Empathy is a crucial tool for healthy relationships whether they be friendships or romantic relationships. If you want to learn more about how you can develop a stronger sense of empathy in your relationship I’ve put together a 14-page report that’s FREE. You can learn the valuable tools needed to repair your relationship through the power of empathy!Continue reading “What is empathy?”
Everyone has heard of road rage incidents wherein usually calm and responsible people “snap” and commit an aggressive or violent act. Turns out, that “losing one’s temper” can occur in many different life situations and cause serious emotional or physical harm to others. It is a pattern in which tension builds until an explosion brings relief, followed later by regret, embarrassment, or guilt. Called “Intermittent Explosive Disorder” (IED), it is defined by attacks of impulsive rage that seem out of proportion to the immediate provocation and has serious consequences such as verbal abuse, threats, property damage, assaults, and injury.
How common is it?
As reported in the September, 2006 edition of Harvard Mental Health Letter recent research on IED is showing that this condition is more common and more destructive than anyone had supposed. One study showed that people with more severe cases (at least three rage attacks in one year) averaged 56 life-time attacks resulting in an average of $1600 worth of property damage and 23 incidents in which someone required medical attention.
Who is most likely to have these episodes?
According to research, the percentages suffering from this disorder are about the same for men and women, blacks and whites. Only age made a difference. Younger people were more likely than older people to show these uncontrolled rage episodes. As you might suspect, persons who suffer from IED are more at risk for other emotional problems because of the increased stress in their lives.
What causes the attacks?
Behavior patterns such as rage attacks are complex and often are a combination of what is going on in your brain chemistry, what is occurring in your life and also what emotions your thinking patterns are causing.
Scientists do not yet have the answers as to what triggers rage episodes but it may have to do with brain chemistry problems as well as the outlook that people have about life as well as attitudes about how to handle life frustrations and stress.
What treatments help?
According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter, “Anger management through a combination of cognitive restructuring, coping skills training and relaxation training look promising.” This means that to control rage, people need to learn how to think differently about life events, and to learn specific skills to deal with common anger “triggers.” One of the recommended skills is that of learning to deal with stress through relaxation training.
Other skills that we our anger management clients have found to be extremely useful include:
- Developing empathy toward others (seeing the world as they see it)
- Taking charge of how you respond to stress, rather than just reacting instinctively
- Changing self-talk to create different emotions in response to anger triggers
- Learning to communicate assertively rather than with anger
- Letting go of resentments, grievances and grudges
- Retreating to think things over and calming down before blowing up in rage
How can you find a program for you?
Anger management programs are becoming more common across the country. The following resources provide directories of qualified providers, some of which teach the specific skills listed above:
- National Anger Management Association (NAMA) at www.namass.org
- American Association of Anger Management Providers at: www.aaamp.org
- Century Anger Management which specifically trains providers in the listed anger control skills: www.centuryangermanagement.com
In addition, there are a variety of home-study and online programs appearing on the internet. The quality of these programs vary a great deal, so it is prudent and wise to pick one that is authored by credible mental health professionals and is approved or certified by state agencies (although unfortunately most states do not approve or disapprove anger management programs) or other professional bodies.
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
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
Tom and Mary have been married for 10 years. Both are employed. Let’s listen in on an angry conversation they are having in their kitchen while making dinner:
Mary: Would it have killed you to stop off on your way home to buy me some Valentine flowers?
Tom: You should have seen the traffic. It was horrible. I didn’t have time to stop. Besides, last week you never picked up my dry cleaning like you promised.
Mary: That’s the feeblest excuse I ever heard! I’ll tell you what it REALLY is. You forgot to get me something because you don’t care anymore.
Tom: How can you say that? I just built that bookcase for you, didn’t I? And didn’t I just change the oil in your car last Saturday?
Mary: Fine! (said with a hollow and sarcastic tone)
Tom: Anything good on TV tonight?
After this interchange, the children came into the room which resulted in Mary and Tom focusing on them and thus avoiding each other the rest of the evening. Although neither could admit it, they were both miserable and lonely, wanting to connect with each other but not knowing how.
