Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why is it So Hard to be Reasonable?

"Honey, I know you didn't mean to upset me, but you did. Let's clear the air so we can move on to enjoying our relationship again." Sound familiar? Of course not.
From "Friendly Fight: A Smarter Way to Say I'm Angry" (April 19, 2011 Wall Street Journal column)

Elizabeth Bernstein writes the weekly "On Relationships" column for the Wall Street Journal, a column I enjoy reading because it's well-researched, well-written, and almost always about what I consider a "real world" relationship issue.

This week's coumn is a good example. Ms. Bernstein deals with something that most of us have been guilty of at one time or another (and some of us are guilty of all the time): expressing anger inappropriately. As she puts it:

"If someone upsets us, we often shout, stomp off, roll our eyes, or refuse to speak to the person. Or we pretend we aren't upset, until one day we explode over the seemingly littlest thing."

Why is it so hard to express anger in a mature way? One reason, according to psychologists quoted in Ms. Bernstein's column, is biological. When you get angry, your brain is flooded with chemicals and hormones, including adrenaline, which makes you want to either fight or run, and which can remain in your system for hours. There are also "mirror neurons" in our brain that make us subconsciously mimic a person we're interacting with. Thus, if the other person is showing signs of anger, we'll probably show them, too. In that sense, anger is contagious.

Another reason is childhood conditioning: we probably learned a dysfunctional style of expressing anger---or handling someone else's anger---from our parents. If your mother was prone to having emotional meltdowns, while your father was quickly retreating into a shell, there's a good chance that you're now exhibiting one or the other of those behaviors.

So, it's not easy to overcome our self-defeating approaches to expressing or reacting to anger. But it's not impossible. One of the experts quoted by Ms. Bernstein teaches people how to do it in five steps. I think they make sense.

The first step is to calm down. Let your emotions cool. Pick a good time to talk about the situation with the other person, maybe a day or two later.

The second step is to begin the conversation by acknowleging, in a calm tone of voice, that some of it may be hard for you to say or for the other person to hear.

The third step is to say "I" and not "you." "I was hurt yesterday by what happened," is less threatening than "You behaved badly yesterday," and less likely to lead to a retaliatory "What do you mean? You're the one who behaved badly!"

The fourth step is to find out why it happened. Maybe the other person had no idea he or she was offending you in some way.

The fifth step is to deal with the issue completely (but without dredging up any and all other issues from the past that could sidetrack you). Work together to figure out how to avoid repeating the same problem. And once you've achieved an understanding, try to express some appreciation and affection.

As I say, doing all this won't be easy, especially if you've been ranting and raving and slamming doors all your life. But it's certainly worth trying, and trying again until you get it right, because there's nothing more corrosive to a relationship than wounds that haven't healed.