As a therapist with decades of experience, I can say with certainty that all marriages have conflict. In fact, conflict isn’t a bad thing. It’s often through conflict, emotional reactions, and arguments that concerns within the relationship become apparent and can be resolved through communication and compromise. The problem arises when the conflict in the marriage isn’t properly addressed and the argument becomes aggressive, insulting, or accusatory. In these situations, the conflict stymies growth and communication, rather than promoting it.
As an example, John and Margaret are patients of mine who have been married for more than ten years. They have two children, and for the most part, are satisfied with their marriage. John tends to avoid conflict; his philosophy is “happy wife, happy life.” Margaret is more comfortable with conflict, but over the years she has figured out how to introduce conflict in a way that feels comfortable enough for John. By speaking in a quiet tone, waiting until a low-stress time, and opening with her own experience, she’s able to share how she feels hurt and he’s able to respond.
Now and then, however, when things have gotten busy, or the stress level in the house is high, Margaret and John can have explosive arguments. These usually begin with Margaret snapping at John about her disappointment. John then agrees, apologizes, and walks away. Because Margaret knows that John is disengaging and “yessing” her, she becomes furious. Whether John continues to apologize or ultimately accuses Margaret of being “an angry woman”, these arguments often feel out of control. One or both of them may threaten divorce, bring up old, unresolved hurts from the past, or walk out. However it unfolds, they are both left feeling hurt and hopeless.
Why do you say hurtful words to someone you love?
When arguments devolve into damaging experiences, it’s usually because one or both partners feel desperate. In the example above, Margaret was desperate for John to acknowledge her disappointment. When he disengaged instead, Margaret felt ignored and dismissed. To avoid being dismissed, Margaret lashed out, saying shocking and hurtful things. When John became desperate to disengage, he did the same. Before long, both partners had said hurtful things, and the damage to the relationship was done.
There are times when the hurtful things we say aren’t true. Maybe we threaten divorce but don’t ever intend to follow through. Or perhaps we tell them “my mother never liked you”, or, “you’ve never understood me” or, “no one thought I should marry you”. We say these hurtful things (whether true or not) for impact. We want our partner to see our perspective, and to know how they’ve hurt us. In the moment, it makes us feel powerful, and says, “now you know how I feel”. In the moment, we are trying to punish them, but later we realize that we’ve lost control. Now, instead of focusing on our hurt feelings and very real concerns, we are instead picking up the pieces.
How to control anger in an argument
Anger is not an emotion that you need to avoid. Feeling angry is a common response to being hurt or offended. In fact, the degree of anger you feel is a clue to how deeply hurt you are feeling. When you discharge your anger by lashing out instead of communicating your hurt feelings, however, you damage your relationship. Remember: angry feelings are different from angry behavior. You don’t need to avoid anger, but if you want to protect the health of your relationships (and your mental health!), you do need to learn how to control it.
It is important not to give yourself permission to step over the line. The truth is, it is actually the hurt, disappointment, and injury that needs to be expressed. When you lash out in anger instead, you aren’t solving the real problem. Instead, you are creating new problems that you will have to solve after the fact, in addition to whatever upset you in the first place. Instead, we need to learn how to maintain our integrity and self-control; to live a happy life you have to regulate your feelings and express them.
It helps to engage in regular breathwork, meditation, self-kindness, and a practice of knowing that your feelings matter, to help you prepare for those inevitable moments when you feel angry and want to lash out. In the moment, it might help, for example, to have an agreed upon safe word or phrase such as, “I can’t listen to you when you are yelling at me”, or “I feel like I’m about to lose control”, that operates to bring the argument to a halt before it can get out of hand.
How to repair a relationship after hurtful words
When angry feelings turn to angry behaviors that damage the relationship, you must first work to repair. An immediate apology is helpful, but that’s just the beginning. The root of your anger and loss of control needs to be identified and understood. Are you saying things that aren’t true just to shock and hurt your partner? What’s underneath that impulse to jar your partner? Or, if what you are saying is true, why are you repressing those feelings? Why are you only sharing them in moments when you are out of control? Problems in healthy relationships need to be resolved, not left to fester.
When you realize that your angry behavior has gotten out of control, don’t waste the fight. Don’t “let it go” in the hopes that it won’t happen again. First work to regain your control, and then reintroduce the topic to your partner at at time when they are more receptive to another discussion. If this is too difficult, or results in another painful argument, you may need some help.
For many, it feels natural to be defensive and angry in an argument. It is important to uncover the underlying feelings rather than lashing out in anger. If this is difficult, you are not alone. I can help you learn how to have good arguments and address your relationship concerns in a productive and healthy way. Contact me here.