
Defensiveness is the response to perceived criticism, whether or not the other actually being critical.
It’s almost omnipresent in relationships that are on the rocks.
- We play the innocent victim.
- We fish for excuses.
- We explain and justify.
- We do anything to avoid taking responsibility.
Defensive is never a healthy response.
The late great Dr. John Bradshaw said, “Addicts endlessly explain themselves…adults don’t.”
The antidote to defensiveness is learning to take at least some responsibility for the challenge.
I asked him if he ever felt she was defensive. He didn’t hesitate, “Every time I gut punch her with the fun thing!”
I asked him to describe what that part of the interaction looked like. “Usually, she says something like, ‘I’d like to run and play too! But I have homework to help the kids with, laundry to do, and dishes in the sink!’”
I turned to her and said, what can you do rather than defend yourself in those moments?
She was obviously thinking hard when she asked me, “Could I ask for something instead?” I invited her to give it a try.
Although I could see she was very nervous about it, she took a deep breath and said, “I know it’s my fault that I take on too much instead of asking you and the kids to help. I’d love to have fun with you. Would you be willing to take on some of the chores, and help assign the kids appropriate chores?”
I thought…Very well done!
What can you do to begin to take responsibility rather than defend yourself? Champions are adults. Adult acting adults-are Champions! Sometimes it’s as simple as this … time to grow up!
Contempt is truly mean, even though that may not be the intention.
Contempt includes things such as:
- Speaking or treating another with disrespect
- Mocking another’s thoughts or feelings with sarcasm
- Ridiculing someone
- Eye rolling
- Deep sighs of disgust
- Leaving someone feeling despised and/or worthless
The research done by the Gottman‘s find that this is the most dangerous, and is most likely to lead to divorce … quickly.
The antidote to contempt is simply learning to describe your feelings and your needs, by not using strained body languages, grunts, groans, half moans, and eye rolls (that are always felt as a “lash out” by your partner). That are guaranteed to turn up the heat. This cycle never works … never. NEVER!
Why? Because no one can predict the direction of a tornado once it starts!
I asked her if she ever felt contempt from her husband? She nodded firmly as if that were an obvious answer.
I asked her for an example so that we could work through it together. She said that she had had a very tough week recently, and he asked her how she was.
She’d been vulnerable and shared with him that she was exhausted, completely stressed out, and overwhelmed. She said that he looked at her, rolled his eyes, huffed, and said, “Oh my God! So, life is just too hard for you?” All said with a horribly sarcastic tone.
As I turned to him, he immediately said, “I’m not going to defend myself because I know I’m in trouble.” I just smiled and nodded in agreement.
I asked him if he would be willing to describe his own needs and feelings that he was having at that moment. I asked him to speak to me first.
He explained that he knew he was a major part of the problem. In the moment, he felt hopeless as far as what to do, and very guilty. So, he just let those words fly out.
I asked him to look at her, and share what happened with him at that moment, and what he needed.
He began slowly, “I felt guilty because I knew I was part of the problem. But I was too much of an *ss to own that. I also had no idea what to do to help in the moment. I guess what I needed was assurance that you were going to be OK, and I needed to ask you how I could help.”
Her tears told me that he was doing a good job.
I asked her if he’d been able to do that at that moment, “what difference would it have made?”
Through tears, she said, “I would not have felt like a worthless bother, and all alone in the world.”
What about you? Can you learn to express your feelings and your needs instead of reacting? I believe you can. The Champion in you is callng!
Stonewalling is a response to being flooded with ongoing accusation, criticism, contempt, rapid firing, etc. Your partner will withdraw from the interaction and shut down to protect themselves.
Stonewalling, becomes understandable, but it can also become a very bad habit.
The antidote is to learn to ask for breaks when you’re emotionally overwhelmed, and to take a moment or 20 minutes to self soothe before re-engaging.
And ideally, have a preplanned signal to be able to ask for the break which the partner will grant. Then give them time, usually about 20 to 30 minutes, indicating when you’ll return after giving the signal.
Both partners need to do things that’re self-soothing during these 20 to 30 minutes, rather than stewing on the challenge. That means both partners need to learn what will self soothe them.
Things such as:
- Going for a walk
- Listening to music
- Rehydrating yourself (not with alcohol)
- Doing a short meditation
- Saying a prayer
- Reading something soothing
- Watching an inspirational video
The wife admitted that she was a stonewaller, but she’d welcome the process of breaks and self-soothing. Then coming back together.
Together, they developed the symbol of putting both hands together with fingers interlocking, and saying, “I need a break and I’ll be back in ___ minutes (20 to 30 minutes recommended) and we’ll try this again.”
I asked him what having that agreement in place meant to him? He responded, “I could spend less time in the doghouse!”
I also invited him to be careful to note when she was flooding so that he could stop himself. And that he suggest, “Hey let’s take a break for 20 to 30 minutes, and we will try this again.”
So, what is flooding?
Flooding is a neurophysiological condition that occurs when a person is overstressed, creating huge dumps of stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol, catecholamines, etc.) causing our heart rates, respiration rates, oxygen saturation rates, and/or vasoconstriction rates to increase. When flooding occurs, these symptoms often follow:
- Heart pounding
- Shallow breathing
- Knot or pit in stomach
- Tightness in throat
- Tightness in chest
When flooding occurs, it activates the amygdala in the center of our brain and SHUTS DOWN our prefrontal cortex. This results in loss of all reasoning and good judgement. It is why it’s highly recommended that all couples learn to recognize flooding in themselves and in their partners ,,, and to take a break to self soothe.)
