In Part 1 of this series, “How to Live (Peacefully) With An Anger Bully,” I looked at the experience of living with someone with anger issues, what it’s actually like and what happens to you internally when your partner’s anger is unmanaged and problematic. Here, in Part 2, I want to go further and consider how you can respond and think differently about your partner’s anger so as to maintain your own sense of well-being, which your partner, in fact, does not control. Most importantly, how you can protect yourself emotionally—regardless of what tangle your partner is caught in or why your partner is acting out.
In reality, we participate in relationships and choose partners for infinite reasons, many of which don’t make rational sense and can’t be understood. Relationships contain difficulty and elements that shouldn’t exist—always.
Nonetheless, it’s very easy for people to plant their flag in the moral high ground, to claim that anyone who’s in a relationship with a partner who has anger issues should immediately leave the relationship. But having been a therapist for nearly three decades, I can say with absolute certainty that, in real life, when it comes to relationship and anger, it’s almost never that obvious or clear cut.
Most of the time, the landscape of intimate relationships is messy and complicated—grey rather than black and white; contradictory rather than consistent; “both/and” rather than “either or.” Essentially, the opposite of obvious.
I want to be clear here: If you feel physically unsafe, emotionally abused, traumatized, or in danger, it’s time to go—now. When your safety is at risk, well-being is no longer the relevant conversation.
At the same time, every relationship contains anger, no matter how “good” a relationship it might be—anger both from our partner and at our partner. After years of trying to help clients change their partner’s behavior (and my own partner’s)—and mostly failing, my approach shifted. I got more interested and found unimaginably more success by helping people to separate internally from their partner’s issues and create their own independent well-being, right there in the midst of their partner’s stuff.
What works, ultimately, is to find a way to be well (or well enough) no matter what your partner is acting out. Protecting yourself from an anger bully is about learning to let your partner’s issues be just that: your partner’s issues, without taking them on, taking the blame, or trying to fix them—without imagining they’re about you, as your partner may want you to believe.
None of this is easy, not one bit of it, but it is doable, with practice and intention. It’s also the most powerful strategy you can employ—to be able to watch their anger happen right in front of you and to let it stay in front of you. It’s about refraining from biting the hook, no matter how your partner tries to hook you in. Remember, just because they’re angry doesn’t mean that you have to get angry back, or get engaged in their anger for that matter—even if they think you do.
Living peacefully with a partner with anger issues is about stepping out of the battle to convince your partner that they have anger issues, and even, paradoxically, out of the battle to make them stop. And furthermore, giving up the fight to deactivate their anger.
None of which is to say that you stop trying to make the situation better; you don’t. You can raise the issue of anger with your partner and do all sorts of other things (which will be discussed in the next article), but your primary focus needs to shift from your partner to yourself and your own well-being—what you need to be well—separate from your partner and their own journey. When your partner is an anger bully, you’re better off (counterintuitively) turning your attention away from what you see as “the problem.”
It’s not about de-angering your partner—but it is about getting rooted in your own experience, knowing what’s true for you, separate from what your partner’s reality at the moment might be. And most of all, learning to stay with yourself and stay on your own side, regardless of what might be aimed at you. As mad as it sounds, freeing yourself from your partner’s anger means allowing your partner to be angry, to be who they are—even when it’s not who or how they “should” be—and finally, deepening and strengthening your connection with yourself.
In Part 3 of this series, I will shift my focus from how to think about (and protect yourself) from your partner’s anger issues to what to actually do about and with their anger. I will suggest some practical strategies to help you stay separate and safe—to stay regulated in the face of their dysregulation, stay well in the face of their un-wellness, and stay in control of your own internal state no matter how chaotic their inner world might be.