It has been a long, hard day. You rush home to make dinner for yourself and your partner. He/she comes home grumpy after a frustrating day at work, throwing his/her briefcase down with a thump, sighing and ordering you to make a drink. You quickly oblige, knowing that his/her anger could quickly escalate. You rush back into the kitchen to get dinner ready and on the table. Your partner sits down with yet another sigh. You try to make small talk, which is ignored. Immediately, the dinner is criticized as too cold, and you are criticized as a lousy cook. You defend your cooking and yourself, and your partner’s anger escalates. Soon you are both engaging in a screaming match.
Sound familiar? How can you navigate your partner’s anger in a more productive way? Here are some tips:
• As soon as you notice that your partner is unhappy or frustrated, center yourself. Slow down and breathe.
• Remind yourself not to take his/her anger personally.
• Practice “tonglen on the spot.” Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist compassion practice in which you breathe in pain and suffering and breathe out peace, love and compassion. First do some tonglen for yourself: Breathe in your hurt feelings and the suffering you feel, focusing on where you feel it in your body. Then, breathe out peace and light into that hurt. You can then practice tonglen for your partner – breathe in his/her pain and suffering and breathe out love and compassion for him/her. This can take a very short time, and is very effective in slowing down the force of anger and increasing compassion for yourself and all others.
Our first reaction when we are hurt is to react and defend ourselves. This is a habitual pattern that may take some time and mindfulness to break. When I asked my Buddhist teacher the best way to deal with this unproductive habit, his one word response was “Disengage.” The tips described above can be very helpful in learning to disengage from another’s anger and not react.
I am also reminded of the 70s saying “What you resist persists.” One way to experience this notion is to push one of your hands push against the other one. Notice how this increases the force of energy in both hands. Now, instead of pushing against the moving hand, go with the direction of that hand. Notice how the force dissipates when there is nothing pushing against it. Another analogy I find helpful is navigating a skid: Going in the direction of the skid is what works. If you go against it, you’ll be in trouble.
Similarly, like in the scenario presented at the beginning of this article, if you defend against anger by pushing against it, the force of that anger will increase. Find a way to let your partner’s anger be rather than resisting it. Breathing and knowing that it’s not about you will help. Saying “I’m sorry you had a hard day” may be one way to do it. If that doesn’t work and your partner can’t control his/her anger, you may have to leave the room until he/she settles down. Continue to remember that your loved one is hurting and doesn’t know how to handle it at that moment. When things quiet down, the two of you can work together to come to an agreement as to how to handle anger in your relationship in the future.