Think about the last time you were mad at someone. Maybe a friend blew off your birthday or your spouse let you down. I see these tough relationship moments all the time – not just in my work as a therapist, but in my own life as a human being and a mother, spouse, sister, aunt, in-law, daughter, and friend. The more important the relationship, the more intense the emotion. This makes sense: the stakes are high when you care deeply about someone.
It’s likely that underneath your anger (which could range from light disappointment to full-on frustration to all-consuming rage), something more layered and complex is happening. You were hurt, or you felt misunderstood, or not heard or seen in some way. You might have tried to get your point across but the other person didn’t get it or get you, and you were left feeling shut out. The conflict could simultaneously unconsciously kick up old feelings and behaviors connected to childhood experiences.
Part of the difficulty for anyone who tries to share their emotional experience – especially when it’s anger – is that it often lands as an attack or criticism. This sends the other person into survival mode, triggering their nervous system into a fight, flight, or freeze response. Humans are relationally wired, and if a relationship suddenly feels emotionally “unsafe”, we respond as if there’s a lion about to pounce. Depending on how you learned to cope with relational distress as a child, you might have a limited set of moves: distancing, withdrawing, going silent, becoming passive aggressive, attacking back, etc. None of these coping mechanisms are effective in helping two people resolve an underlying conflict.
Much of this happens unconsciously, but it’s possible to peel back the layers with a trained therapist. When I work with dyads – couples, friends, adult siblings etc. – this is often the place where we begin our collaboration. I ask, how easy has it been for the two of you to share your inner emotional worlds with each other without setting off an old, unproductive, negatively reinforcing dynamic?
We all have a “window of tolerance” for sitting in tough emotions before our nervous system tells us to get the hell out of there and exits into fight/flight/freeze. (That “exiting” looks like those malfunctioning coping mechanisms mentioned above.) In the therapy office, I work hard to make sure both people feel understood by me – and eventually, by each other – which helps them strengthen their muscles for tolerating uncomfortable conversations. One thing is always guaranteed: both people have their own perspective about what’s going on, but neither feels like they are getting through to the other. Gaining insight into the root of each person’s anger inevitably fosters mutual understanding and a deeper emotional connection. Processing pain defuses anger.
I always tell my clients “Trust the Process”. It might sound cheesy, but it’s true. I have seen it work for relationships over and over again. The only ingredient needed to get a better place is the willingness to try.