Angry Over Power Struggles in Your Relationship?

A young angry misguided soul sat in one of our anger management classes dejected. The instructor asked why he was there. He said that his wife was angry over his not putting the toilet seat down after his use. Other class members looked at him incredulously and remarked: “you spent all this money on an anger management program for that? Why don’t you just put the toilet seat down? His answer: “because last week I asked for sex and she didn’t come through. So, this week why should I do what SHE wants?

tanking relationship

Perfect example of a ridiculous angry power struggle that some couples seem to get into constantly.

What is a power struggle?
A power struggle occurs in a relationship when partners battle or conflict over who is going to win an argument, prove a point, accomplish a certain goal, or have things done in a certain way. Often in a power struggle one partner is attempting to force their will upon the other, or is trying to make the partner do something they don’t want to do. In retaliation, one partner will try and “even the score” or have a “win” even if it makes no logical sense. It is about winning, not about being rational or solving the problem at hand. In fact, partners gridlocked into this pattern often become angry if the other does not comply, tries to compromise or wants to discuss alternative solutions to the problem.

Why is this concept important to you and your relationship?
This concept is important because it underlies many angry arguments and conflicts you and your partner may be having. Think about it. Do you have angry arguments that often are more about the power one has over the other rather than about the issue itself? Some people just have to dominate others. It is their way or the highway. They are rigid and unbending. They know what is best, in their minds, and refuse to bend, ‘give in to the other” or admit they are wrong, mistaken or misguided.

Often angry power-struggle people are lost in a “get-even’ mentality or “everything has to be equal” mentally with their partner. It is tit-for-tat with them so a volcano vaporizer should relax your partner and you. It’s about the balance sheet and all behavior is ultimately motivated by that “score” on the sheet.

What are some other examples of it?
*one partner insists that the other is not allowed to smoke pot (for severe pain) or it will end the relationship. The pot-smoker refuses to give it up, although he agrees to not do it in the home, in front of the children, or in public and will also get a legal marijuana medical card.

*One partner insists that their 5 year old child will only be fed “healthy” food and has a fit when her partner feeds their child “normal” (like a McDonald’s hamburger)food, yet often does it herself when alone with the child.

*Partner argues for hours over a political point to convince partner that he/she is right about it and they are wrong. The righteous one keeps both of them up until 3:00 AM arguing over the point until the other concedes.

*Partner insists that other take a certain route to a friend’s house even though other wants to go another way that is equally distant. This leads to a fight they have had for years.

How do people get “power” in a relationship?
Some partners just bring this trait into the relationship with them and are often like that in other areas of their lives too. They just have to right, to be first, to have done it better, to know things you don’t know. Everything is a competition with these folks – it is part of their core personality.It makes them feel good to always be in the driver’ s seat, so to speak. Often they are very insecure underneath and being right feeds their ego and their sense of being adequate. Being wrong validates their feeling of inadequacy.

But in other relationships, the partners seem to trigger it in each other, even if they are not like that in other areas of their lives or even in other relationships. There are many other bases for power in relationships and it is quite a complex subject, when you really stop and think about it. Where does “power” come from? How can you get it? It is often thought among professionals that the person who loves the most (or is most needy) in an intimate relationship has the least power while the person who loves the least(is less needy) has more of the power (they have less to lose if it doesn’t work out).

Money and PowerBut, people gain (or lose power) power in relationships for many other reasons too. How about money? Does earning level bring power?

Example: Dave was recently divorced,and pretty much lost his business and most of his assets. Soon thereafter he met Martha who was quite well off through rental real estate properties. He started managing her properties but was also her lover. Soon, she controlled his whole life, ordering him around like he was an $8 per hour employee. She said “jump” and he asked, “how high”?

She literally would lie in bed while he popped grapes in her mouth as requested, while seething inside and then coming to his therapist exploding in anger. When asked why he put up with it, turns out that it was about the money. A “Yes, dear” response to her requests ensured that she would be willing to finance a new business venture he needed to get back on his feet.

Sex and Power. Many partners control their partners through sex (or lack of sex) which tends to generate anger and resentment in the sex-starved partner. This can go both ways, but more often than not, it is the man who feels sex-starved or experiences resentment because he has to “beg” for it.

