How Calm People Make us Infuriated
It is pretty common for couples to fight, with one person angry and upset and the other person trying to calm the situation down. Yet, doing this doesn’t actually make the situation any calmer – this requires something different.
It should work…
On the face of it should work. Say one person – Sam – is angry with Lee. Lee has done something that Sam has found unacceptable, and now Sam can’t be placated. The more Lee tries to calm the situation down, the stronger Sam feels and the worse seems things seem to get. Lee can’t understand, makes more efforts to placate Sam and it just gets worse. It is an easy situation to get into, and now seems like it is starting to get out of control.
If it is like many arguments about small things, it will eventually blow itself out and although there will be uncomfortable times before things get back to normal there might not be a permanent breach.
…but it doesn't
One of the things that makes couples work is that they often have an emotional matching or attunement. This isn’t to say that they are the same type of people or that they even have the same emotional temperament, but often enough they seem to be on the same emotional wavelength; they respond to each other. However in a fight, this emotional matching goes out the window. Suddenly one person – Sam in the example above – is feeling strong emotions that Lee isn’t feeling.
Calm is unattuned to an angry person
The mistake Lee makes in this is trying to stay calm. In doing this, the gap between them just gets wider. Sam sees this, and knows that Lee just doesn’t get it – and this only makes Sam’s feelings stronger. I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post that emotions are a form of communication, but in this situation, Lee doesn’t seem to get the communication so Sam is unconsciously compelled to try harder to get the message through by getting more emotional.
Bring some emotion
So what can be done? The quickest way for this situation to get back to an equilibrium is for the ‘calming’ person to bring some emotion into the situation, even if only briefly. In doing this, they signal ‘this is an important situation’; when the upset/angry person sees this, they know they are starting to be heard. This doesn’t mean automatically getting angry in response, but it does mean bringing more of yourself to the discussion. When the other person feels heard, they don’t need to fight to be heard so much.
So how does psychotherapy fit into this? When you come to see me as a client, you sometimes might be upset or angry due to the things that are happening in your lives. You want to be responded to. Firstly, the more I can respond to your feeling with my genuine feeling, the more you feel heard and the quicker you can calm yourself. Secondly, we work to build skills to allow you to manage your strong feelings, to allow you to calm yourself.
– Tim Hill
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.