Many people argue that anger is a normative and often healthy emotion, that motivates us to stick up for our rights, values, and boundaries and helps protect us in dangerous situations. This all may be true in addressing societal issues. But there is a very corrosive aspect to anger in close relationships that often overshadow any possible benefits.
In relationships, feeling angry means having increased negative emotional arousal; this in turn churns out judgments. Judgments then increase arousal which produces more judgments, which leads to inaccurate and ineffective expression of emotions and desires, which then results in misunderstanding and conflict, which rarely leads to effective changes. Thus, angry feelings and angry expressions in close relationships almost always create distance, and distance is the enemy of closeness and intimacy. So, what is the alternative when you don’t like something?
In a word: Description. Description has the power to defuse this destructive cycle of judgments, negative arousal, misunderstanding, and conflict. If we can describe the situation, and describe our inner reactions (emotions, wants, disappointments) most often our emotions will be soothed and we will return to a more balanced perspective and then act effectively(Nhat Hanh). The benefit of anger is that it is easy to notice, and noticing anger can become a signal or alarm that we are going down a destructive path. We can learn to notice this alarm and can respond by first, reorienting our attention to look for judgments; second, letting judgments go; and third, turning our attention to description instead.
For example, my wife is very busy with travels and meetings and sometimes I get angry because she is so busy with other matters. Sometimes, I feel she is emotionally unavailable and begin to feel lonely. So if I say to her: “Suzanne, you are so emotionally absent with me. You don’t ever think of me. You’re in your own world. What is wrong with you? Everybody comes first. I always come last. You should see a therapist!” But when I said that to her, she did not want to spend more time with me! She just got defensive and argued with me!
So one day, following John Gottman’s description of a “softened start up” I said (describing to her): “You know, I have been feeling lonely lately. I know you have a lot on your plate (kind acknowledgment), but I guess, to be honest, I just need more of you. A couple of weeks ago when we sat down after dinner and talked about our day, that really felt nice. I just need more of you. I really miss you.” And guess what? She turned to me and said “I’m sorry, sweetie. I didn’t mean to be so absent, but I understand. I guess I kind of feel that way too. So, you know what, let’s do it now!”
Happy marriages begin when we marry the ones we love, and they blossom when we love the ones we marry…