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, Robert and Sharon, who have been working with me for several months. Robert and Sharon have been married for three years. They have one child, Troy, who is three months old. Sharon gave up her full time job so that she could stay home and take care of Troy. 

When Robert and Sharon arrive for their couples therapy session, they sit on opposite ends of the couch. Sharon is cradling Troy who is fast asleep. I can feel their angry energy. They are in a power struggle. “

"Robert doesn’t get how hard it is to take care of a baby. He comes home from work and says he's needs some time to destress so he usually goes for a walk.  I’m home all day with our son. I don’t even have time to eat lunch! He doesn’t get it!"

Robert responds,“I do get it! But I have a very demanding position. 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's stressed.” 

Clearly both Robert and Sharon think they’re right. What if they both are? Then what? 

"Sharon," I say, "when Robert goes for a walk to unwind, how do you feel?” 


I followup. “What are you telling yourself at that moment?” 

Sharon: “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, Robert is being totally selfish.” 

“What are you hoping will happen by getting angry?” 

“That he’ll stop what he's doing and do what I want; what he should be doing.” 

“Does that happen?” 

“No. He just gets angry back and shuts down.” 

“So it sounds like you’re trying to control Robert with your anger. You’re trying to get him to act differently. What are you telling yourself Robert's behavior means about you?” 

“That I’m not valuable. Otherwise he’d understand how difficult taking care of Troy is and he’d give me a break the minute he walks in the door.” 

“Does Robert's behavior remind you of anyone else? What is the earliest you remember having a similar feeling?” 

Sharon is silent. 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?”

Sharon is able to remember feeling like she didn’t matter. That she was defective in some way. I explain to Sharon that she must still believe that she is unworthy, otherwise Robert'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. 

Sharon realizes that she isn’t paying attention to her own needs. She feels overwhelmed by the childcare. She’s exhausted. Sharon feels resentful towards Robert 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 Sharon 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. Sharon then asks her wise self what she can do to feel valuable and worthy. After some thought, Sharon knows the answer. Get help taking care of Troy so she won’t feel so overwhelmed. She needs baby sitting. 

I also help Sharon see how she needs to stop taking Robert'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 Sharon practiced these loving behaviors, the more she was able to stay in the moment with Robert and the more self-worth she felt. She was able to ask for what she needed and to explore with Robert his good reasons for not offering to help with the childcare. Once Sharon was able to control her anger Robert 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 Robert fully understood how his behavior affected his wife, whom he cared deeply about, he felt more compassionate. He started coming home earlier so that Sharon would have more rest. 

So was it really Robert making Sharon angry or were Sharon's beliefs and behaviors creating her anger? As long as Sharon believed that Robert was responsible for her feelings then she was a victim. Once Sharon took personal responsibility for causing her feelings, she had the power to create a different feeling. She moved into personal power. 

As Sharon role modeled to Robert what it looked like to take personal responsibility, Robert also learned how. As a result, Robert and Sharon 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.

 © by Michael Barmak, LCSW