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Keys to Keeping Your Cool in Relationships

Anger is powerful but it can be managed. Learn how to stay in control.

Key points

  • Emotions amplify the perceived threats of problems, but this auto-focus can be overridden to achieve a broader perspective.
  • Those who give into anger habitually will have a harder time resisting it.
  • There are many ways to control anger, one of which is to examine its influence and costs.

How can we hope to control anger if we are naturally wired for it? One clue lies in the ability we have to keep our cool with our boss or a police officer. We have control over all our impulses, including anger. We just do. To pretend otherwise is an excuse.

Imagine what life would look like if humans couldn’t control their anger. There would be constant fights to the death at home and work. There would be tantrums on the highway, assaults to customer service representatives, and things thrown through the TV during annoying commercials. The reason that these things are rare is because we can show restraint.

This doesn’t mean it is easy. We don’t always have control of our initial physical reactions when provoked, but we have a lot of control over what is done next. First responses are powerful, but so are built-in restraints.

How to override initial impulses

Our emotions are like cameras. When we prepare to take a picture, there is an auto-focusing mechanism that zeros in on what the camera deems most important. However, we can manually override this response and refocus on something else or add filters to make it look different.

We do this emotionally when an aggressive driver cuts us off: The auto-focus occurs as the amygdala flares up, the heartbeat skips, and we get tunnel vision in our thoughts (“That #@$%*!”). But we then override this impulse and manually focus on other things. This might happen as we grit our teeth and use the frontal cortex to restrain our impulse to mow him down. We might use self-talk (“It isn’t worth it” or “Maybe that guy is having a terrible day”) or refocus on something else (“I need to stay away from crazy drivers”).

Giving in makes the override weaker

Unfortunately, many get into habits of always giving in to initial impulses. This becomes an excuse to turn off the brain and its ability to manually focus. The override becomes weaker and initial angry thoughts feel irresistible.

In a previous post, I talked about my work with a couple who struggled with anger, who I called Wayne and Lacey. Wayne had a habit of excusing his anger, and even used a medical term, shrugging: “Yeah, I got this intermittent explosive disorder, so I just go off on Lacy sometimes. I can’t help it.”

This excuse, related to versions of “The devil made me do it,” is common. However, it is a false claim. It may be easy to “lose it,” but it is possible to “control it.” Bringing the brain back to sanity after it gets provoked is worth working on, because controlling one’s anger always benefits relationships and the people in them.

We did several things together in our work, including using soothing speech with each other, time-outs, increased emotional regulation, and a focus on honesty. They also attended individual and couples therapy, where they were able to explore early traumas and their resulting damage to their reactions. It was also helpful to explore anger in a cost/benefit way.

Wayne and Lacy were surprised when they realized how severely anger was damaging their lives. Lacy pointed out that Wayne had lost many friendships over the years because of his temper. Wayne downplayed this at first, but then mentioned his 1978 Camaro. He had been restoring this classic car, but after a fight with Lacy, he had taken an ax and gone Tasmanian devil on it, demolishing it completely. Wayne was also an angry driver, which had not only driven Lacy away, but nearly killed himself and others. He liked to swerve at cars that were too close to the center line, and he once got into a highway chase with another hothead, and they ended up brawling on the side of the road. Wayne was recovering from back surgery at the time, so the fight “tore him up pretty good.”

He often drank as a way to calm down his racing heartrate and angry emotions, which were taking a toll on his body. One study showed that an episode of intense anger made a heart attack eight and a half times more likely in the next two hours. Lacy had pointed out how his aggression was wearing him out, saying that Wayne looked 20 years older than he was. She also realized her attacks were juvenile, and that she often started the fights she had with Wayne. They both realized that they felt terrible after losing it.

Examining one's anger style

Hopefully, couples who examine their anger patterns don’t find the extreme problems of Wayne and Lacy, but it is helpful to examine the toll even small irritations take on relationships. In one of my research projects, we took time to look at the cost of blame and anger, and one of our participants realized his temper almost caused a divorce: “I knew that somewhere down the line it was going to cost [the relationship]…I was being an a** to her.” Other participants discussed how their anger was related to unresolved resentment, self-pity, or simply an excuse.

Take a close look at your own anger style. Ask yourself: What usually sets me off? What do I say or do when frustrated? What is my typical response to others? How do I react to my partner’s anger? How severe does it get? Most couples can break this down and calm themselves down through committed work and connection with each other.


Thomas Buckley Soon Y Soo Hoo Judith Fethney Elizabeth Shaw Peter S Hanson Geoffrey H Tofler, 2015. Triggering of acute coronary occlusion by episodes of anger. European Heart Journal: Acute Cardiovascular Care

Jason B. Whiting, Timothy G. Parker & Austin W. Houghtaling, Men’s Perceptions of Their Violent Behavior: A Study of Responsibility and Impact. Journal of Family Violence 29, no. 3,(2014): 277-286. DOI 10.1007/s10896-014-9582-9

Adapted from Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways we Deceive in Relationships. Cedar Fort.

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