Imagine two mothers standing at a curb. Each of them has a three-year-old. Suddenly one of the children darts into the street and narrowly misses getting hit by a car. The mother pulls the child back to safety and immediately yells at him.
What is she feeling? Well... on a video tape it would look like she's angry. And, her child would likely think she's angry. But, in fact, she's more likely frightened. What is the child feeling? He's probably afraid as well. The whole scene is rooted in fear. Yet, it would be easy to assume that anger is the dominant emotion.
This is just an example of how easy it is to confuse fear and anger. Couples regularly mix these up. If my wife yells at me for coming home late, I am likely to yell back to justify my lateness. My assumption that she's angry would justify my own anger. But, if I could recognize that, in fact, she's frightened I might move towards her in a reassuring way. The outcome of those two scenes is very different. One could spiral into a protracted fight. The other moves toward healing a wound.
Most angry exchanges are, in fact, the product of fear. Sometimes it's a really specific fear like the mother who's afraid her child was going to be injured or killed. Other times it's much more vague... more global. If it feels like my life is spinning out of control, I'll feel frightened. As a result I'll get controlling which, to those around me, will feel like anger. Once that happens, a fight is more than likely to occur.
Try assuming that when you think your partner is angry he/she is actually frightened. Do the counterintuitive thing and move gently towards him/her.
These posts are written by Jake Thiessen, PhD, co-founder of Couples at Crossroads. We hope you find them interesting, helpful and maybe provocative. Please feel free to comment on them.