Just as a fever is a sign of an underlying illness in our body, anger is a “red flag” that signals a problem in a relationship. Like a fever, anger doesn’t tell us exactly what the problem is, just that there is something that needs urgent attention.
That’s not to suggest that anger is always bad or that it should be suppressed or avoided; our anger may be justified. But when anger becomes a habit in a relationship, it can lead to even greater problems.
Anger means pay attention. Learn to identify the problem. Learn to talk about it. Learn to handle it together.
We may respond with anger when nothing else seems to work: when we’re extremely frustrated or we cannot find the words to express our feelings. We may explode in a verbal tirade or shut down into tormented silence. In the worst case, anger may turn physical.
Anger can wear a number of masks, especially if we have been taught that anger is bad. Here are a few signs of anger that might arise in a relationship, indicating the need for careful attention, such as counseling:
If we’re angry at our spouse but trying not to be obvious about it, our anger may “sneak out” in the form of sarcasm, biting comments, bitter humor or other nasty remarks. Something we might normally handle with good humor – our spouse forgetting something, for example – may become the target of a snide remark. Importantly, the matter that is making us angry may have nothing to do with the topic of the remark; rather, our “hidden” anger spills over into other areas.
Physical violence is an obvious sign of trouble in a relationship. But anger may reveal itself in more subtle physical ways. What might be considered normal physical play between partners may be “amped up” to a degree that is no longer fun. Poking, pinching, grabbing, squeezing or unnecessary roughness may signal anger roiling beneath the surface.
The trust between partners that is essential for a successful relationship gives us access to our partner’s greatest vulnerabilities. We know what pushes our partner’s buttons and, usually, we carefully and respectfully avoid those topics. But if we’re angry with our spouse and not handling it well, we may suddenly take advantage of that intimate knowledge and say something that is deeply hurtful.
Sometimes, when something is bothering us, instead of addressing it directly, we may react with anger. For example, we may be feeling sad or helpless or fearful, but rather than dealing with those feelings, which may be threatening to us individually or as a couple, we “bark” at our spouse.
Unrecognized anger becomes a lens through which we view everything in our relationship. If we’re angry, a gift of flowers can look like a bribe or a sign of guilt, a pair of socks on the bedroom floor can be interpreted as a deliberate sign of disrespect.
Fanning the flames.
In even the best relationships, angry words can be exchanged. Most of us have said things we wish we could stuff back into our mouths as soon as they’re out. But if we are unable to communicate effectively, if we are unwilling to forgive ourselves or our spouses for things said in the heat of the moment – or if we continually focus on anger, looking for signs of it in every word and deed – we can certainly undermine the security and stability we’ve established in our partnership.
Anger is a normal human emotion, but anger unrecognized, unexpressed or poorly managed can have painful repercussions. Relationship counseling can help us to recognize anger and develop the language and habits to cope with it before it damages our partnership.
For a free phone consult, call Dr. Fibus at 818.395.2831.