John was so angry at his wife that he stormed out of the house and went for a walk. A half hour passed before he realized he was still wearing his pajama bottoms, so he turned around and started walking home (thankfully, he wasn’t seen by any neighbors!). On his return, John asked himself two very important questions:
Why am I so angry?
Who am I really angry with? (An alternative to this question, and one we can often use in any situation where we find ourselves upset is,“What am I truly upset about?”)
John has been married to his second wife, Kate, for two years. They’ve known each other for about five years total. And like many couples, they have their typical spats and misunderstandings, but overall, this is one happy couple. So this type of extreme anger isn’t typical.
As John reflected upon his question, he recounted (as objectively as possible) the events that trigged his anger. His recollection went something like:
- My wife came home late from work the night before without calling to let me know she was going to be late. She normally phones if she’s running more than thirty minutes late (so she must have felt uncomfortable with the reason she was late, so she was avoiding me);
- When her sister called, my wife walked into the bedroom to take the call and closed the door (because she didn’t want me to hear her conversation…she must have been talking about me).
Note how John objectively describes each event but then adds his interpretation to explain what happened (his interpretations are in the parentheses). And his interpretations suggest ill intent by his wife. It’s often our idiosyncratic interpretations of events (and not the events themselves) that lead our feelings to run amuck. This is exactly what happened with John.
And to add fuel to his emotional fire, John’s mind started to wander back to his first marriage and specifically to the pain he felt when the marriage ended because of his first wife’s affair. It was a tumultuous time in his life, a roller coaster of lies, secrecy and inconsistencies. At this point, John convinced himself that Kate must be having an affair. That’s when he charged out of the house rather then accuse her of the crime of betrayal.
Then something remarkable happened.
As he walked, John took a few deep breaths and started to reflect on his anger. He knew his out-of-control feelings were disproportionate to what had happened (his wife forgetting to call and closing the door while talking on the phone). At this point John began to realize that his anger at Kate was really displaced anger—a residue of anger that remained from his first marriage. He then repeated out loud, “I’m not angry at Kate, I’m angry at my first wife! This has nothing to do with Kate!” This felt very freeing to say and helped to defuse his anger.
Relationship Help Epilogue
Once John’s anger subsided, he realized he was feeling insecure about what had happened with Kate (anxious about what he perceived to be her suspicious behavior)—after all, it wasn’t like Kate not to phone when running late. So he shared his anxieties (something Kate had always encouraged him to do) and they had a discussion that helped ease John’s concerns. It turned out that Kate’s cell phone had died that afternoon after having a two-and-a-half hour, impromptu conference call with a new client. She also had a legitimate reason for closing the door during the phone call with her sister: John was about to work on their taxes and she didn’t want to disturb him. She shared, “John, you know how loud and excited my sister and I get whenever we speak, you’ve even commented on it! So I didn’t want to interrupt you…”
John was so happy that he went to Kate with his concerns rather than confronting her while he was overcome with anger—that would have led to a very different conversation, a breakdown in communication involving ugly accusations and some pretty hurt feelings.
Like John, we all carry past emotional issues (from previous relationships; from our family of origin) that often lay dormant—painful emotions that can be stirred by something our spouse/partner does. This commonly occurs when our partner says or acts in some way that reminds us of some forgotten hurt or betrayal. When this occurs, we need to find the solid footing of perspective to make sense of what is happening—this will give you the emotional wiggle room needed to untangle your past woundings from the present reality of what is occurring in your relationship.
Relationship Help Action Step
So the next time you become really angry with your spouse/partner—the next time s/he does something that causes your feelings to go from zero to sixty, ask yourself,
“What am I really angry about?”;
“Is it possible that the memory of someone who hurt me in the past is influencing my present reaction?”
Make sure you give these questions the serious attention they deserve.
Wishing your marriage/relationship all the best!
Dr. Rich Nicastro