Example: Dan was a 41 year old plumber and father of two children. Married for thirteen years, he said that he and his wife used to be like rabbits sexually before they had children. Now, “she has no interest, devoting almost 100% of her time to the kids and their needs. He is constantly angry due to sexual frustration but can do nothing about it. Yes, he has talked to her on many occasions. Her reply: “live with it.” He does not want to have an affair, but asks: “why should I have to give up something so important to me?” “It is like I am dying of thirst, she has the only well in town which is dry and she forbids me to visit other towns.”

Competency and Power:Sometimes partners sort of inherit power in certain areas of the relationship because they are clearly more competent in that area. For instance, if one partner is a better money handler, he or she should probably handle the budget and be in charge of financial management. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the financial handler will have more power in other aspects of the relationship such as parenting, vacation planning, or setting the emotional mood of the household.

Mood Setting and Power: 40 year old Peter told me that his wife of 12 years is extremely moody due to numerous medical problems as well as a core personality of many mood fluctuations. “The minute I walk in the door,” he says, I sense her mood.” “If it is bad or negative, I pour myself a glass of scotch, go to my room and hibernate for several hours, just to be alone.” If, on the other hand, his wife’s mood is positive, the family has a joyous evening with each other that night. In this case, his wife has all the power as a mood setter in the family.

Status and Power; Sometimes couples equate differences in perceived status as a basis for trying to dominate or control the other. Status might mean “social” status, occupational status, or gender status. In many cultures, men are seen as the head of household by default; these men get very angry if they do not receive “respect” from their women or children. They tend to use anger, authority, and bullying to get their way. Sometimes they are married to women who use sadness (tears) and appeals of helplessness to influence their mates. In the United States, most woman do not accept these stereotyped roles any longer as they have have gained much ‘power” through economic and occupational equality.Obviously this change can create mountains of conflict if they couple does not agree on role definition, and who does what around the house and in the relationship.

On the other hand, I have seen many couples wherein it is the woman who has most power and control in the relationship. These women emotionally abuse their mates through contempt,disrespect, guilt, chronic complaining and criticalness of their partner and sometimes even alienation of the children against their father. Upon occasion, these men finally “blow up” out of shear frustration of never being able to please their wife. Then these men are accused of having an “anger problem” and required by their wives to seek help.

How can it be fixed?In healthy relationships, power struggles are resolved naturally through a natural balance. You win today over finances; she wins tomorrow over parenting.

But, diffusing defusing power struggles in a troubled relationship can be tricky indeed. Sometimes it is best to just let it go..and give the power to your partner, especially if the power is based on superior competency or skill (like money handling or culinary expertise). Another case where it might be better to let it go is when it is part of your partner’s personality, as described above. Can’t change it. What else are you going to do? Acceptance of that which is not changeable in a relationship is a major tool of anger control.

A wise person comes to realize that being right isn’t always important – being happy or content or in peace may be much more important.

Why is it so hard sometimes to just let it go? Here are some reasons that I have observed and some solutions that should be of help to you:
1. Most conflicts between partners do not have a “right” and a “wrong” answer at all. In fact, most relationship conflicts are based on opinions, judgments, and attitudes – not facts that provide firm guidelines about what is the correct “answer” to a relationship dispute.Take the case above with the fight over what their child should eat. Will a McDonald’s hamburger once a week truly hurt a child? Will a vegetarian child be healthier in life than other children?

The Solution: Realize that just because you believe it, doesn’t make it absolute fact, or doesn’t make it the ONLY fact. Your partner has a right to their opinion too (even if you think it is wrong or misguided). So try to loosen up and be more reasonable instead of righteous and rigid.

2. Arguments that appear to be logically based often are emotionally based, so they can’t be solved logically. Prime example: the couple described above who fight in the car over which way to travel to a friend’s house. In this case, the point of the argument stops being about finding an objective solution and starts being about who is more entitled to be ‘right’. That is an emotional issue – not a logical one. The emotion is “Autonomy” -or the need to make one’s own decisions, to have free will, and not be dominated or controlled by the other one.

