In a recent couple's session, I realized something about fighting and anger, a small piece of truth that can help curb even the nastiest of fights. It goes like this.
First of all, what is anger? Fundamentally--although there is some disagreement about this--emotions can be boiled down to two foundation points: love and fear. Emotion literally means "to move," and love is movement toward something and fear is movement away from it. Most people instinctively understand this to some degree, and can note that their body responds in certain ways to different emotions that they're feeling.
Most people view anger as a "negative emotion," meaning that it is uncomfortable to feel and generally leads to something destructive--like saying something you regret or destroying something you actually love. While I'm sure we can all tell stories about the shit that anger has gotten us into, it's actually derived from something that feels good and enhances our wellbeing: the desire to connect with another person.
Here's what happens. Humans have an innate need to connect with other people. Why, exactly, isn't totally clear at this point, but we do know for sure that it's a need, like eating and sleeping. There are layers of needs--emotional, survival, spiritual, for example--and human connection is at least two of the three listed. Babies will die if they do not have prolonged contact with other humans, even if they are totally well-fed and clothed.
So you feel some pull to connect with another person--maybe it's the first time or maybe it's a time in a long string of times of connecting, like in a romantic relationship. Something happens that calls your connection into question, for example maybe your partner doesn't call when he or she said. What happens then? Well you get angry!
However, actually you get fearful then angry, but perhaps this happens so fast that you don't notice it. You get afraid in that moment when your connection is called into question because of an action that isn't what you expected. Remember what happens when you get fearful? You move away.
Now you're metaphorically and perhaps literally moved away from the person, but if the connection or desire for connection is strong enough you'll have a gravitational pull that brings you back to them. However, in this moment you're feeling fear and not love--or at least fear overwhelming the love--so how do you move back toward them? You must experience an emotion that corresponds to the situation. Cue anger.
As I said, anger is often actually a misguided attempt at connection with another person. This person has betrayed your trust and expectation in some way, maybe small or maybe large. They have called into question your connection with them. But you still want to be close. Anger accomplishes all of these needs: anger is a emotion that moves toward another and it also expresses dissatisfaction.
Okay great. So now what? What do you do with this anger?
First, notice the way I said above what caused the anger. I made it all about the other person--it's his or her fault. But what actually happened? Our partner did something and it made us feel unsure about something. And now you're stuck in an argument. The way into this situation was actually at least half yourself. Yes, the other person did something but you reacted. So first we must turn the lens back on ourselves, and this brings us to question one.
1) What am I feeling? (Or: What are you feeling? If it's one partner trying to diffuse another and not his or herself.)
By simply stating what you're feeling, it allows you to connect with your partner in a non-threatening way, which was the entire point from the beginning. It also creates a break in the action, which can calm the situation.
But going back, what caused this situation? Remember? The connection was called into question. This is very important because I mean that a question was literally created in your head. Maybe it was am I loved? Can I trust her? Does he accept me the way I am? How are my parents going to react to this? What does this say about his parenting style? It may sound bizarre, but this uncertainty paired with the high stakes situation of love can create incredible anger in some people. So this brings us to the second question.
2) What is the question (or few questions) that is (are) unanswered?
So recap. You're in a fight with your partner and he or she is getting super angry with you. You want to work it out but everything you're saying seems to make it worse. (Or maybe this is complete reverse--you're angry and everything he or she says seems to make it worse.) You ask the two questions: 1) What are you feeling? And 2) What is the question you have that is unanswered?
This is not to say that all fights are angry. People can fight sad, fight fearful, fight shameful, etc. And this is also not to say that the cause of anger is always this and just this. However, I promise you that if you deal with arguments by asking these questions first to diffuse the situation, you can create a dialogue that will allow for actually working things out and making a better relationship.