I think what we all want in our relationships is to be able to freely express our anger and have our partner take that in stride, while at the same time we are mostly free from being on the receiving end of our partner’s anger. Right? Come on, admit it. Anger’s a lot more fun to dish out than to have to take.
Unfortunately, we rarely get this. What too many of us get is too much anger, on both sides. Now of course this anger can come in many flavors. Yelling anger. Put-down anger. Seething anger. Sniping anger. Passive/aggressive anger. But it all amounts to the same thing: a choking atmosphere that’s painful and kills passion and hope.
So let me offer you an insight into where that anger comes from so you can see what you can do about it.
You may not know that a common cause of anger in a relationship is what I call minimizing/maximizing. This goes on in most relationships, but it can get really bad.
Here’s an example of how it works.
Let’s say Tom is always late with stuff, and then never apologizes. At best he offers his partner Fran some lame excuse. Fran’s gotten to the point where she finds this really annoying. Infuriating, in fact. And finally lets him know. “I hate your being late! It’s rude, humiliating, and inconsiderate!! It’s what a person does with someone who doesn’t matter to them!!! Stop treating me like someone who doesn’t matter!!!!”
Note: Fran hasn’t started maximizing yet. She’s somewhat angry, but right now she’s just telling it like it is.
But Tom does minimize. He says, “What are you getting so upset about? Do you think I want to be late? I do the best I can. I can’t help it if things get away from me. I have a very busy, complicated life. You should be more chill.”
In other words, this isn’t really a problem at all, and even if it were, Tom’s saying it’s Fran’s problem, not his. Minimizing at its best.
Well, that’s no better than his covering his ears and saying, “Blah blah blah blah blah...”
Now at this point it’s not that Fran want to “maximize.” No one thinks in those terms. She just want to be heard. So she turns up the volume. Not just the loudness, but the intensity of the message. And she says, “What the hell is wrong with you? You only care about yourself. You’ve only cared only about yourself, just like at our wedding where during the reception you sat smoking cigars with your stupid buddies the whole time. And the reason you’re late? Because your life is ‘complicated’? Only to an idiot. It’s because you’re lazy and thoughtless and completely disorganized. You better get your shit together, because I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
Now that’s maximizing! It’s designed to get Tom to wake up and get his shit together. But...well, what do you think? Will it wake Tom up, et cetera? No. Duh! He’ll probably just minimize all the more, perhaps by doubling down on how Fran’s a nut, and an angry, out-of-control nut at that.
Okay, now take this simple dynamic, and imagine this. For every issue in your relationship—the problems each of you has with the other—you too often get into this minimizing/maximizing dynamic. And as time goes by and you have a past together, you argue about who did what to whom in the past and of course get into a minimizing/maximizing dynamic about those things as well.
This is inevitable and natural. When people feel attacked, judged, and blamed, they will almost always fall back on minimizing, and the whole shitshow takes off.
Now here’s where anger comes in:
The anger we experience in our relationship is the maximizing we do in response to the other person’s minimizing.
And if everyone is minimizing and maximizing all over the place every time an issue comes up—which is what I see with most couples who come to me for help—then that’s where the atmosphere of anger comes from.
Now here’s what kills me, as a therapist. All this pain, all this damage—none of it is necessary. And the solution isn’t for us to be perfect people. Unless there’s a perfect fit in our relationships—the people who are always late end up marrying the very people who never mind when the other person is late—there will be “issues.”
No, the reason this pain and damage isn’t necessary is that everyone—theoretically, at least—has the ability to stop minimizing. That’s it!! That’s all anyone has to do!!!!
Now, was that so hard?
Here’s how to do it.
It’s my husband’s job at the end of the day to put the rest of the dishes in the dishwasher and put a load through. Add soap, push a button. He almost always does that. Fine. But occasionally he forgets. It’s not a crime, believe me. I’m grateful that he does remember most of the time.
On the other hand, it can be frustrating for me to wake up to what amounts to a pile of dirty pots, dishes, and silverware, particularly since they’re usually the ones I want the most first thing in the morning. So I might say, in an annoyed voice, “You really need to remember to put the dishes through every night.”
Minimizing is “Well, I can do a load now.” Meaning, “So you wait two hours for the dishes. So what?” Or, “Okay, but I really do remember almost every night.” Meaning, “You have no right to this annoyance since things go right all the other times.”
NOT minimizing is just, “Oh! I’m so sorry—that’s my job!! I know you’re counting on finding a dishwasher full of clean dishes! You must be so frustrated. I’ll really try hard not to forget again.”
So what are the ingredients in NOT minimizing? Just two:
Identifying, acknowledging, stating, and taking seriously the other person’s pain or discomfort, without minimizing it.
Taking full responsibility for what happened. You did the deed. You shouldn’t have done the deed. You’re going to work on not doing the deed again.
Now the reason this is hard for people is that it can feel that you’re acting as the co-prosecutor against yourself, when you desperately want to be your own defense attorney.
But here’s why NOT minimizing works. Doing what I suggest is so great because it’s what’s called a joining move, always one of the best things you can do in a relationship. A joining move is what couples falling in love do all the time. “I love pistachio ice cream.” “You do!?! Me too!!”
Never fail to make every joining move possible. And most especially when you feel attacked. Because remember!:
If you’re being “attacked,” it’s because you’re partner’s in pain.
If you don’t minimize, your partner will feel you’re joining her in her vulnerability.
So do the NOT minimizing thing, always, both of you. There will be much less anger in your relationship.