Expressing anger constructively; Fair fighting.
Anger has been discussed in great detail in chapter 7, and some in chapters 9 and 10. It is an emotion of tremendous importance; it is perhaps the underlying cause for the most serious human problems, such as heart attacks, neglect, abuse, divorce, violence, prejudice, war, and others. Certainly, anger is a clear signal that something is wrong in a relationship; if uncorrected, it destroys love.
Most long-term relationships encounter conflicts, irritation or anger occasionally. Anger is a hard emotion to handle, partly because many of us have been taught that we shouldn't get mad. Also, most of us have had no training or good models for coping with anger. On the other hand, our society provides many examples of violent fighters, including sport heroes, war heroes, movie and TV stars, criminals, and others. Not all aggression is expressed openly, as a sin of commission; some disdain is surely expressed by the lack of action, i.e. a sin of omission (letting children starve and die from preventable diseases, providing 16 years of education to some people and none to others, etc.).
In chapter 7, two basic types of aggressive people were described: passive-underhanded people and aggressive-nasty people. The passive person, a "swallower," who is mad, will give you the silent treatment and say,"nothing's wrong." He/she will promise to help but will just not be there when you need them. He/she will seem friendly but talk behind your back. He/she will spy on you, then suddenly dump on you.
The aggressive person, a "spewer," will openly raise hell with you, complaining or nagging to your face. He/she will work him/herself into a rage telling you your shortcomings. He/she relishes catching you in another mistake. He/she demands to know what you are doing and provides a free psychoanalysis for everything you do. He/she will make a nasty remark just before leaving, apparently enjoying the thought of you being upset while he/she is gone. Are you a swallower (passive-aggressive) or a spewer (openly hostile)?
There are different professional opinions (and, as yet, little scientific evidence) about how to handle one's anger towards a spouse (see chapter 7). Some therapists are against fighting and say to wait until you have cooled down, then discuss it calmly and ask the partner for help with the problem. Others say that all couples should fight, only fight fairly. Bach and Wyden (1968) in The Intimate Enemy say that fair fighting opens lines of communication, lets us blow off steam, helps us know ourselves, lets us be our real (sometimes angry) selves, leads to greater security because we know what is really going on in the relationship, enables us to change things (have equal power) in the relationship, and produces a more alive, honest and intimate love relationship.
There are ways to express anger constructively, involving assertiveness and "I" statements and other rules for fair fighting. Because you don't attack the other person in a vicious, win-at-all-cost, dirty way, the conflict doesn't escalate into a destructive battle. Yet, you express your feelings without losing control (rage or total bitterness) and you "fight for change" that is fair to him/her and you. For some people, greater love can be the outcome of a fair fight. We all have different ways of coping.
- To express your anger clearly and directly without hurting your partner or yourself or the relationship. In a non-threatening way, let a lover (or friend) know why you are upset.
- To avoid being a swallower or an uncontrolled spewer, yet be able to express your honest feelings. This method can be like venting (method #10 in chapter 12), if the feelings are fully expressed.
- To respond to the signals that something is wrong and make changes in a relationship so the love can grow.
STEP ONE: Learn the steps and rules for fair fighting.
The following steps include the basic "rules" designed to increase the effectiveness of fair fighting. You must learn the procedures and have some practice with this skill (see role-playing, method #1) prior to getting angry. It is human nature to fight unfairly; therefore, we need to think in advance and rehearse in advance how to fight fairly, so we won't get nasty when we get angry.
Furthermore, your partner must also understand these procedures for fair fighting. If your partner is not aware of the rationale and steps in this method, he/she might interrupt, walk out, or counter-attack before you get started with fair fighting. It doesn't work for one partner to be spewing vile hatred while the other partner is trying to make "I" statements.
Both people must know what is happening and why. Only one person at a time can use this method, both shouldn't be mad at the same time. Within a relationship, however, each partner should initiate the use of this method equally often--anger should not be a monopoly of one partner. If one person is much more angry than the other for several months, see chapter 10 for achieving more flexibility of roles in the marriage--or seek counseling.
