5 Quiet Things To Do When You're Angry —That Could Literally Save Your Relationship

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young Asian couple looks at one another in sunlight

I was mad! Spitting mad! I couldn’t even speak! And over something relatively minor. Well, minor now, but not then.

I had just caught my husband red-handed in the kitchen tampering with the stew I had labored over for hours. My blood simmered (along with the stew) as I raced to the stove to stop the damage.

Now, what was I going to do with this mess on the stove, let alone inside me? After all, I’ve been a couples therapist for more than thirty years and am supposed to know how to handle these situations.

Just in case you’ve ever felt that sizzling surge of anger towards your spouse, there are a few tips backed by relationship science that may be helpful, ones I had to rediscover for myself in this marital dust-up.

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Here are 5 tips for when you're spitting mad at your partner.

1. Breathe.

Stew doesn’t just happen, right? So I picked the perfect recipe, survived the crowded Costco expedition, then peeled, chopped, and seared said ingredients. They then merged to simmer under a broth of a nice Bordeaux wine. Perfect!

Two hours into the simmer, while Husband was supposedly getting a snack, I caught him emptying the carton of half-and-half into the pot. What?! I bolted to the stove, aghast and speechless.

"I can’t believe you just hijacked my stew!" I circled the kitchen island muttering my disbelief, stopped to look at him, then flooded with anger all over again.

Only a single thought penetrated my awareness: breathe.

When anger floods your systems, your body believes your survival is threatened, so they protect you by shifting into a fight/flight mode. That ancient survival mechanism then shifts your breathing into a shallow mode.

Let your body know it’s not a life-or-death situation by taking deep, deliberate breaths.

I tried for four deep breaths, but even the two I managed interrupted the shallow breathing. However, deep breathing alone wasn’t enough this time.

2. Lower your heart rate.

Husband, who thought the stew didn’t have enough seasoning, stared at my hands-on-knees position, unsure if my heart was stable. He appeared a bit sheepish, and I confess that pleased me.

I stood up to say something, but my intended thoughts vanished when I noticed my rapid heart rate. "Okay," I told myself as I remembered the research. "You’re not ready to talk yet."

Renowned couples researcher, John Gottman, discovered that when our heart rates are higher than 98 beats a minute, we may as well forget about conflict resolution. That’s because at a higher heart rate we lose access to the creative, conflict-resolving parts of our brains.

Those higher-functioning parts of our minds are put on hold because our brain "juice" is funneled to that more primitive part to determine if our survival is at stake.

Once the heart rate returns to under 98 bpm, the "juice" flows back to our prefrontal lobes, and we can begin to creatively problem solve.

After my heart rate returned to normal, Husband implored me to try the stew. Trying to be reasonable, I took a spoonful of the yellowish-brown, slightly curdled concoction.

Argh! Pure salt! Once again I was not only spitting mad, I was literally spitting into the sink.

"Sweetheart," he rushed to explain. "I thought several teaspoons of the steak seasoning would help. Maybe it was too much?"

I felt the moisture being sucked from my eyeballs at the sudden salt infusion. My anger came flooding (or salt-storming) back.

There I was, a therapist who helps clients with their anger, and I didn’t know what to do with my own mad.

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3. Take a time out

I paced around the kitchen island and up and down the hallway. My heart rate had spiked again, suggesting that I needed more of a time out before I returned to the scene of the stew crime.

Time outs are highly underappreciated for couples. Being able to call a time out for yourself is not a failure, but quite the opposite.

It’s an acknowledgment that you want to bring your best self back to your partner, but that best self needs some space apart in order to emerge.

However, a time out has to be used appropriately:

Don’t tell your partner that they need a time out.

Don’t call one for yourself then ghost your partner.

State your need for one as neutrally as possible.

Don’t imply it’s your partner’s fault you require one.

Offer how long you will need (usually a minimum of half-hour).

For example, if I was at my best, I would say to Husband, "I need a time out to regroup, and I will check back in 30 minutes."

The purpose of a time out is to help you shift from one energy "state" to another. In my case, to change from an angry, narrowly focused state to a calm, promising one.

Lots of methods can help you make a shift: music, hot bath/cold shower, meditation, organizing a drawer, run around the block, crossword puzzles, or anything that helps you move from tight anger to a curious position.

During the time out is also a great time to try the next tip.

4. Consider giving the benefit of the doubt

Initially, during my time out, I thought I should tell Husband exactly why I was so offended that he hijacked my stew. And, often, it's valuable for your partner to know why their actions so impacted you.

But, I knew from experience that leading with my offended self would only result in lots of apologies and both of us feeling bad. No long-term solution there.

The further into my time out, the more I thought of alternate explanations for Husband’s behavior:

He thought he was helping.

He needs spicier foods to register on his few taste buds.

It’s only my stew that was missing, not our pet.

I have more stew meat, I can make another.

He's usually supportive, not a saboteur.

I felt ready to re-engage with him, but as I rounded the corner into the kitchen, I saw Husband still working on the stew, trying to make things right with me. But... Oh my dear Julia Child! He just dumped chicken salad, olives, and cheese into the pot!

"Try it," he enthused. "It’s not so salty now! You might like this stew."

This was not stew, I informed him. It was as far from French stew as I was from Paris.

"I’m sorry. I didn’t check with you, I just started fixing it," he acknowledged.

Several times, in fact, I tried to explain how "wrong" he was. We were getting nowhere. Time to tap into my best adult self.

5. State your intentions, then your feelings

"I really appreciate your apology and that you listened to what was so upsetting to me." I could see him take that in.

'I’m not trying to make you feel bad, I just needed you to understand why it distressed me. I had put lots of effort into creating the stew. When you dumped your own stuff into the pot, I felt unseen and unacknowledged. And really, I know that’s the last thing you would want me to feel."

That identification of those feelings — unseen and unacknowledged — was cathartic for me.

By uncovering and naming the core feelings, I could begin to let them go. And I could more readily give Husband the benefit of the doubt. Of course, he doesn’t want me to feel unseen!

By then, it almost didn’t matter how he responded because I got clear within myself. It was pure bonus that he again apologized and hugged me.

Although my stew may have been hijacked, at least my anger was no longer capturing my brain, body, and marriage. The next time you’re spitting mad, maybe these tips will help keep your anger from hijacking your relationship. 

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Judy Tiesel-Jensen is a dual-licensed in Psychology and Marriage & Family Therapy for most of her professional career, and for over 20 years taught graduate students in counseling and therapy programs. For more information on services, visit her website

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