Anger and conflict in the relationship
All individuals referred to in this article are fictitious.
Christine and Peter have been married for 23 years. They have two children, Monica, 15 and Mark, 18. The couple have reached a crisis point: they are leading increasingly separate lives and when they are spending time together they seem to be mostly arguing vehemently. Most arguments tend to be initiated by Christine. Christine noticed that the children seem to be affected by the tension between the parents too; Monica is getting clingier and Mark seems to be becoming quite withdrawn and increasingly aggressive, his anger particularly directed at Peter. The couple feel they are at a crossroad where they need to decide whether to stay together or separate.
Both blame the other for the current state of the relationship: Christine would like Peter to spend more time at home and less time either at work or in the pub; she claims that the children frequently complain about his absence. Peter feels he is under constant attack from Christine and thinks that he is not wanted in the family anymore - that even the children are against him. Christine says that she has no idea what Peter thinks as he just keeps himself to himself while Peter thinks of Christine as a ‘drama queen’.
Most of us are familiar with the occasional feeling of intense anger at our partner, a sense that they really don’t understand us or are insensitive to our feelings. Anger is often the result of conflict where both partners view a situation differently and cannot come to mutual understanding. Cause for conflict may be related to changes in the relationship (e.g. one partner is made redundant), developmental changes such as transitions in the family life cycle, differing views on fairness in the relationship or situational stressors like illness. In conflictual situations both partners often have a different view or understanding of what the problem is and tend to blame the other as the sole cause of the problem. As shown in the case study above, other family members frequently get drawn into the conflict in order to relieve some of the tension. Children often get quoted by one or other partner to highlight the other’s ‘shortcomings’ thus being allocated the role of referee.
For many couples who start couple therapy anger has set in over a long period of time and may get expressed in frequent and destructive arguments, in passive aggressive sarcastic remarks or in an inexorable and slow process of withdrawing from each other. Withdrawal and distancing can often find expression by one or both partners focusing their attention elsewhere; for example, by spending more and more time at work or drinking in the pub. Both partners get increasingly wounded in the process, blame each other and get stuck in a cycle of attack and hurt.
Frequently at the heart of many couple dilemmas is the management of difference between both partners. Difference is linked to the idea of separateness. Accepting that your partner is different from you means that you manage a careful balance between allowing for closeness and intimacy as well as for your partner’s independence, separateness and different view of the world. Depending on your earlier experiences in life it may be difficult for you to deal with either closeness or with independence.
In couple therapy the therapists pays close attention to the way a couple ‘moves’ in terms of advancement and withdrawal. Often one partner is moving forward wishing for connection and closeness while the other steps back and gets overwhelmed by this demand for attention. In the case study Christine is getting increasingly anxious at witnessing Peter’s withdrawal from her. She needs reassurance that Peter still loves her and alternates between aggressiveness and passivity. Peter on the other hand tends to keep his feelings in and to deny any need or dependency. He vacillates between passive aggressiveness and controlling behaviour. Anger serves the purpose of protest for both partners: it can be an expression of anxiety (“pay more attention to me”) or it can be a way of defending oneself (“I feel helpless; I can’t give you what you want”).
In therapy the focus is less on what is being said but how it is said. This would give the therapist a clue about the underlying concerns that are being expressed and about patterns of behaviour in the couple. Some time would be spent on investigating what the root causes of these patterns are. Christine may gain an understanding about her fear of abandonment and Peter may get an insight into his need to withhold his feelings and thoughts. Helping Christine and Peter to understand the underlying message of their partner’s anger can help them to feel more connected to each other again and to develop empathy. It will also help both Christine and Peter to have a better understanding of the causes of their own anger. The couple can then start a more constructive dialogue about each other’s vision for the relationship.