STEP TWO: Make sure you want to fight about this issue.
When you get mad, you must decide if this specific incident is worth fighting about. Ask yourself several questions: What behavior do I want changed? Is that what I am really mad about? If not, what is really bugging me? Even if I'm right about what is bothering me, am I over-reacting? Is the desired change of significance? Or do I just want to upset and hurt my partner? If you decide that the issue is worth dealing with, then do it soon and don't "try to forget it," complain to others, pretend to give in, take the blame, or promise to change when you don't mean it.
STEP THREE: Arrange a specific time for a "fight for change."
Obviously, this method is a radical departure from the usual fights that erupt when you are very angry. For fair fighting you have to control the spontaneous outbursts. You even have to schedule an hour or so.
After you have decided to fight, set a specific time in a private place. Just say, "I want to vent my feelings about ____ and see if we can make some changes. How about right after work?" Schedule enough time, don't say "for a minute or two" when you know it will take an hour or two. Fight often, if necessary. Deal with problems early. Don't swallow your anger until you are about to explode. You need to maintain enough control to follow the rules.
STEP FOUR: Clearly state what behaviors you don't like.
Be objective but brief in your description of the partner's disliked behavior, don't exaggerate. Examples: "I expected you home at 5:30, as usual, not 6:30." "I want to discuss this bill for $200 of clothes." Don't let your angry feelings (next step) interfere with a clear statement of the problem. Your partner has a right to know exactly what you are angry about before he/she is exposed to your emotional tirade.
STEP FIVE: Make "I" statements to express your feelings.
Now, you can get mad. Go straight to the point. Share your feelings openly and honestly. But, use "I" statements (see method #4), making it clear that you accept responsibility for your feelings. Avoid blaming, name-calling, and denouncing the whole person, such as "You are unbelievably stupid." Stay on the immediate topic, focus on the here and now, i.e. express your anger towards only the person you are talking to, don't confuse this with your anger towards other people or institutions. Also, deal with your current feelings, don't bring up old hurts and mistakes committed by the person you are talking to. In an intense fight, we are tempted use every insult and every fault we can think of to hurt the other person and put him/her on the defensive. These cruel verbal assaults intensify your anger and they inflict irreversible damage to the relationship. Don't "go for the jugular."
Perhaps the most important rule for fair fighting is: "Know your partner's emotional limits and stay within those limits." For each of us, certain accusations or negative opinions are tolerable, but other critical comments are "below the belt," i.e. so painful that we cry, counter-attack, stop listening, slink away, hate, etc. We must not "hit below the belt," that is fighting dirty. When expressing anger, we might ask the partner to signal when we are touching "a raw nerve." To disregard his/her feelings would be cruel and foolish. The person on the receiving end must agree to honestly indicate, perhaps by raising his/her hand, when the comments are starting to seriously upset or permanently hurt him/her.
The partner being attacked should listen, empathize (see method #2), and learn to take it. As you get more experienced, you can recognize your partner's style of venting frustration and anger, e.g. he/she may get loud, swear, cry, and repeat his/her accusations over and over. If you can view the emotional outburst as therapeutic or as a prelude to solving a problem and making up, then the partner's verbal barrage becomes easier to tolerate. One can develop a "thick skin" and still remain interested in resolving the conflict. Don't stonewall and pretend to not care.
Each couple develops their own style of fighting. It may range from a very rational, controlled interaction (perhaps they vent their strong feelings privately first, as in chapter 12) to an intense emotional discharge (still following the rules). In some instances, the angry partner simply needs a few minutes to voice a complaint and, thus, may ask for a five minute "gripe session." When this is done (instead of fair fighting), agree to a time limit (make it short), only the angry partner can say anything, and neither should talk about the topic for 30 minutes after the gripe session.
STEP SIX: State what specific behavioral changes you would like to see made.
Ask for practical, possible and fair changes, avoid making outrageous demands. Don't just think about yourself. Don't express disgust with aspects of the partner which he/she can not change, e.g. body build, intelligence, basic personality, etc. Don't ask for changes in feelings or attitude, e.g. "don't be so hostile" or "be more considerate." This is too vague. Instead ask for specific behaviors, e.g. "don't call me names" or "don't be late when we have made plans to meet."