The Solution:
Take a time out to cool down before the argument gets out of hand. Before doing anything, take in a deep breath, talk to yourself and de-escalate that emotion inside of you that wants to be right. Do this before things get out of hand. In our system of anger management, this is one of the first tools we teach our clients, using the metaphor of the bullfighter needing to step out of the way of the charging bull. When calmer, try talking about it and compromising (Maybe go one way this time, and the other way the next time; or, establish a driving ritual or rule: the driver decides the route and othe must be quiet)

3. One partner has lost respect for the other and frankly doesn’t care anymore what the other thinks. Loss of respect is tough to recover from, if it is possible at all. If you are on the other end and he or she has lost respect for you, sometimes what really helps is for you to demand less disrespecting behavior from your partner. Stand up for yourself! Don’ t let yourself be emotionally abused. Even if they don’ t like you anymore, you deserve to be treated like a human being, especially in front of the children.

The Solution:One strategy to gain respect is to start acting and behaving in ways similar to other people who do indeed get respect from their partner. Put another way, be deserving of their respect.

On the other hand, if you want to respect your partner, but can’ t get past an issue that prevents it, you will need to find a way to shift your perspective of him or her and focus on other aspects of their behavior or personality.

This is not easy. Often, professional help professional intervention is needed to help you develop strategies and coping skills.

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Anger Management In Action: Try Simple Habit Changes

Thirty one year old Harry is a fairly typical client in our local anger management classes. At work he is considered a very nice man, a lamb, really. By his co=workers, he would be voted last place on a list of people who needed anger management.

But his wife Holly tells a different story. She would vote him numero uno on the list! When not yelling or criticizing her, he comes across as sarcastic, nasty and degrading to her. Yet, if asked privately how he felt about his wife he would say that he loved her and he doesn’t know why he treats her the way he does.

Harry doesn’t realize it, but he has developed a habit of communicating those ways to his wife when she says or does certain things that “trigger” him.

A habit is the opposite of mindfulness. It is going though a certain “routine” without even thinking about it. It is mindless behavior…automatic behavior…that does not involve thinking.

When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard – or diverts to other tasks.

Habits are often as much a curse as a benefit. They shape our lives- and our relationships – far more than we realize. They are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them to the exclusion of all else, including common sense.

A bad relationship habit can be formed long before we are in a relationship, often starting in childhood and strengthened throughout the years. How do habits form? According to author Charles Duhigg who wrote “The Power of Habits”, it takes constant repetition of three ingredients for a habit to form:

A Trigger of some kind

A Routine (Reaction to the trigger)

A Reward

Let’s breakdown Harry’s habit and see what it going on.

A Trigger (Holly “commanded” him in sharp voice to complete a “honey-do” around the house………

A Routine #1: Harry (in his head said to himself: “I am not a child; she can’t boss me around that way;I’ll say I will do it but then won’t actually do it until I am good and ready.”)

Routine #2- He says to holly: “Get off my back…you are the last person who should talk about getting things done….you can’t order me around…why don’t you worry about your stuff and I’ll worry about mine”

RewardGains control over wife; feels autonomous, able to rebel and get away with it

This habit cycle probably has occurred all Harry’s life starting with his mother or father (authority figures) and repeated often. Now, it is automatic; he doesn’t even think of trying to think differently.

Harry’s habit is what is known as a relationship “keystone” habit. It has a ripple affect on the family. Unfortunately, it is a negative affect.

Because of his habit the atmosphere of the whole house changes and is soured. Holly has been through this routine many times before with Harry. After waiting three hours for him to do the honey-do, she finally explodes and calls him a passive-aggressive person. They brood all night, barely talking to each other.There is no conversation at the dinner table. The children are upset and tense.

Can People change Habits?

Are You Ready To Change?
Are You Ready To Change?

The answer is YES with motivation, persistence and practice. The good news is that when we are dealing with keystone habits, one little change can ripple into many positive things.

How do we do it? According to Duhigg cited above, we change a habit by changing the “routine” part of the equation, since we often cannot change the trigger or the reward that we are after. That is, we RESPOND instead of REACT to the trigger. Harry should find a different way to deal with his wife’s commanding behavior. How about asking her to ask him in a nicer way? How about being honest with her and actually saying when he will do the task? How about telling her how her tone makes him feel?

