Why Do We Experience Conflict and Anger?

Clients often described to me the demands of life outweighing their resources. They had too many bills and not enough money, too many children and not enough patience, too many chores and not enough help, too much work and not enough recognition…you get the idea. Most people can relate to the feeling that life requires A LOT and you just aren’t sure you have what it takes to cope. Have you ever thought about the way everyday stressors, just like the ones I’ve listed above, affect your closest relationships? In other words have you identified that you have too much stress and not enough connection? Daily stressors, even though they are expected and simple often trigger anger and discontentment.

When identifying whether or not stressors in your life are impacting your important relationships, it’s advisable to inventory your stressors. I pointed clients towards a common assessment developed by researchers Thomas Holmes and Richard Rae. It’s a stress test and is readily available using an Internet search engine. Holmes and Rae’s stress test quantifies stressful events. It designates the most stress “points” to experiencing the death of a spouse, and then it decreases from there. Other stress inducing events include: getting married, retirement, changing to a different line of work, trouble with loans and even major changes in eating habits. It’s of particular note that stressful events aren’t always negative. In fact, happy and joyous experiences like marriage, pregnancy and homeownership all receive relatively high stress points. In short, stress can be identified as any event or circumstance that demands you respond more intensely or differently than you have before. Stressful experiences require you “dig deep” whether that’s pushing through the wee hours as a young parent or packing up all your belongings and moving to a new neighborhood. In short, stress requires a lot of you.

If your home-life is marked by several stressors, or if, you and your family are constantly taking on new things, the tension level in your house is likely high. “It keeps us energized,” people say or “We like activity!” or “Otherwise, it’s boring!” This may all be true and indeed individuals and families have different thresholds for stress, however, don’t underestimate the way too much stress and activity can create emotional distance. Furthermore, recognize that emotional distance can inadvertently lead to resentment, irritation, disconnect and consequently: anger.

If this is you (or: you and your spouse, you and your children, you and a close friend) ask yourself: Have I been bottling my feelings? When we are in “go-mode” all the time, and let’s face it, when we’re stressed, “go-mode” is the “norm,” it’s quite easy to neglect feelings. Sometimes, it’s practical. “I literally do not have TIME to think about that or deal with that right now,” stressed out clients would say to me. That may be true. But, if it is costing you your marriage, your physical health or your relationship with your children it might be worth listening to your intuition, acknowledging your feelings and determining how to healthfully cope.

Next, share how you are feeling with the people you are regularly in conflict with or the people towards whom you feel some resentment. This doesn’t preclude your children! Oftentimes, parents want to protect their children from difficult or uncomfortable scenarios. Some situations need, of course to be made child-friendly but sharing real feelings in non-explosive, compassionate, non-gossiping fashion provides a wonderful lesson for your children on emotional health. You may need to acknowledge that you feel the burden of financially providing for your family more fully than you’d like and it makes you stressed. You may need to recognize that you have fears about the future. Or, you may need to acknowledge some comments that your spouse said in passing that really hurt you. Whatever the case, the goal is not resolution but simply, sharing. When there is more sharing, there is less emotional build up. When there is less emotional build-up, anger can be processed and addressed more fully and less defensively.

Lastly, a little selfishness is good for you and the people around you. Oftentimes, there are patterns of over-eating, over-working, under-exercising and under-resting that is common to stressed out families. The goal is balance so any time you are sensing an ‘overage’ or an ‘underage’ it’s probably time to take a look. Make time for self-care. You don’t have to go on a weight loss rampage or train for the next marathon, but make a point to eat fruits, veggies and drink plenty of water. Get outside even if you have 15 calls to respond to. Sometimes I’ve witnessed stressed out families initiate a plan to de-stress! Ironically, the intensity and newness of the de-stressing plan, actually creates more stress. So, the goal is not sweeping changes, but micro changes that set you in a more balanced direction.

If you work to try these three things:

  1. Assess how you are dealing with your stressed out feelings
  2. Share these feelings with your family
  3. Take self-care seriously you will likely notice a substantial decrease in the angry feelings you have towards yourself and the people you love.

Underlying relationship issues and pent-up resentments.

Criticism and anger are deeply related. When we approach experiences and relationships with a critical perspective it’s easy to be unhappy and resentful. Imagine a friend introducing you to a beautiful piece of scenery, say a lush and green meadow. The moment you enter the meadow, you zero in on the single pile of manure. This kind of stance is a critical perspective and a way to rob oneself of many joyful experiences.

Unfortunately, we can easily take this stance in relationships and are often most critical of the people closest to us. Sometimes, it truly is the nature of intimacy and relationship: closeness reveals more faults than distance does. Sometimes, it’s a lack of our own self-awareness and boundaries that causes us to feel as though blame must rest with the other. Whatever the case, most couples, close friends and families can identify with feelings of criticism- whether we are the criticiz-er or the criticize-ee.

The problem with criticism even if it’s constructive is the potential for it to breed more criticism especially if it’s given in anger. Let’s face it: angry criticism is just insulting. And what happens when we are insulting to the people we love? The relationship begins to feel emotionally unsafe. Feeling emotionally unsafe puts all kinds of things into question including trustworthiness and unconditional love- two relational bedrocks. Emotionally unsafe relationships begin to fall apart as the parties withdraw from each other- full of resentment, bitterness and hurt. This kind of stance will make it very difficult to live in the same house let alone raise children, find satisfaction at work, balance budgets and make major life decisions.

So, what to do when we are just plain angry and resentful towards people that we care about? What to do when we feel overly criticized and just plain unloved? I recommend individuals, couples and families tweak their patterns of communication and interaction in a few simple ways.

When we feel overly criticized, we get defensive. Oftentimes our defensive feelings come across in defensive communication, i.e. “You always…” or “What I don’t want is for you to do…” We attempt to protect ourselves by preemptively saying to the person we care about: “Don’t do what you normally do!” This stance reinforces the spirit of critique. Instead, tell your spouse, child etc what it is that you do want. Try this: “I would love if we were able to _____________”

Keep lines of questioning open-ended. This is actually a therapeutic technique that translates nicely to every day interactions. If you’re attempting to engage, say, an irritated teenager and you ask him yes or no questions what kind of responses to you supposed you’ll receive? Likely, yes or no answers. But, if you keep thing open-ended (i.e. “Tell me more about that), the speaker gets a sense that you really care and are open to his/her statements, versus controlling the conversation.

Lastly, give up your anger a bit and be positive. Try to see the person with whom you are frustrated with fresh eyes. Thank them, compliment them and appreciate them. Don’t be insincere, but do be gracious. Reflect back that a comment is interesting, or noteworthy and relate to it if it’s appropriate: “I could see how you could feel that way” or “That makes a lot of sense.” If this feels absolutely impossible for you to do in the midst of heavy conversation, remind yourself, on your own time, why you love this person. When I saw couples for counseling, I handed out a piece of paper covered with personality adjectives. I would encourage couples to circle at least three positive adjectives that captured the way they or had felt about the other. Is your loved one: Witty? Full of plans? Organized? When a relationship has soured, it’s good to remember that it wasn’t always this way. Remind the person you love that you recognize their goodness—you may be surprised at how much it softens things.

In short, change “don’ts” to “do’s,” stay positive, keep things open-ended and re introduce connection through admiration and affirmation. Anger has a hard time living long-term among these attitudes.

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