STEP SEVEN: Indicate the reasons and consequences for the requested changes.
Give your arguments for the changes you proposed. Also indicate how you will feel and what you will do if the changes are made and if they are not made. Remember rewards work better than punishment.
STEP EIGHT: Negotiate a compromise; make sure the agreement is understood.
The angry partner has done most of the talking up to now. The other partner participates equally at this point; there should be no advantage going to the angry one. The listening partner should not discount the problem or criticize the angry person's feelings, e.g. "this is bull, what are you really mad about?," "you are making a mountain out of a mole hill" or "God, you're filled with hostility, aren't you?" If the partner is resistive, your best response is an "I" statement. Examples: "I feel very disappointed when you don't seem to take me seriously." "I feel insulted when you pat me on the head and treat me like a child." If the feelings are too intense for a rational discussion, schedule the negotiating for later. Don't just drop the issue and fight over it again a few weeks later.
The listening partner can, of course, propose his/her own changes or conditions. Both partners should avoid demands, no "shoulds" or "musts" or "you gotta." With the anger out of the way and both people working seriously, hopefully a fair, workable agreement can be reached. Also, agree on a trial period for trying out the agreement. The final compromise should be written down, dated and signed by both people. A few conflicts have no solution; sometimes a couple can agree to disagree in these instances.
STEP NINE: Put the incident behind you. Forgive each other. Show appreciation.
Each person should clarify where he/she stands now: "Am I out of the doghouse yet?" or "Are you satisfied with this agreement?" or "I'm grateful that you are willing to work through these problems with me."
STEP TEN: Try to understand the "cause" or dynamics of your anger.
Using chapter 7 on anger, consider how your anger developed. Is your anger producing some pay offs? Have you had previous experiences that cause a strong reaction to the partner's behavior? Do you have irrational ideas that produce the anger? Are there unconscious motives or hidden frustrations that create anger? Is the partner really a SOB? If so, why? Every fight is an opportunity to understand yourself better.
It will take an hour or two to familiarize yourself and your partner with fair fighting. You may need to practice "I" statements in casual conversations or role-playing so they seem more natural when "fighting for change." Every conflict will take 15 minutes to an hour or two, unless you simply have a time-limited "grip session." Even if a couple fights once a week, it might take 6 months to work out a fighting style acceptable to both.
Swallowers are likely to skip over this method, continuing to avoid anger. Spewers are likely to continue lashing out, rather than carefully controlling and scheduling anger, as recommended in this method. There are many pitfalls whenever one is dealing with a compelling, explosive emotion like anger. Several cautions (the don'ts) are scattered throughout this method, each reflects a common problem with "fair fighting."
Effectiveness, advantages and dangers
George Bach (and Wyden, 1968) developed this method and reported on treating 122 cases in The Intimate Enemy. With these well-selected couples, 85% were judged by Bach to benefit from the fair fighting training. Bach concluded that certain types of couples were not well suited for fighting: those who can't be honest with each other; those dependent on drugs or alcohol and, thus, aren't in touch with feelings; those scared of intense emotions; and those who are continually angry. Although many writers have recommended "fair fighting," there is no well controlled research of the method. The recommendations are based on theory and, I assume, on testimony from clients who have tried the method.
The advantages claimed by Bach are listed in section a above. The greatest danger is "hitting below the belt" and setting off a brutal, harmful battle. As mentioned in chapter 7, once lingering bitterness preoccupies one partner, the relationship is often doomed or, at best, headed for hard times. It is possible that the method would be used excessively, either with insoluble problems or in situations where professional help is required.
McKay, M., Davis, M. & Fanning, P. (1995). Messages: The communications skills book (2nd ed). San Luis Obispo, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Hough, A. S. (1993). Let's have it out: The bare-bones manual of fair fighting. CompCare.
Lembo, V. (1975). Help yourself. Niles, IL: Argus.