Working on changing simple keystone habits is an excellent place to start to repair a relationship and get love feelings flowing again. I encourage it with my local patience because it is simple in concept, it is “do-able,” and it can make a large difference for relatively little effort put into it.

LEARN MORE PRACTICAL SKILLS INSTANTLY…….
Learn more practical tools for anger management and ways to handle conflict in your relationship in our acclaimed workbook Anger Management for the Twenty-First Century ebook. Instant download.

Next time: I will share the most common habit changes that couples make that really make a difference!

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Do some angry people not show it?

We all recognize the hot-headed person who yells, shouts, has a red face, clenched fists and bulging neck veins when angered or frustrated. It is easy to see that person as angry. But, is it possible to be just as angry but never show it? To suppress angry feelings or turn  them inward so that the anger affects our bodies from the inside allowing us to  maintain a calm and cool exterior?

The answer, of course, is yes! Some people are like volcanoes in that they explode with anger, while others are like slow-cookers in that they simmer with resentment. Still others are “stuffers” in that they don’t acknowledge they are angry at all – to themselves or to others. Yet, stuffers sometimes are depressed, and they often infuriate their partners because of their apparent lack of negative feelings in situations when most people would get  mad or at least agiitated.

 

Most stuffers can’t stuff forever, so they sometimes over-react to situations because they have been holding it in for so long. Better to deal with issues sooner than later, when they are just ripples instead of tsunamis. Expessihg anger appropriately is an important part of anger managenent because it often clears the air, it  shows your partner that you really care about the issue, and it just plain makes you feel better to get it off your chest

Anger is like fire. We must respect it, but not fear it.  We can harness it for our own good and the good of the world or we can let it control us and perhaps destroy those things we love most in our lives.

Try it. Let people know what bothers you by asserting yourself. To learn more about this,and how it applies to relationships,  join our new professional marriage page on Facebook and get a free 50-page ebook titled “Eight Keys To Successful marriage.” 

 

 

 

 

 

AngerCoach Show – Episode #15 – Peace at any price?

This month we discuss the whether the concept of “Peace at any price” is really valid when dealing with issues that come up in marriage. When dealing with problems in any relationship, assertive communication will often yield better results because it communicates feelings better than simply “clamming up”.

“Peace At Any Price” is Often The Wrong Strategy

Jeffrey was a beleaguered husband. Married for 15 years, he reported that his wife criticized him for nearly everything without giving him any recognition or credit for the good things he did for her and the family. He felt he could do nothing right, despite the fact that he was a very good provider, he was very engaged with his children, he was well-respected in his community and he had never done anything “awful” to her in their fifteen years together. Yet, he says he gets yelled at or criticized for all kinds  of little things like forgetting to take out some trash on trash pickup day, not answering one of her questions correctly or quickly enough, asking for sex after a 60 day dry spell, or forgetting to pick up supplies at a store for their son needed for a school project.

When I asked him how he responded to her, he replied : ” I just keep quiet most of the time, but then I blow up every once in a while when I can’t take it anymore.” At this point, he maintains that his wife accuses him of being both “passive aggressive,” and also having “anger control issues.” When asked what he thought about that, he replies: “I often clam up because I just want to keep the peace.” When asked how well that strategy is working, he had to admit that often his silence or withdrawal makes things worse.

Assertive Communication
In therapy we are teaching this husband the skill of assertive communication in dealing with his obviously angry wife. Assertive communication is Tool Number 5 in our 8-tools model of anger management used in our local classes and our online anger programs. In marriage, it means respectfully but firmly standing up for yourself by communciating how you feel and what your limits are for tolerating disrespecful behavior from your partner. Asserting yourself also means to calmly and rationally explain your point of view on things and the fact that you have a right to your opinion also. To be assertive, Jeffrey needed to learn how to honestly tell his partner how her remarks or criticism makes him feel and how  it creates more emotional distance in the marriage.

Finally, assertive behavior clearly communicates what you will or won’t tolerate in the future and involves giving alternatives of communicating that will work better for you. For instance, “your sarcasm turns me off and makes me not want to do it; but, if you ask me nicely, I’ll be more than happy to do it.”

