DEAR DOCTOR K: My husband and I both have quick tempers. Before we know it, a simple observation turns into an argument. Any advice for keeping our conversations civil?
DEAR READER: Everyone gets angry from time to time, but anger comes more easily to some people. Two married friends, call them Kevin and Jane, recently recounted the following exchange to me:
As Kevin was finishing up a hectic day at work, Jane rang and asked him to pick up milk for the kids on the way home. “I'll do my best,” he told her. But the store was closed by the time Kevin got there and he arrived home empty-handed. His wife, who also had a hectic day at work, became upset and responded, “But you said you would get it.” “No, I said I'd try,” said Kevin apologetically.
The outcome of this exchange could have gone badly. You can imagine tempers rising and a vicious spat to follow.
In fact, Jane replied, “We're both exhausted. The kids won't starve. Let's have dinner.” With those few words she communicated to her husband that nothing mattered more than the harmony between them.
Interactions like this happen every day. With each interaction comes an opportunity to minimize anger and create a positive outcome. The key is to convey information peacefully and respectfully.
Remember that how we say something is as important as what we say. If you speak with anger or contempt, a simple disagreement can turn into a huge argument. Instead, try talking calmly and respectfully.
Taking a “timeout” when things start to get heated is really important. Even if you are justified in being angry, there's a real chance that anger will cause you to do something you regret and hurt someone you love. Taking a timeout tells your partner that you are interested in his or her point of view, and that you value and respect them. And it also signals that they should consider why you got angry, and whether there was any basis for it that could have been avoided.
Think back to Kevin and Jane's exchange over the milk. Fortunately, Jane stopped, looked and listened. She recognized her own anger, but also Kevin's effort. She observed that he felt bad, and she quickly backed down from anger. An incident that could have escalated into a full-blown argument ended instead with a peaceful family dinner.
To learn many more strategies for recognizing and controlling anger, read “Outsmarting Anger” by Harvard Medical School's Dr. Joe Shrand, with Leigh M. Devine.
Besides the damage that anger can do to relationships, there's growing evidence that anger is just plain bad for your health. You've probably heard about people who get heart attacks from having “Type A personalities” — from being hard-driving and perfectionistic. There's a measure of truth to that, but anger is even more of a factor in bringing on a heart attack.
Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.
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