Anger Management - Watch Your Words

Anger Management - Watch Your Words

by James A. Baker


It has been a battle, but I am finally ready to admit I have an anger problem. For a long time, I blamed my behavior on my wife or my boss or my kids or the dog. It seemed like anything could set me off. It still does, but I am trying to do better. The problem now is that nothing I say seems to be right, especially where my wife is concerned. Honest, I am not trying to start fights, but it seems like anytime I express my opinion about anything, she jumps down my throat and accuses me of being mean or insensitive. Sometimes it just gets to be too much and I end up snapping and it goes from bad to worse. I want to change. What am I doing wrong?

Confused in Colorado

Dear Confused:

Maybe you should think in terms of what you need to start doing right. In a relationship that has been battered by long-term anger patterns, trust can become so badly damaged that those around you have a hard time feeling safe, no matter how hard you try to “make nice.” Your wife may not be ready to trust you yet; she may even think your epiphany about your anger is simply a scam to get her off your back. It is not enough to simply admit you had been doing things wrong; you have to start doing several things right. Here are a few suggestions.

Start with three little words that are practically guaranteed to make a difference in the relationship temperature at your house: You Are Right. The vast majority of anger addicts get into discussions that lead to arguments that lead to very noisy fights that sometimes lead to trips downtown in a squad car, because they are unwilling to lose. It is just a guy thing to defend yourself, to protect your territory and justify your actions. It is important to a guy's sense of “guy-ness” to believe he is right about practically everything. But, sometimes - maybe a lot of the time - even you are going to be at least a little bit wrong, and maybe extremely wrong. But you are a guy so you just keep defending yourself to your wife. And the more you defend yourself, the wronger and wronger you get. And your wife begins to think you are a jerk, because you are acting like a jerk. She decides you don't really care about her or her needs and feelings. (That would be because you are sending a clear message that you only care about yourself.) And if this goes on long enough, she decides she doesn't really love you and she doesn't trust you. If you want to nip this whole thing in the bud, just learn to lose by learning to say, “you are right.”

Now, on those rare occasions where you might even be completely justified in the opinion you have expressed, are we asking you to go ahead and lie? Well, kinda, but not exactly. The problem is that, most of the time, arguments serve to trigger extreme anger behavior for anger addicts. Arguments are to addicts what beer is to alcoholics. For the greater good here, you need let go of your “right to be right,” and let her be right, at least in one tiny point. Instead of focusing on your position, say something like, “I can see your point. You are right that I should listen more carefully sometimes.” And stop right there! Don't say anything else, especially if it begins with, “But..." :
Don't argue, don't defend, don't explain, don't justify, don't preach, don't utter any other words but “you are right.” Find some way to agree with her and defuse this conversation as fast as you can. You may have an opportunity to express your opinion later (much later) when it is clear that she feels completely safe with you again.

Whenever it is clear that your wife is still upset with you - cold, withdrawn, not receptive to physical contact - then your best recourse is to reach out to her as humbly as you can. Avoid the urge to defend yourself and, instead, apologize and try to make amends for the wounds you have caused. Use these phrases to start the conversation, especially if you are both clear on why she is angry with you and what you have done to hurt her: I am very sorry; this was completely my fault; please forgive me, what can I do to make it up to you, etc.

However, let me give you a strong warning: under no circumstances should attempt to apologize using any version of this phrase: “I am sorry IF what I did or said upset you or hurt your feelings.”

I don't know how to make this clear enough. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. If she is acting upset or hurt or angry, it is because she is. And it is because of what you did. Trying to slip by her with one of these conditional semi-apologies is a huge insult and a sure one-way ticket to the couch. It is actually a way of putting her down by implying that she shouldn't have really been hurt by what you did but, oh well, if she was then you are certainly man enough to apologize.

If you are dumb enough or insensitive enough to pull a stunt like this, it sends a clear message indicating you are still thinking about your feelings and not hers. She will read that message loud and clear, which is bad news for you.

Here is one final phrase, and it may be the most important. Apologies can seem pretty empty after you have offered them over and over again for years without ever demonstrating any real change in your attitude. So if you really want your wife to believe that you want to change and that you are working on changing, the first step in the right direction may be to say this: “What can I do to make it up to you?”

Don't offer to do something that you THINK might make it up to her; no more gifts or flowers or other peace offerings like you have tried in the past. Instead, let her choose. This is really important. How will she know that you are truly willing to change unless you are willing to quit controlling her, even during the “make-up” phase of your anger cycle? So after you have sincerely apologized to her in every way you can think of, ask her, “What can I do to make it up to you?” And then let her choose.

She may not trust you at first, but if you keep offering, she will probably think of something. Whatever it is; do it. Don't argue or criticize -- just do it. Actions speak louder than words. Once you ACT like you are sorry and are willing to give up control, she will start believing that you might be serious.

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