What Assertive Communciation Is  NOT
Many people confuse assertive behavior with aggression or being “mean” to their partner. Nothing could be further from the truth! Assertive yourself DOES NOT mean attacking back, name-calling, getting revenge, becoming aggressive, threatening, or making wild accusations. It simply means honestly communicating how you feel, how their behavior is affecting you, and how you would want them to communicate to you differently. It also gives the message  that you deserve respect in the relationship, just as your partner does.

People who practice “peace at any price” instead of assertiveness in relationships often build resentment which then “explodes” periodically or creates emotional distance in the relationship. It is the elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge, yet it is there. As I tell my clients and I explain in our online marriage class program, you can be honest now and deal with it( even if it is painful), or put it off and deal with it later(again, it may be painful), but deal with it you must at some point in time. Of course, sometimes it IS best to let thing slide, but doing so for long periods of time allowing resentment and frustration to build often makes things worse.

Assert yourself before Peace At Any Price turns into War Without Borders!

Can’t change your partner? Try Looking in The Mirror!

Anger is an emotion. But, angry emotions often trigger a specific behavior (like yelling, throwing things, hitting, insulting someone, etc) which causes problems for you either at home, at work, on the road, or in your family. Most people in our anger classes tell us that one of the reasons they exhibit the angry behavior is because they want to change someone or something, they want somebody to think a certain way (or not)  or to do something (or not).

That is another way of saying that the angry person is trying to somehow “influence” the behavior or thinking of another. Unfortunately, angry behavior usually does not work; even if it does, the cost is so high that it almost always just isn’t worth it. We teach that there are better ways to influence others without getting angry or antagonizing others. But, where to start?

Questions to ask yourself:
The place to start is by looking in the mirror. As painful as it might be, ask yourself if you are behaving in ways that increase the probability of getting what you need and want from your partner? In other words, you have a lot more influence than you might think in terms of getting different responses from your partner. Ask yourself, how do other partners behave that do get what they want or need? (I know what you are thinking: “The reason they get more of what they need is because they have a better partner.” That may be true, or partially true,  but it also may not be. So, better to first ask, “Do I behave like people that do get more of what they want or need ” and then see what happens if you change.

Case study
Jose and Maria have been married for ten years. Jose has his own business; Maria is a stay- at- home mom. Jose sees Maria as lazy because she often does not prepare meals regularly, she does not clean the house up to Jose’s standards, and she often is too exhausted to do fun things in the evenings. Worse, according to Jose, Maria rarely ackowledges his great contributions to the marriage (he is very successful in business, and he is a good dad) ), she rarely shows affection, and praise of any kind is very rarely given.

Jose handles his frustration by yelling at Maria, calling her horrible names related to laziness, and accusing her of using a diagnosis of depression as an excuse for  not doing the things, in his mind,  she should  be doing. As I asked Jose in one of our sessions, what does he think the probability is of getting her to do more around the house by yelling, calling her names, and criticizing? Research shows, I told him,  that yelling, name-calling and criticizing decreases the probability of change in partners.

Jose decided to try to change things by applying the tool of  Respond Instead of React (The third tool of anger management in our system- Video; Respond Instead of React). Next morning, the kids were screaming, he needed help and his wife was still in bed. But, instead of yelling at her as usual, he went upstairs and calmly told her, “Honey, I need your help. I am overwhelmed down here.” Guess what? Maria at first did not stir, but five minutes later she came down the stairs and pitched in. Now this was not an earth-shaking change, but it was a start and it meant a lot to Jose.

There are ways to influence the behavior of someone that work much better than other ways. These ways can be called “relationship habits.” Just like you should copy the golf swings habits of golf champions if you want to improve your golf game, or the financial habits of very successful people if you want more financial success, you should copy the habits of those that may be more successful in relationships than you may be. Old dogs CAN learn new tricks- and often they should!

Related Articles and Blogs:

How to tank your relationship – Part 1
How to tank you relationship – Part 2
How to tank your relationship – Part 3

    Financial Infidelity: Are you dishonest about money?