Turning each other into strangers
Even though they loved each other, Mary and Tom had effectively turned each other into strangers, feeling miles apart emotionally while sitting at the same table, sleeping in the same bed, and living in the same house.
Both felt misunderstood, angry, resentful and unappreciated.
Turning each other into enemies
In contrast, Dennis and Nancy , married only 6 months, found themselves constantly at odds with each other. Let’s listen in on their latest fight:
Nancy: You left the toilet seat up again, just like a little boy. I almost sat in the water at 3AM this morning.
Dennis: You would think that an intelligent woman like you would remember to look to see if the seat was up or down before sitting down.
Nancy: You are inconsiderate and selfish and purposely do things to irritate me.
Dennis (to Nancy): I forgot! Get off my back.
Dennis (to himself): Why should I give in her to? Last week she wouldn’t even have sex with me after I bought her that expensive Valentine’s gift.
Anger is a “fall-back” position
In both these marriages, anger is seen as “fallback” behavior—what the couple resorted to when they were unable to express themselves to their partners in any other way. Their goal wasn’t to fight: it was to be heard by the other, to control the other, or to get the other to change some problem behavior.
The crossroads moment
Truth is, at any moment in your relationship with your partner, you can elect to either antagonize them, alienate them, or turn them into an ally.
Solve the moment—not the problem
Anger in marriage is often generated by couples trying to solve an unsolvable issue. Many issues are unsolvable if attacked directly—this is true no matter who you are married to.
These issues are “perpetual” and successful couples find a way to be with each other despite these differences.
Rather than demanding change, (which often leads to frustration and anger), try instead opening up an honest dialogue around the dispute to develop deeper understanding of why both you and your partner feel as you do.
Seeing things from their point of view can do wonders to soften conflicts and decrease tensions, even if the original issue remains. Often your partner will try harder to change if they see that you are trying to understand them better.
You may also find that you too try harder to “soften” your anger if you feel that your partner is trying to understand your feelings around the issue.
Being on the same side of the issue—allies— is the key to dealing with it, even if the actual problem is never solved!
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.
Download a FREE PDF file called “The Active Listening Worksheet” that will help you develop listening techniques discussed in this article.
Click here to listen to an audio version of this post.
Anger and partner narcissism: Betty and Jason
Betty and Jason had been married for 5 years and were now being seen in couples therapy because of almost constant conflict. Jason saw the problem as “Betty’s anger” which he couldn’t cope with and caused him to completely emotionally shut down. He constantly threatened divorce lamenting that he wished he had married a “sweet” girl. Betty said her anger was only because of him; she had many friends and no history of anger problems in any other relationship or areas of her life. But, she indeed was enraged with her husband who constantly berated and criticized her, tried to lower her self-esteem, could not satisfy her most basic needs as a woman, and constantly manipulated her by giving her hope for change and then completely reversing himself the next day. She called it “crazy-making.”
What is a narcissist?
Simply put, a narcissist(75% are male) is usually self-absorbed and preoccupied with a need to achieve the perfect image and have little or no capacity for listening, caring or understanding the needs of others. That is, they lack empathy. Wives of narcissists complain that their husbands are emotionally unavailable leaving them feeling lonely and deprived. Therapists who treat them see them as having variations of the narcissistic trait: they may be bullies; they may be show-offs; they may be an addictive self-soother (into alcohol, drugs, internet porn); they may present themselves as “the entitled one.” They are often easily offended by even mild “push-back” from their partners. Often, they are extremely defensive and spend an inordinate amount of energy just protecting their fragile ego.
How does narcissistic behavior affect their partner?
As they say, it takes two to tango. Almost no one can push people’s buttons like the narcissist can. No place is this more true than in the interaction of a narcissist and their partner. Narcissists have an uncanny ability to activate certain “schemas” or belief systems in your brain which you may be unaware of but still greatly influence you and how you react. For instance, you may have a schema of abandonment because of early issues with attachment (or lack thereof) with your primary caretaker as a child. Because you are so fearful of being rejected or alone, you will put up with the limitations and tormenting behaviors of your narcissist.
