In my romantic relationships, conflicts bring out a side of me that I don’t like. I fly into a rage and end up making ugly comments I later regret. In the moment, it’s like I can’t stop. I’m shocked by the level of anger I have, and I’m afraid to enter relationships as a result.
— Exploding Woman
There are obvious shortcuts in anger management, such as: “Never go to bed angry. Smother the unreasonable idiot next to you so you can get some sleep.”
Anger gets knocked as a toxic emotion, but when somebody’s disrespecting or fleecing us, our blowing up suggests this won’t end well for them – in a way our being all “Hey, no prob, bro” does not. Research by evolutionary psychologist Aaron Sell suggests anger evolved as a “bargaining” tool to help the angry person resolve conflicts of interest in their favor.
Sell observed that anger is one of a few emotions (like sadness) that “regulates” others’ behavior as well as our own. Anger rises in us when we perceive someone is treating us unfairly — not putting enough value on our well-being — and motivates us to get them to mend their ways. It motivates the person we’re angry at through two means: the prospect that we’ll “withdraw benefits” (like sex or the perks of friendship) or “inflict costs” (like by throwing public tantrums or hacking off the left arm of all their shirts).
So, anger is a potential solution, a negotiating platform. The problem comes when you express it in counterproductive ways, leaving you embarrassed, ashamed, out of a job or in the slammer. Going explosively ugly at a romantic partner is like using a shoulder-fired missile launcher to get martini olives out of a jar. Sure, it works to remove the olives — and you might eventually find a few specks of them on the cable guy’s truck two streets back.
To be human is to be occasionally explody, but habitual exploders tend to be driven by some or all of this trio: conflict avoidance, irrational beliefs and/or unannounced needs.
Conflict avoidance: People avoid difficult conversations to avoid the unpleasantness that comes with them. Unfortunately, avoiding conflict doesn’t make it go away, and the unpleasantness only grows; it’s just all on their end, continually eating them up inside and making them angrier. In contrast, when you confront somebody, the discomfort is momentary. It also solves a problem — either by prompting them to come around or finding out that they probably never will.
Irrational beliefs: Pop the hood of rage and you’ll typically find the irrational belief that psychologist Albert Ellis sometimes sums up as “People MUST always treat me well!” (or MUST this or that). In fact, Ellis explained, it’s rational to prefer to be treated well, but nobody “must” do anything. There’s only how they do behave and how you’ll decide to behave in response.
“Catastrophizing” is Ellis’ term for a companion irrational belief: “It will be HORRIBLE if they treat me badly!” “Horrible” is getting flattened to death by the secretly motorized walls of your bathroom closing in on you or getting chased and eaten by giant cockroaches. But somebody being kind of a jerk to you will merely be disappointing, annoying, frustrating and/or depressing. You’ve survived all of these feelings before, and you’re sure to do it again. And again.
Unannounced needs: People blow up over their needs that keep going unmet — which really isn’t reasonable or fair when these needs remain unannounced. No, you can’t just hint or decide that a man “should just know” what you want. Yes, you have to tell him. He can’t read your thoughts on his Kindle.
Present your needs as a feelings-driven “ask” rather than an attack, which sets him up to listen instead of fight back. For example: “I feel X way when things go like this. Here’s what I’d prefer.” If he cares about you, hearing that you feel bad should evoke empathy and make him want to make you feel better — possibly by doing what you’re asking. At the very least, he might tell you he can’t and explain why.
To change your habitual ragey response to conflict, pre-plan and even practice a more rational reaction. Should a discussion start getting heated, suggest taking a break and maybe take a solo walk to calm down. Lapses are probably inevitable, so try to avoid them, but expect them and forgive yourself.
Telling your partner about your efforts might help him forgive lapses, too, as well as giving him hope for your future together. Ideally, his pet name for you should be something boringly endearing like “honey,” “darling” or “babe,” as opposed to the nickname of my (now-reformed hothead) friend Hiroko – Japanese for “magnanimous” — whose former boyfriend couldn’t help but call her “Hiroshima.”
Amy Alkon is the author of the nationally syndicated, science-based “Advice Goddess” column. Contact her at email@example.com or @amyalkon on Twitter.