I also encouraged him to note when she was flooding so that he could stop himself before they got to that point. He admitted that he knew exactly what she was talking about because when he was angry and got on a roll, he’d roll over her like a bulldozer. He made a sincere apology and promised to work on his bulldozing and on communicating in a way that would not flood her into fleeing!
What about you? What can you do as a signal when you’re feeling flooded? Or to learn to note your style of bulldozing? And what will you do to self soothe?
Spend a moment to develop your signal with your partner. And become more aware when your partner is being flooded!
Research says if you’ll practice these antidotes, and reduce the occurrence of these four marriage busters, that the intimacy, safety, and connection in the marriage will begin to turn around rapidly!
Drs. John & Julie Gottman say those that turn the four marriage busters around are masters, and those who don’t … are disasters.
Which will you be? I believe you will be masters … Champions for love!
4. EMOTIONAL MASTERY & ANGER
In order to emotionally master your anger, follow all four steps above. If you carry toxic anger, do the exercises in last week’s blog (click here if you missed it!)
After doing all the exercises above, sometimes we find that anger has become a habit. Here are some of the suggestions to break the “nasty” habit:
- Identify the anger before acting on it
Say to yourself: “This is anger.” NOT… “I’m angry.” We all get labeled an “angry person” when we’re always known to react that way habitually.
Identifying it makes it less personal. (Or dumb it down to a word you can tolerate … frustration, annoyed, etc.). Then ask yourself: “How would the very best parts of me react, or better yet, respond.” The new habit will help eradicate the old habit.
- Remind yourself you have a right to the anger, but not to impose it on others.
Once I tell people that they have a right to their anger, they’re very protective of that right. That’s when I add the second part.
You have a right to be angry, but you don’t have a right to impose your anger and its health consequences on others! Just taking a moment to consider your “right” and your response will give yourself time to consider how you’ll deal with the anger.
- Remind yourself that “this too shall pass”
Remember that the emotion will pass. The anger, frustration will pass. But what you do with it will not pass for those you impose it on. It’s never a sign of weakness when you take time to regain composure. It’s a strength.
The Champion part of you would never want to give lasting consequences of your anger to those you love!
- Notice and learn to deal with what triggers your anger
This is a process. But if you learn to recognize your triggers, you can either avoid them, or see them for what they are. Therefore, averting habits of displaying your anger.
With my couple, we learned one of his triggers was feeling held back from fun. Growing up, he had to come straight home from school to work the farm. Baling hay, etc. All while other kids were playing baseball.
Any hindrances to fun were a trigger to him. So, he learned to plan ahead, offer to help, and help his wife make time for fun with him.
- Release the shame around your anger
Not only is there no shame in needing to deal with your anger, but it’s a great act of heroic courage to do so. Leave the denial about your anger behind. You wouldn’t be justifying, explaining it, or denying it, if it hadn’t or hasn’t been a problem.
Just notice your anger. Laugh at yourself. The healing and new habit will wash over you very quickly.
5. REPROGRAMMING YOUR BRAIN TO HARNESS THE POWER OF THE GIFT OF ANGER INSTEAD OF THE POWER OF DESTRUCTION
Remember that the gift of anger is power, strength and motivation that builds and improves you, and the lives of those around you.
As I was reminding the couple I was working with of the gift, I asked the husband if he could think of an example of how he could harness the power of the gift of anger. At first, he seemed seriously stumped.
But then the mischievous grin came across his face as he said: “I bet if I use the gift, I can do the chores that need to be done in record time!” He laughed and continued, “So let the fun begin!”
He got it!
One of things you can do daily to program your brain to harnessing the power of the gift of anger is to begin each day, seeing your best part of you in charge. Then choose a power statement to say out loud. Something like, “I’m ready to take any anger and release the gifts of power, strength and motivation and accomplish great things!”
That statement sets your RAS (reticular activating system) to look for any opportunity, even the slightest annoyance, to grab the gift of power, strength, and motivation. But to begin to rewire the reptilian part of your brain that holds anger, you MUST say it aloud. The sound of your voice speaks to that part of your brain. In that one small exercise, you’re rewiring two parts of your brain for a life that harnesses anger for the good of yourself and others!
No more secondhand anger being imposed on those you love.
Now, to set your RAS and your reptilian brain for power, strength, and motivation by saying this out loud: “I’M READY AND WE CAN DO THIS!”
NO! I’m serious! Say it aloud!
I know you’re ready, and I know you WILL do this!
As for my couple, I received this text three days ago:
Dearest Dr. Neecie,
“I know anger may come up from time to time, but we have an anger free home! We’ve never had more fun, nor laughed as much as we have over the past few weeks. As a couple, and as a family.” PS. “It’s okay with me if you need to label me as he walks like, quacks like, so he must be a duck…Cause you sure as hell can’t call me angry!”
A Champion’s resolve.
Do you have it? I believe you do.
Get ready for anger to lead you to the gift of power, strength and motivation. And get ready for your intimate connections to grow. Get ready, get ready, GET READY!
The Champion life is GOOD! VERY GOOD!