In this series, I’ve been looking at the experience of living with a partner with anger issues, as well as ways to shift your thinking so as to maintain peace of mind, regardless of your partner’s state of mind. Now I want to offer some practical strategies, things you can do to keep yourself separate and protected in the face of your partner’s anger.
When it comes to separating from your partner’s anger, the simplest strategy is to do just that: Separate yourself, by leaving the space where they’re angering. By removing yourself, you’re inviting (and requiring) your partner to sit with their own anger without you there to absorb it or put it on. You can exit the space tactfully, with or without words, but if it feels right, you can tell your partner that you need to remove yourself from the conversation—just for now—for your own peace of mind. You might say something like, “I understand you need to vent, and I get and respect that…and…what I need right now is to not be in this; I need to feel safe and calm.” Or perhaps, “I’m not comfortable (or okay) with what’s happening here, but perhaps we can talk more about this later, when it might be easier to talk through for both of us.” With some practice and determination, you can learn to do this calmly and directly. Speaking up for yourself and establishing your own experience in the face of their anger is important, and a powerful and effective strategy for shifting the anger experience. Speaking up for your own needs in the face of anger is not easy. You didn’t get to where you are in this relationship overnight and it will take time to undo the unhealthy patterns. Start with baby steps, be patient, and stay the course.
You may have forgotten that you can be the agent of change at any moment in your life. You can change what’s happening and remove yourself from harm’s way; you can give yourself what you need. One of the beautiful things about being an adult is that you have the power to take care of yourself when someone else is not taking care of you. Use that power wisely.
When faced with anger, however, our body often freezes, as part of the fight-flight-freeze fear response. Like a deer in headlights, we remain frozen as the truck hits us head-on. But remember this: No one has the right to make you sit for an emotional eruption or attack because that’s what they need to do. No matter how your partner may try to make their issues your issues, you have the right to take care of yourself, and remove yourself from any interaction you don’t want to be in—no matter what. It’s a mightily powerful technique, to simply say ”I cannot do this right now.” And to say it without apologizing, elaborating, invalidating or explaining it further—that’s a game-changer.
It goes without saying (but I will say it anyway): If for any reason your partner prohibits you from physically removing yourself from their anger, then you need to separate from this person in a more concrete and definitive way, now.
Getting in the habit of creating distance in the face of anger, and actively taking care of what you need, is life-changing. It’s defining your own separate and independent space, internally and externally—from within the relationship. It’s reminding yourself that what you need also matters. Ultimately, it’s taking control of your own well-being, which is everything.
It’s important to create not just physical separation, however, but mental and emotional independence as well. When your partner is caught in their anger, and possibly spewing it at you, focus your attention on a single intention: not biting the hook, not getting engaged in their spinning. It can be helpful to silently repeat to yourself: “Don’t bite the hook,” “Don’t go there,” “Stay here,” or some short mantra that helps you stay grounded inside yourself. If it feels useful, you can also visualize a shield around yourself, made of light, armor, gold, or whatever suits you, and see their anger bouncing off of you.
Simultaneously, you can reflect your partner’s anger in a neutral but kind way, saying things like “I hear you,” “I get it,” or “I see how upsetting this is—for you.” These acknowledging statements can help your partner feel heard, but without your getting entrenched, taking the blame, or taking on their experience. It offers empathy while keeping your partner’s anger at arms’ length—from you.
Perhaps the most obvious strategy, but one that’s often avoided, is to initiate a conversation about your partner’s anger—with your partner. It’s surprising how few people actually do this, precisely because they’re afraid of the anger that raising the issue will trigger. As a result, you’re bullied into silence and held hostage by their anger. But addressing the anger directly, as its own issue, can sometimes help. Be mindful of your timing, however, and initiate the conversation when the relationship is intact and calm. Most people with anger issues know they have them, and thus will marinate with your words and concerns in their own time.
Before you have that conversation, however, write down examples of when their anger felt out of control to you and what you experienced as a result. Come prepared, and use the words “for me” a lot. If your partner becomes angry, as feared, you can explain that what’s happening right in that moment is exactly what you’re talking about and hoping to improve. It’s also wise to seek professional help from a couples therapist or counselor, to have a neutral and trained person in the room who can help navigate the situation. Remember: You didn’t cause the your partner anger issues and you can’t fix them on your own. Ask for help.
It’s also wise to seek your own therapy when you live with someone with anger issues. Investigating and acknowledging your own feelings is often the best thing you can do, for yourself, and paradoxically, the health of the relationship. Your own therapy can help you separate and protect yourself from your partner’s anger issues; it’s a powerful opportunity for becoming emotionally independent.
Even with all these strategies in your pocket, anger can be frightening and disturbing. Anger triggers neurological changes and alters the chemicals in your brain and body. There are real, physiological challenges when anger is coming at you, which can disrupt your ability to respond from your wisest self, and sometimes to respond at all. As you embark on this path and try out these strategies, be vigilant, most of all, about staying connected with yourself and treating yourself with kindness. Meet the intensity of your partner’s anger with the intensity of compassion—for yourself. Let your self-compassion be its antidote. Don’t judge or criticize yourself for being affected in whatever way you’re affected, or for not being able to respond perfectly. You’re human and related, which means other people’s behavior affects you. Refuse to add more anger to your reality by getting angry at yourself. Anger is tough… stay on your own side.
Anger is a big deal, and needs to be addressed one way or another in a relationship. The way anger is managed needs to work for both people in a relationship, not just the angry (or angrier) person. At the end of the day, creating a healthier relationship with an anger bully involves giving their anger back to them to work with, allowing (and requiring) them to contend with their own unresolved stuff. Simultaneously, it’s about taking charge of your own well-being, and not leaving your peace and well-being in anyone else’s hands.
What they don’t tell you in relationship school is that you don’t need your partner to be okay for you to be okay. And not only that; you don’t need to share your partner’s experience in order to understand or care about it. Ultimately, we’re all responsible for our own well-being, and once we realize that, we also know we’re in the best of hands.