The Way We Speak to Each Other When We Are Angry

The interactions that are most destructive in relationships are those that express angry criticism or impart a blaming, judgmental attitude toward one’s partner.

Anger can overwhelm even the most self-reflective and self-aware person. When you are feeling blamed or criticized, even if the reasons may be valid, your pulse races and your limbic system takes over, making rational thought almost impossible.  

Anger is always expressed negatively as criticism and/or blame and it sets off the deep-seated fear that we will be rejected(not important enough) and/or abandoned.  It makes sense that such scorn makes it infinitely harder to hold on to our mental equilibrium and emotional balance.  So we either angrily strike back defensively or withdraw and become emotionally distant.

I have often noticed that partners usually have no clue as to the real impact of their negative judgments.  Someone once said to me: “But mature adults should be able to deal with criticism.  It’s really just feedback.”  To which I answer: “But this is YOU giving feedback that he is disappointing you, and you are your partner’s main source of safe connection.  He no longer feels safe in his most important relationship.”

MESSAGE:  Blaming may feel good in the moment, but the effects can be disastrous.  While expressing anger or blame can get your point across, it will also erode your intimate bond.

The point is this: anger is often an indication of deeper feelings–feeling rejected, inadequate, dismissed, not feeling a priority, taken for granted.

So the next time you get angry, stop and think about why you’re angry.

Then tell your partner what you feel and what you need in a softer tone, rather than a harsh one(John Gottman, How Marriages Succeed or Fail). For example, this is how Marge feels after her husband bailed on their date night:

After withdrawing and saying nothing for a while, in a raised voice she says: I don’t believe this!  You always cancel on me to meet up with your stupid friends! Hello! Remember me!  You just think about yourself all the time! You never, ever think of me!  

The key emotion here is feeling unimportant. Once she identifies this, she can communicate in such a way that her partner can understand her.  She can then construct a more coherent and loving start-up to their conversation: 

Marge: “Is this a good time to talk about something that’s been on my mind?”   
Tony: “It is.”  
Marge: “I feel unimportant when we make plans and you cancel them.  I’m sure you don’t mean to make me feel that way but I hope you understand.  So can we make time this week to do something together?”

In other words, speak from your own needs in a non-blaming and unapologetic tone.  Choosing your words and emotions with care is not easy.  It takes practice, but once you start using this approach, it can repair and actually strengthen your bond over time.

Picture of Jim Covington

Jim Covington

Jim Covington (M.Div. MA, LMFT) has been helping couples improve their relationships for more than 30 years. He holds degrees are in psychology and theology, is a licensed New York marriage and family therapist, a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists and has been trained in multiple approaches to marital/couples therapy and family therapy.

He has completed Level 3 Practicum Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, externship training with the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples and PREP (Prevention & Relationship Enhancement Program), and employs Solution Oriented Brief Therapy as taught by Michelle Weiner-Davis.
Picture of Jim Covington

Jim Covington

Jim Covington (M.Div. MA, LMFT) has been helping couples improve their relationships for more than 30 years. He holds degrees are in psychology and theology, is a licensed New York marriage and family therapist, a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists and has been trained in multiple approaches to marital/couples therapy and family therapy.

He has completed Level 3 Practicum Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, externship training with the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples and PREP (Prevention & Relationship Enhancement Program), and employs Solution Oriented Brief Therapy as taught by Michelle Weiner-Davis.