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When Anger Turns Mean

From caring disagreements to adversarial retaliation

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

All intimate partners say or do things they later regret, especially when they are in conflict. It is human for any of us to compromise our integrity when we’re in distress.

When the anger dies down, most people who love each other ask for forgiveness and then promise to do better. They are able to get through those differences and move toward healing, because they have a tacit understanding of what would be “too” mean, “too” uncaring, or “too” damaging, and neither partner “goes there.”

Couples learn what those “too destructive” actions are over time and steadily improve in not ever using them, no matter how angry they are. Those “below the belt” words and actions are clearly understood by both, and they know what lines must never be crossed.

If instead, the partners use their cumulative knowledge of one another’s vulnerabilities to intentionally harm and begin to do so without conflict or remorse, they will eventually destroy any semblance of sacred trust in one another and the relationship.

In order for couples to understand the gravity of wandering accidentally or intentionally into that forbidden territory, both partners must recognize when they are slipping into that potential abyss, take full accountability for their motives, and commit to discontinuing that dangerous direction. Their maintenance of that sacred promise predicts the relationship’s future survival.

The following are nine examples of common angry and/or hurtful actions that regularly occur during relationship disputes, and how they can slip into destructive interactions when the guard rails fall away.

1. Disconnecting

Still Healable Behaviors: When a partner walks out of an argument or refuses to be available for resolution, the other partner is likely to experience those behaviors as dismissal, disrespect, or abandonment. Sometimes the disconnecting partner just needs a cooling-off period and can openly ask for it. At other times, though, it can be used as an excuse to get away to more preferred desires.

Gone Too Far: A walk-out or intentional withdrawal is pointedly anguishing if the partner feeling abandoned had experienced those behaviors thrust upon him or her as a child or in subsequent adult relationships. The partner who knows that history also knows how badly it will hurt, but doesn’t seem to care.

2. Flipping Blame

Still Healable Behaviors: Many partners defend an experienced attack by pointing out the faults of the other to deflect from their own. That strategic move may serve as a way to get out from under the challenge but can easily erase the other person in the process. The negative spiral that occurs when those blame-game accusations start rebounding will ultimately leave both partners feeling unseen and unheard.

Gone Too Far: When partners go from blame to character assassination, their intent is too often to make the other partner feels humiliated. The attacking partner has resorted to using painful actions to weaken the other.

3. Using Others or the Past to Strengthen the Challenge

Still Healable Behaviors: It is very typical for partners who feel they are losing ground to defend by trying to add opinions of others who might back them up or to bring up prior behaviors that cause the defending partner to feel guilty for what he or she has done in the past.

Gone Too Far: Attacking partners slip into meanness when they intentionally choose people, belief systems, or prior embarrassments they know will cause anguish to the other partner. They have an absolute intention of getting the other partner to cave in remorse or shame.

4. Attacking Sacred People and Beliefs

Still Healable Behaviors: Everyone has attachments to people, ideas, and beliefs they hold sacred. Sadly, during heated arguments, it is all too common for couples to attack those areas to gain an advantage in the moment. Usually, they feel sadness afterward and apologize for doing so.

Gone Too Far: When people have been together for a while and have shared deep vulnerabilities, they leave themselves vulnerable to the other partner if those sacred confessions are desecrated.

There is almost no way to explain the anguish of someone whose trusted partner mocks or invalidates them about something they know will cause deep and lasting damage. The sense of betrayal is extreme and often irreversible.

5. Threats

Still Healable Behaviors: Whichever partner holds power in a particular area of the relationship can use that to advantage by threatening to take something away or not give something the other partner wants or needs. The most common examples might be finances, sex, availability, or other attachments of any kind.

Gone Too Far: When threats made in the heat of the moment are intentionally meant to unseat, upend, or demolish the other partner’s sense of security, they are no longer just empty threats. They are intentions to win by instilling the fear of loss.

6. Changing the Subject

Still Healable Behaviors: It is all too common for a partner to avoid what Is happening by attempting to change the subject. The person using it during an argument will introduce another thought or idea that takes center stage, obliterating what was on the table. The partner on the other end struggles to keep up with the ever-changing emotional landscape and often loses track of what he or she thinks or feels.

Gone Too Far: Partners whose strategy is to use this technique to deliberately throw the other off intend to make the other lose his or her thoughts. The goal is to render their victims helpless to keep up with the rapidly changing emotional images.

7. Escalating

Still Healable Behaviors: Whether by raised voices, threatening postures, or the use of profanity, the partner who is trying to win is consciously or unconsciously pushing the other into submission. If the attacked partner allows themself to feel like prey to predators, their only responses can be to fight back, to disconnect, or to become immobilized.

Gone Too Far: When the escalating interaction turns truly mean, the partners can emotionally become moral enemies, using whatever means they can to frighten, intimidate, or destroy the other’s position and value. One partner may feel the victor at the moment, but the relationship takes a major hit when either or both realize they are truly under malicious attack.

8. Threatened Exile

Still Healable Behaviors: When disputes get out of hand, one or both partners may resort to extreme threats of ending the relationship by telling the other that they are “done.” Whether that is a temporary threat or a cumulative set of intimidations, the intention is to control through fear of loss. When both partners know that these threats will not play out, they usually don’t pay much attention to them.

Gone Too Far: The threat of exile is the most frightening threat one partner can make to the other. People need to feel that they are basically secure in the relationship. When partners mean it when they say, “Get out, I’m done with you,” they are using the cruelest phrase they can to make the other partner feel useless and unwanted. If it was, in addition, a childhood terror to the threatened partner, it could demolish faith in the relationship forever.

9. From Victim to Justified Retaliator

Still Healable Behaviors: When relationship partners feel victimized by the other for any reason, they often feel that it is legitimate to fight back in the same ways they are being attacked. In their defense, they feel that their retaliatory behavior should be excused as a righteous response.

Gone Too Far: When mean becomes too mean in this area, the partners rapidly become unconcerned about what they say or do, even when they know the other will feel terrible about themselves if they believe what is being said. Using what they know about what is sacred to the other, they intentionally hit below the belt, rehashing, attacking, invalidating, embarrassing, or hurting the other where they know it will cause the most pain.

* * * * * * * *

All couples are mean to each other at some times and in some ways. But when relationship distress deteriorates into intentionally cruel and uncaring behaviors, those actions will doom a relationship over time.

Learning to settle differences with care and respect should be the goal of any two people who love each other. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that underlying frustrations and disappointments won't sometimes derail that process, but both partners must know when anger turns into the intention to harm.

Couples who understand the danger of that slippery slope carefully stay on the upside. They know what is never OK to say or do and keep that sacred commitment to each other.

Facebook image: TORWAISTUDIO/Shutterstock

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