I was coaching a wife the other day who said, “I want to be able to be myself with my partner, I need him to accept my anger and stay close to me even when I’m mad.” She had this idea that if he really loved her he would love her anger too. The problem is, when she got mad she said – in a voice with a very angry tone and higher volume, things to him like, “I’m so mad at you! You’re never there for me,” “you’re just like your father, you don’t care how I feel,” “you don’t even try, all you do is walk away. What’s the matter with you?” “You promised me you’d do (fill in the blank) and you didn’t, of course I’m mad. I just can’t trust you.”
There’s this myth – that expressing anger is “good,” it’s “healthy,” and that we need to “vent.”
Yep, it’s a myth.
In fact, research shows that “venting” anger fuels more of it.
The truth is, when it comes to close and intimate relationships reactive anger (anger that covers pain) is really destructive. It sends a message of failure and rejection. What partner can stay close, emotionally open and compassionate when the person they love most in the world, their life partner, turns on them in anger. The anger becomes a personal attack and makes them the enemy. The choice at that point is to defend, retreat or counter attack.
What’s really important to learn is that most anger in relationship covers hurt feelings. Hurt feelings are vulnerable. Soft and tender, even raw. When we get in the habit of covering our hurt feelings with anger it’s difficult to learn to slow down and not vent. Stopping automatic responses is hard to do. AND, if we don’t learn how to do it, to calm down, reach for help and get back to being open and vulnerable with our partner we will prevent the deeper emotional connection we really need to heal our pain. When the hurt build up from not being resolved it then becomes even easier to get angry the next time. Intimate connection helps us heal hurt feelings and having intimate connection help us regulate emotion.
What can you do if you get caught in the “I need to vent” trap?
1. Recognize your anger is a triggered response to hurt, sadness, loss and fear – which are much more vulnerable emotions.
2. Do some anger incompatible things – relax, give service, distract or do something physical to use the steam you have from being triggered.
3. When you’ve changed emotional states, then go back and work to identify the hurt that was under the anger. This hurt most commonly comes from getting a message from your partner that you’re not so important – perhaps feeling rejected, dismissed, or abandoned. Journaling can often help you get to the more tender feelings the anger was hiding.
4. Invite more intimate connection by sharing your more vulnerable feelings with your partner. Ex. “It really hurt my feelings when you came in late. I got afraid and feeling like I’m not important. I know I get mad at you usually when that happens, and that’s just made things worse – what I really need is for us to understand each other.”
5. Remember – being connected to your partner is what you really need and is so much better than winning an argument by striking out.
Being in intimate relationship is something we all need and it takes skills to have a happy and connected intimate relationship, skills we can develop. One important skill is to learn to reconnect after we’ve felt hurt, and anger doesn’t help that happen.
Venting anger will push your partner away, it will increase your feelings of being alone and unsafe.
In intimate relationships we all make mistakes, we all need compassion, and we all need the relief and comfort of reconnecting after hurt feelings.
If you have some productive ways you calm anger so you can get back in connection, do share them. We can all learn from each other.