    As the economy tightens, handling of finances in families is increasingly at the core of family fights and conflicts presented to therapists. Financial strain may greatly increase family stress which in turn affects all aspects of the relationship and family life. Even worse, is the introduction of what therapists are now calling “financial infidelity” – not being truthful with your spouse about money earned, money spent, or assets you be holding.

    A survey that lawyers.com and Redbook magazine commissioned from HarrisInteractive in 2005 tells the tale. Harris interviewed 1,796 adults, ages 25 to 55, who were married, engaged or living together. Among the findings:

    • Virtually all the people interviewed (96%) said it was both partners’ responsibility to be completely honest about financial issues.
    • Nearly 1 in 4 (24%) believed so strongly in this principle that they said openness about money is more important than being faithful. (As lawyers.com legal editor Alan Kopit put it, “They’re saying, ‘It’s one thing to fool around. It’s another thing to fool around with my hard-earned cash!'”)
    • Still, almost one in three (29%) admitted they had lied to their partner about finances, most often about personal spending (21%) or spending on the kids (12%).
    • One in four (25%) said a partner has withheld financial information — again, usually about personal spending (20%) and spending on children (11%).
    What we lie about
    Spending on ourselves 21% How much we make 6%
    Spending on children 12% Our investments 4%
    Household finances 9% Our retirement accounts 2%

    Source: HarrisInteractive

    When financial indiscretions are discovered by the partner, the usual reactions are similar to discovering sexual infidelity: feeling violated, having your “trust” foundation shaken, wondering what else you may have been lied to about, having doubts about wanting to be with a person who lied to you, and perhaps feeling foolish that you didn’t see it happening when perhaps it should have been obvious.

    In my experience as a marital therapist , most people who “cheat’ feel justified in doing so. They justify and rationalize their behavior to “make it right” in their own minds, so they don’ t have to feel guilty. It is like their “self-talk” goes astray. For instance, they tell themselves their behavior was OK because:

    • “I spent the  money on the children or the family;”
    • “My own parents or a relative  needed the money;”
    • “My  partner is a miser; I’ll repay it later;”
    • “Since my partner bought so and so, I deserve to buy this for myself; he/she didn’t tell me- why should I tell them? ” ( a balance-the-scale expenditure)
    • I have to drive the old car, so I’ll buy myself a $2000 _____” (a revenge expenditure)
    • “It is my money; I’ll spend it any way I like” (The entitlement expenditure)

    Some people, however, financially cheat because they are addicted to alcohol or drugs, to gambling,  to shopping,  to an expensive hobby or interest, or to costly sex. Or, perhaps they simply are dishonest people with poor character. They really can’t justify their actions. They know it is wrong, but either don’t want to change, or can’t change without professional help. Persons at this level of financial infidelity often ultimately destroy the relationship if the behavior continues. After all, partners can only put up with so much; at a certain point, they say “enough” and either end the relationship or establish firm boundaries around financial issues within the relationship. Persons who knowingly allow severe financial abuse to continue probably suffer from low self-esteem.

    Fixing Financial Infidelity:
    So, how do you fix financial infidelity? As we teach in our local marriage therapy sessions, and in our new Online Marriage Education Program, many marriage problems such as this are born of not aligning expectations to begin with (including setting boundaries) and not assertively and honestly communicating with each other around financial issues. Couples should have serious discussions around the following financial topics:

    • What are the ground rules?
    • What is joint money vs. personal money?
    • What are the parameters for spending? For instance, “we consult with each other before spending over $100”)
    • Do “personal money” expenditures need to be reported to the other?
    • Do we blend money or keep earned money separate?
    • Who physically pays the bills ?
    • Should one or both partners be placed on an “allowance?”
    • Should one partner who is better with money “control” the family expenditures?”

    Often a skilled therapist is needed to help couples deal with these issues because most financial issues have a strong emotional component attached to them. As one couple told me recently, “It isn’t about money itself; it is about power and control in our relationship.” In other instances, money conflicts are about clashing financial values, colliding life goals or dreams, or perhaps the inability of the couple to be flexible enough to deal with changing life circumstances (e.g., loss of employment, illness, etc).

