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Anger in the American family – four steps to teach family to treat you better

Case #1- Elizabeth, a 40 year old homemaker was always feeling angry and “used” by her family, constantly saying that everybody took advantage of her. She felt that she worked like a slave but her family showed no appreciation or acknowledgment of her many efforts.

Case #2- Bill, a 34 year old husband complained that his critical wife was always angry at him. He spent his life trying to cope with her outrages which often escalated him into defensive anger which didn’t happen anywhere but in this relationship.

Case#3- Betty, a 42 year separated mother struggled with her soon to be ex-husband’s contempt and disrespect every time she angrily called him to discuss details of their divorce.

These three cases bring up the question often asked by participants in our anger management classes: Is it possible to control how family members treat us? The short answer is “no” — but often we can teach them to treat us better!

Believe it or not, we are constantly teaching our family how to treat us— both by our responses to their behavior, and by the behavior we display to them which they react to. In our case examples:

By automatically doing whatever her husband and children requested, Elizabeth was “teaching” them that there are almost no limits to what she would do for them. With his behavior, Bill was actually teaching his wife that the way to get attention from him (even if it was negative attention) was for her to create drama.

Betty was so intimidated by her husband, that her defensive “attitude” was “teaching” him that to deal with her, he had to push back with the contempt and disrespect that he constantly showed her.

The dance of anger

Our interchange with family members is often like a carefully choreographed dance. They make a move. You make a move in response to their move. They then respond to what you said or did and ….well, you get the idea!

How do you change the dance? Start by seeing yourself as a teacher—of how you would like your family to treat you.

Four ways to change what you teach others

  1. Try a softer-start-up. Marital research shows that the first few seconds of an interaction can predict the final outcome of the encounter. Try being softer, more polite, more respectful, less hostile, or more empathetic—and see how this change in your approach actually teaches others to respond better to you.
  2. Take a time-out before dealing with the conflict or situation. Conflicting or arguing family members often work themselves up to a point at which problem solving is impossible. The solution is to retreat and give yourself time to calm down and think things over. This takes at least 20 minutes, often much longer. Before taking your time out, it is important to tell the other person that you will commit to returning soon to deal with the conflict, after you are calmer—then be sure to do it!
  3. Acknowledge that you see how they must be seeing the situation. Called “empathy,” this response on your part teaches others that you care about their feelings and viewpoints, and opinions. Acknowledgment doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree with their viewpoint—only that you see it. Sometimes, your family needs to know that you care about them and respect their opinions before they listen to what you say.
  4. Set limits and boundaries for your family members. Limits and boundaries are basically rules regarding acceptable behaviors toward you as well as what you are willing or not willing to do. If you feel others are taking advantage of you, ask yourself what you may be doing (or not doing) to give the message it is “ok” for them to do whatever they are doing. Often you can change their behavior toward you by teaching them different rules of being with you. The easiest way to do this is simply to respond differently yourself. For instance, they make you the core of a nasty joke. Being a nice person, you pretend it doesn’t bother you( even though it does), so you laugh with everybody else. As an alternative, try not laughing with them, which is a way of teaching them that they have crossed a boundary with you.

Men: How to disarm an angry parter

According to famed therapist Terry Real, the short answer is:

“To disarm an angry woman, give her what she needs.”

To illustrate this point, let me introduce to 55 year-old Jerry who came to see me because his very angry (Linda) gave him the ultimatum of seeing a therapist or a divorce lawyer. (He had to think about this for awhile, but decided a therapist was the lessor of the evils)

The Case Of Jerry
Jerry, a successful real estate developer, wasn’t a bad guy – he just didn’t have a clue as to why his wife of 10 years was always angry at him. If she wasn’t yelling, (even raging), or criticizing, she talked to him with absolute contempt. This, despite the fact that he was an excellent provider, he was a great father to their children, and he was well thought of in their social circles and their community. He did not drink excessively and he was not unfaithful to her.

He felt he could do nothing right in her eyes – but honestly couldn’t see anything he was doing wrong either. Again, her constant anger and dissatisfaction mystified him.

At first, he became defensive to ward off her attacks and protect himself. Jerry often argued with her by offering all kinds of logical reasons why he did what he did that upset her, trying to convince her that she was mistaken, that she was wrong, that she was exaggerating, or worse, that she was crazy.

Her response? More angry. In fact, now the anger included not only the original complaints, but the fact that he was so emotionally unaware that he didn’t understand at all what she was really upset about.

Jerry tried to stay out of trouble
To stay out of trouble, he started avoiding his wife more and more both physically (including sexually) and emotionally. After all, he reasoned, why stand in the path of gunfire when someone is shooting at you?

Like many beleaguered husbands, he mistakenly attributed his wife’s mood swings and anger to menopause or other medical explanations for her behavior.

When he mentioned this to her, again her level of anger increased because she saw it as a way to disavow his contribution to what she saw as her justifiable anger toward him.

Underneath, Linda saw herself as being emotionally victimized by her husband. Consequently, she felt justified in her anger and justified in her need to protect herself by attacking him.

Jerry saw himself as a good husband
Jerry, for his part, certainly didn’t see himself as victimizing his wife in any way. His motive was to please her, so he would have a peaceful life, but he just didn’t have the skills needed to deal with Linda and her emotional needs.

He grew up in a home and at a time period in our history where no one taught him how to deal with the emotional needs and raised expectations of modern women who demand much more out of their relationships than did many women of an older generation.

So, what are these skills exactly, that Jerry and thousands of other men in our society need to learn and acquire to disarm an angry wife?

(Note – I had to learn them too. The rules have just changed over the years.)

Are you ready for the shocking answer?

3 disarming skills to use on a daily basis

Skill #1: Learn better “Empathy. “ To do this, start actually listening more to her. Seriously, listen more to your wife- not only the facts and information she talks about, but how she feels about what she is telling you- and the underlying meaning to what she is saying.

Remember, “hearing” your wife is not the same thing as “listening” to her. Developing better empathy skills requires getting out of yourself and practice seeing the world as your wife does, even if you don’t agree with her. Then acknowledge to her that you understand how she sees the issue.

Skill #2: Find ways to emotionally connect on a daily basis, even if it is only for a few minutes. Think of your marriage as a plant sitting out on your back patio. To survive, both must have daily watering and sunshine. Respond to her “bids for affection.”(ways she is trying to connect with you) Ignoring or blowing off such bids is not a good idea.

Skill #3: Show More emotional vulnerability. Don’t double down on issues of disagreement. For many women, male vulnerability is the pathway to her feeling close to you.

Enlightened men who trust their partner enough to show vulnerability are able to drop their defensiveness, to share feelings with their wife, and be brave enough to risk allowing your wife to see you for who you really are.

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