Have you ever been with a partner who had temper tantrums?
When he got upset, he didn’t catch himself before saying something he regretted—he SAID it. He said LOTS of things… and didn’t regret it afterwards.
All you could do was try to calm him down, or try to reason with him, or just keep your mouth shut until his temper had blown itself out.
Afterwards he could be really nice. He’d never apologize; he’d never say that he wasn’t going to do it again. But maybe he’d give you a backrub or get your favorite takeout for dinner.
And maybe you’d forgive him, or you’d think to yourself, “I shouldn’t have provoked him. I should have given him space. Part of that was my fault.”
Over time, you might have learned to live with it. It was just part of who he was. Either you coped with it, or you would have to leave him, and maybe you loved him too much to give up on him.
If you’ve ever been in a relationship like that, you’re not alone.
I get so many comments on my YouTube channel from women in a similar situation.
They tell me that their boyfriends get so angry, and nothing they do helps. No matter how what they try, he still ends up exploding, often over something quite trivial.
Is This Normal Behavior?
In the culture where I grew up, anger was a man’s right. It was the one emotion men didn’t have to control, because men got RESPECT when they got angry.
So you can imagine how flabbergasted I felt when I left my culture of origin and started doing this work.
I was studying how healthy couples relate, and I discovered that people actually believed it was possible to STOP before saying something hurtful.
Apparently there were couples out there who didn’t want to hurt one another EVEN during a fight!
Those couples learned to notice when they became “flooded,” and they would take a 20-minute break to calm down, so they could come back to the argument when they were feeling more in control.
This blew my mind, because I had never seen relationships where both parties worked hard to keep their negative emotions from exploding onto the other person.
But science doesn’t lie.
And the science coming from the Gottman Institute is very clear.
Couples who learn about flooding and soft start-ups and repair attempts are MUCH more likely to live happily ever after than couples who don’t.
So, if anger gets out of control in your relationship AND you both can see that it’s hurtful and needs to change, then I want to teach you three skills that could just be a lifesaver.
Skill #1. Flooding
You’re trying to talk about something with your partner when he says something that upsets you.
Your muscles clench. Your heart starts beating faster. You start to sweat, or maybe you get tears in your eyes.
The conversation gets heated. You start talking over each other. Now you’re arguing, and you’ve stopped listening to each other. He’s no longer the man who loves you; he’s become threatening.
The Gottman Institute found that when your heart rate exceeds 100 beats per minute, you CANNOT process social interactions.
You’re in what’s known as diffuse physiological arousal, or flooding. You stop making sense. You’re unable to think.
Nothing good can happen when you’re flooded.
As soon as you’re flooded, you need to push the pause button.
Some couples have a code word or a hand signal that they agree on beforehand to communicate to the other person that they need a break. (The advantage with a hand signal is that you can use it even if the other person is yelling.)
The rules around using that code word or hand signal is that the argument needs to stop immediately, and you both need to go away from each other for 20 minutes and do whatever helps you calm down.
Maybe you could go outside for a walk, or put your earbuds in and listen to some really loud music.
Then you can come back to each other after 20 minutes and finish the conversation in a more reasonable frame of mind.
The problem with a code word or hand signal is that you have to know that your partner will respect it.
Your partner may want to finish the argument, or he may think you’re using the code word to stop him right when he was making some really good points.
It’s devastating when you agree on a code word only to find that it doesn’t stop your partner at all.
Skill #2. Soft Start-ups
The Gottman Institute has found that the way you start a conversation determines how it will end.
If you start a conversation with negativity—by accusing your partner, or speaking harshly or with a sharp edge—then it will likely end negatively.
But if you start a conversation with a neutral request or an explanation of an issue, your partner won’t feel blamed or criticized, and they’re much more likely to listen and work to resolve it with you.
This is the theory, anyway.
A lot of women have had to learn the art of soft start-ups because their partner reacts so aggressively otherwise.
Have you ever been with a partner who could NOT listen to you explaining how you feel about an issue?
As soon as you broach any difficult topic, he gets defensive, debates every point you made, and then turns it around on you. (That’s a common abuse tactic known as DARVO: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender.)
But if your guy has a good heart and is genuinely distressed at how you’re fighting, tell him that the way an argument starts determines how it will end.
Then pay attention to see if this is true for you.
One way to make a soft start-up is to say, “Hey, is this a good time to talk to you about something?” If your partner says yes, you (1) describe what happened, (2) how it made you feel, and (3) the request you’d like to make.
Skill #3. Repair Attempts
Repair attempts are the little things we do to emotionally reconnect when we feel disconnected.
So you might offer to make your partner something to drink, or snuggle up against him, or show him something funny on your phone.
If you’re having an argument and it feels like it’s getting out of control, you can make a light-hearted joke, or tell him that you love him a lot, or suggest that you get comfy on the sofa since it looks like this is going to take a while.
Repair attempts are a way to remember that, actually, you two really DO love each other, and you WANT to be together, and this moment of disconnection is just a temporary blip.
Here’s one of my favorite kinds of repair attempts.
If you take a break in the middle of a difficult argument, when you come back, give your partner a hug before you say anything else.
When you’re upset, your body tends to get rigid. There’s a lot of tension trapped inside. Hugging the person you love, even though you’re upset with each other, helps the body let go of that tension and relax.
It’s really hard to fight when you’re snuggled up against each other or when your partner is touching you in a loving way.
Dr. John Gottman says that “the success or failure of a couple’s repair attempts is one of the primary factors in whether [a] marriage is likely to flourish or flounder.”
A repair attempt isn’t successful just because you reached out to your partner. It’s only successful WHEN your partner receives it.
So if you reach out to touch your partner in a loving way and he shrinks back or turns away from you, that’s a failed repair attempt.
Unfortunately, in troubled relationships, the woman is often the one making repair attempts while the man closes down and refuses to respond.
It takes two to reconnect. You can’t make him receive your repair attempt if he’s holding onto self-righteousness or contempt.
I wish these conflict skills came with a caveat:
It’s all very well to practice taking a break when you’re flooded, the art of the soft start-up, and making repair attempts.
But if your partner refuses to practice those skills with you, if he refuses to respect the signals you’ve established, if he refuses to soften up when you reach out…
Then it is not your fault.
You’re putting in your part. He’s dropping the ball.
And he’s dropping the ball because he’s gotten away with it for so long. No one has ever held him accountable. He thinks that this is how real men act in relationships (just like I used to think that being raged at in a relationship was to be expected).
I’m here to tell you today that this is NOT how it has to be.
Plenty of “real men” don’t want to hurt their girlfriends by dumping their anger on her.
They take responsibility for their negative feelings and learn ways to process those negative feelings so that they don’t poison the relationship.
They do this because they LOVE her.
And no one wants to hurt the person they love.