    Some Financial Thoughts by Benjamin Franklin:

    Here are some thoughts to chew on as you and your partner discuss financial expectations and financial values:

    • A man may, if he knows not how to save as he gets, keep his nose all his life to the grindstone, and die not worth a groat at last
    • Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship
    • Buy what thou hast no need of, and before long thou shalt sell thy necessaries
    • A fat kitchen makes a lean will
    • Always taking out of the meal-tub, and never putting in, soon comes to the bottom
    • When you run in debt; you give to another power over your liberty
    • The second vice is lying, the first is running in debt


    Is Empathy Declining?

    Empathy is defined as the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, to understand their feelings and feel them yourself, and to see the world as they do. Theodore Roosevelt said:

    “A very large share of the rancor of political and social strife arises from sheer misunderstanding by one section, or by one class, of another, or else from the fact that the two sections, or two classes, are so cut off from each other that neither appreciates the other’s passions, prejudices, and, indeed, point of view, while they are both entirely ignorant of their community of feeling as regards the essentials of manhood and humanity.”

    Developing the skill of empathy is a key tool for anger management, for better marriage communication, for improved family relationships, and for less conflict in the world in general. Yet, unfortunately, it is a skill that seems to be declining in our world. According to studies that have been tracking this since 1979, college students are 40% less empathetic than their counterparts 30 years ago. (This was brought to my attention in a link sent to me by a former anger management student. The link is a fascinating website called “The Art of Manliness.” which recently featured an article titled ” Our Disembodied Selves and the Decline of Empathy” written by Brett and Kate Mckay.

    For many people, it is amazingly difficult to be empathetic. Seems that more men fall in this category than women, but there are many, many exceptions to this statement. Some men are much more empathetic than some women, but as a group, empathy is unfortunately considered a more “feminine” than “masculine” trait. There may be a genetic basis for this gender difference, as some studies show that the differences between males and females are seen in newborn babies. Girl babies are more likely to cry when they hear another baby cry than boy babies are, and two year old girls exhibit more concern for those who are distressed than two year old boys do. Other research shows that as men and women get older, the empathy gap narrows.

    Neuroscientists are even in the news recently in reference to empathy. Seems that we have something called “mirror neurons” in our brains. This means that when I am performing a task or feeling an emotion and you are observing me do so, the same neurons that are being lit up in my brain by actually having the experience, are the ones that light up in your brain just from watching me.

    Wow! This may mean that physically being with someone (like your partner, or a family member) and watching them actually increases your empathy for them. Close physical proximity allows you to more easily put yourself in their shoes! Contrariwise,  it is much easier to NOT be understanding of others if they are not in front of us. The McKays give the following example:

    “Have you ever been incredibly angry at another person, stewing and brooding about it all day? But then when you finally met up with the person face-to-face and talked to them, the anger just melted away? In the presence of their physical self, those puppy dog eyes, your empathy kicked in. In th absence of these real encounters, minor slights can multiply themselves many times over. One of the reasons long-distance relationships rarely work out.”

    To increase empathy in our technology-driven world, we must balance our lives with real physical body-to-body, face-to-face interactions with people we care about or want to understand better. This includes marriage partners, family members, neighbors, workplace colleagues, etc. Even better, to increase empathy try changing places with them – that is, do what they have to do and see if that doesn’t change your perspective of things.

    I recently had a personal example of this when I took a month vacation to South America  where I was hospitalized briefly for an intense intestinal distress. Admitted to a strange hospital in Quito, Ecuador where hardly anyone spoke English, I had to navigate the admissions process and explain to 10 doctors my symptoms and medical history in Spanish! Only problem was that my Spanish was nowhere near that level of sophistication, and besides, I was in no shape to speak even English, much less Spanish.

    All I could think of were the times I had become impatient with local immigrants in Southern California who were struggling with their English, while trying to explain things the best they could. Since then, I have become much more understanding and tolerant of how difficult it is to learn another language, especially at an older age,  under stressful conditions.

    To summarize,the trait of empathy is probably “hard-wired” in our brains, but we can enhance it with practice (just like breathing is hard-wired but breathing exercises make us feel better and improve performance). This “practice” involves first becoming aware of how important empathy is. Then, physically be in the presence more often of the persons you want to develop more empathy toward, and actually watch them as you interact with them. Finally, try literally putting yourself in their shoes, if you can, to develop more empathy for their lives, their outlook, or their attitudes.


