Can Your Partner Make You Angry?

How many times have you said, “He makes me so mad!” or, “She gets me so annoyed!” But what if no one could make you angry? Is it possible that your partner doesn’t cause your anger but instead triggers your anger? Could you be responsible for creating your feelings? What if your feelings came from your thoughts and behavior? Take the situation with two of my recent clients, John and Cindy, who have been working with me for several months. John and Cindy have been married for three years. They have one child, Daniel, who is three months old. Cindy gave up her full time job so that she could stay home and take care of Daniel. John is a sales manager for a medical company. When John and Cindy arrive for their couples therapy session, they sit on opposite ends of the couch. Cindy is cradling Daniel who is fast asleep. I can feel their angry energy. They are in a power struggle. “John doesn’t get how hard it is to take care of a baby. He comes home from work and instead of taking care of our son he goes out for a walk. I’m home all day taking care of our son. I don’t even have time to eat lunch! He doesn’t get it! “I do get it! But I have a very demanding job. If I don’t meet our sales goals I might not have a job by the end of the year. You always think you’re the only one who is stressed.” Clearly both John and Cindy think they’re right. What if they both are? Then what? “Cindy, when John goes for a walk to unwind, how do you feel?” “Angry.” “What are you telling yourself at that moment?” “That he doesn’t care about me. If he did then he’d immediately take over childcare.” “So what do you do when that doesn’t happen?” “I tell him off. I mean, John is being totally selfish.” “What are you hoping will happen by you getting angry?” “That he’ll stop what he is doing and do what I want; what he should be doing.” “Does that happen?” “No. He just gets angry and shuts down.” “So it sounds like you’re trying to control John with your anger. You’re trying to get him to act differently. What are you telling yourself John’s behavior means about you?” “That I’m not valuable. Otherwise he’d understand how difficult taking care of Daniel is and he’d give me a break the minute he walks in the door.” “Does John’s behavior remind you of anyone else? What is the earliest you remember having a similar feeling?” Cindy is silent. After some deep inner work she starts to cry. She describes how as a child her dad never paid attention to her when he came home from work. She felt like she had done something wrong. So she tried to get his approval by getting him to notice her. “As a child, why did you think your dad was distant?” Cindy is able to remember feeling like she didn’t matter. That she was defective in some way. I explain to Cindy that she must still believe that she is unworthy, otherwise John’s behavior wouldn’t trigger her painful feelings. I ask her if she is treating herself in a similar way to how her dad had treated her as a child. Cindy realizes that she isn’t paying attention to her own needs. She feels overwhelmed by the childcare. She’s exhausted. Cindy feels resentful towards John and when her anger comes out at him, it triggers his own issues. Then he tries to control her by going into resistance and shutting down. I ask Cindy to imagine a part of herself that is wise and knows what’s best for her. I have her ask her wise self if it is true that she is unlovable. “No,” she replies immediately. Cindy then asks what she can do to feel valuable and worthy. After some thought, Cindy knows the answer. Get help taking care of Daniel so she won’t feel so overwhelmed. She needs baby sitting. I also help Cindy see how she needs to stop taking John’s behavior personally. She has no power over his choices. The truth is that she is a loving, caring and kind person. She needs to tell herself this as often and in as many ways as she can. The more Cindy practiced these loving behaviors, the more she was able to stay in the moment with John and the more self-worth she felt. She was able to ask for what she needed and to explore with John his good reasons for not offering to help with the childcare. Once Cindy was able to control her anger John didn’t resist or withdraw. They were able to stay connected and come up with some creative ways for her to get childcare help. When John fully understood how his behavior affected his wife, whom he cared deeply about, he felt more compassionate. He started coming home earlier so that Cindy would have more rest. So was it really John making Cindy angry or were Cindy’s beliefs and behaviors creating her anger? As long as Cindy believed that John was responsible for her feelings then she was a victim. Once Cindy took personal responsibility for causing her feelings, she had the power to create a different feeling. She moved into personal power. As Cindy role modeled to John what it looked like to take personal responsibility, John also learned how. As a result, John and Cindy were able to deepen their connection rather than trying to control each other with anger, criticism, withdrawing and resistance. You too can learn to manage your anger. When both you and your partner are taking good care of yourselves, your relationship will feel safer, stronger and more compassionate. © 2007 by Michael Barmak, LCSW