There are many other such schemas that may be “hard-wired” into your thinking. See “resources” at the end of this blog to learn more and gain understanding into why you may find yourself locked into a dysfunctional and maybe destructive relationship with narcissist even though you realize it is toxic.
Should you fight for your relationship with a narcissist or throw in the towel?
There are certain circumstances where an intimate relationship with a narcissist isn’t worth fighting for, especially if they are a threat to your (or your children’s) security, safety and stability. This is an issue of “discernment” –please see latest blog for discernment guidelines to help you gain clarity regarding the future of your marriage with a narcissistic partner. Or, see a discernment therapist in your local area.
How to deal with your narcissist if you decide to tough it out:
- Your main weapon in dealing with a narcissist is something called “confrontational empathy”. This is close to something called “tough love” that you might use with your adolescent.
- After your schemas get triggered, you may feel speechless and at the end of your rope. You may feel powerless, raw and just plain fatigued in trying to cope with him. But, you have to find a way to communicate with him to save your sanity. The key is “empathic communication-get inside his head.”
Note: DO NOT use this approach of empathy If you feel unsafe or abused; in that case, protect yourself and do not try to be empathetic.
Empathy is not simply compassion; it is communicating that you see things from the narcissist’s point of view, even though you may not agree with it. Remember that rather than tuning in to others, the narcissist remains caught up in the pursuit of approval. His focus is “all about me”, without caring much about you or others.
He is thinking to himself: “How am I doing? She really likes me. I think I nailed it. I think I impressed him. I wonder if they like what I just said. I’ll show them.” This “all about me” focus prevents the narcissist from truly engaging in interactions. He leaves you feeling lonely, empty and frustrated.
As Wendy Wendy Behary points out in the book “Disarming the Narcissist: Survivng and Thriving with the Self-absorbed” says:
Because empathy allows you to deeply understand who the narcissist is and why he is that way, it’s the perfect antidote, fortifying you to stand your ground, hold him accountable, and no take responsibility for his issues. Best of all, you can show up in interactions with him without the burden of exhausting anger, defensiveness, or submission. You get him. You may even feel badly for him and might even tell him that, but you can do so without giving in and without giving up your rights.
The strategy of confrontational empathy also involves setting limits, establishing what she calls the rules of reciprocity and the need to use time-out procedures to cool down before engaging the narcissist. Read more details of these strategies in her self-help book.
How high should you set the bar for yourself or others in term of what you expect?
This was a recent discussion topic brought up by Robert in a recent fast-track anger management seminar that we held in Newport Beach, California. Set the bar too high and the gap between what you expect and what you get can cause disappointment, anger, and other undesirable emotions.
Yet, hope springs eternal, especially in regard to family members.
We can spend our whole lives hoping against hope that others will finally change, see the light, treat us better, or acknowledge us in the way we need to be acknowledged.
Yet, as Robert discovered, sometimes this is not to be, despite our best efforts and our noble intent. Robert is 65 years old, yet has almost daily angst over his relationship with his 90 year old father who lives in the Midwest. They talk to each other perhaps 3 times a year, with Robert always having to initiate the calls. His dad says “children should call parents; parents do not have to call children.”
In his dad’s mind that is just a fact, the way the world is. This rule of family interaction is written in a book somewhere, known only to parents.
Despite a lifetime of not being able to emotionally connect with each other, Robert decided enough was enough and made arrangements for him and his wife to visit his father this summer. He emailed the old man, asking if the visit dates were satisfactory. Robert had expectations that his Dad would be thrilled to get a visit (at 90 years old, one doesn’t want to wait too long). He also asked for hotel recommendations nearby.
The father’s response was two lines: “Those dates are OK. Will send you a list of hotels to your home address.” The coldness of it all made Robert’s head reel. Robert experienced immediate sadness, and frustration. These feelings “pulled up” a lifetime of memories of other similar encounters with his father that generated the same negative feelings. Continue reading “Anger Management in Action; Setting Realistic Expectations”