    Single Because of Anger?

    criticism

    We often get calls from single people who request help with anger management because they have just lost another relationship due both to their anger AND  the  inability of their boyfriend or girlfriend to deal with their criticisms, angry outbursts, or  sarcastic ways of communicating. Fact is, if you are used to communicating in an angry way, you might find a partner who can tolerate it and deal with it, but the reality is that most can’t and won’t. They  just decide to move on, if they feel your anger is out of control.  After all, one can only deal with a porcupine for so long.  As I have described in other blogs, poorly managed anger is one sure way to tank your relationship.

    Of course, when an angry single person seeks consultation, their first remark is usually that they wouldn’t be so angry if their partner only would.……(fill in the blank) or wouldn’t………..(fill in the blank) or wouldn’t have.………(you get the idea).  Yes, we empathize. That is probably true. However, what brings down the relationship is not the anger itself. Rather, it is how you and your partner deal with it that makes the difference. If your anger is justified, your challenge is to take responsibility for it, control it and learn how to communicate the issue in a way that is more effective and doesn’ t blow you partner out of the water, so to speak.

    This requires the use of the eight tools of anger control that we teach our anger management students locally and in our  10 and 16 hour online distance learning classes. Recently, I discussed these tools  and  was interviewed  by Hadley Finch, of “Tribe of Blonds-“ an internet website and radio show devoted to singles. Topic of the show was : A Lasting Love – Your 8 tools to Control Anger and Keep Love Alive. You can hear the interview by going to http://bit.ly/bBM6ZR

    Learning to handle anger with your partner is actually a task of learning to communicate more effectively with each other about issues that bother you in the relationship. Some issues are solvable while others are not in the sense of one person or the other needing to change something. Learning to accept that which probably is unchangeable as well as learning how to resolve conflicts around those issues that indeed can be changed are skills that will go a long way to lasting love and making a relationship work for you!

    Anger in your relationship? Guys: Before Trying To Fix, Just Listen

    In our local anger management classes, we regularly hear from clients as to what causes anger in their  relationships. Recently a young woman revealed that “99% of our fights occur because my husband tried to fix what is bothering me.” At this point, the males in the class were astounded that this woman could be upset because her husband was trying to help her with a problem. After all, isn’t that what a good husband is supposed to do? Here is what happened:

    Wife (who was home all day with their three young children) to husband home from work: “The kids were horrible today. I can’t get little Tommy to do his homework, Jessica is always whining and Andrea always has to get her way.”

    Husband: Do you know what your problem is? Lack of organization with the kids. I have been thinking about it and here is my plan for you to solve these problems with the kids.

    fixing husband

    He then proceeds to lay out the whole plan.

    Wife: (now feeling defensive because she is hearing his response as critical, demeaning and unsupportive:) “You think I haven’t thought of all those things? Do you think it is easy to parent three children? You can leave every day and get away from it and then come prancng home like a hero. That really pisses me off! ”

    Husband (who is completely flummoxed at her anger because he sees his response as logical, helpful and supportive. He loves his wife and wants to help her not be so frustrated at the end of the day.He also wants to come up with new solutions so she will look up to him) : ” Well, if that is how you feel, why do you ask me for advice to begin with? I’m just trying to help!”

    Wife: ” I DIDN’T ask you for advice. I was just sharing my day with you. I just wanted you to listen and also to help me with the family stress now that you are home. “

    Sound familiar? This scenario and similar variations of it commonly occur in otherwise good relationships, as well as in disturbed relationships. In our society many males are taught that it is their responsibility to “fix” things that are not right in his family and in his marriage. Problem is, sometimes while he is “fixing” (and being a good guy in his own mind), he is  is being seen by his partner as “controlling,” invalidating, or intending to make her feel “less than.”

    Often conflict can be avoided if “fixer-husbands” can learn to sometimes just listen instead of immediately jumping with  solution to the problem or issue. Not that they should never come with solutions; instead, they should wait until they are ASKED for solutions or help. Until then, just being supportive and empathetic to your partner’s issues can go a long way toward relationship harmony. Click on the following short video to help you understand the power of empathy in relationships.

    Empathy as an Anger Management Skill