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

Photo: Marco VDM, gerenme, Pexels | Canva 
Woman taking a timeout and deep breath

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.

What will I do with this mess on the stove, let alone the mess inside of 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 quiet things to do when you're angry —that could save your relationship:

1. Breathe.

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

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

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

Only a single thought penetrated my awareness: breathe.

When anger floods your systems, your body believes your survival is threatened, so it protects 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.

My husband, who thought the stew wasn't seasoned enough, stared at my hands-on-knee 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 creatively problem-solve.

After my heart rate returned to normal, my Husband implored me to try the stew. 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 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 anger.

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3. Take a time out

I paced around the kitchen island and up and down the hallway. My heart rate spiked again, which suggested I needed more time before returning 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 to emerge.

However, a time-out has to be used appropriately:

For example, if I were at my best, I would say to my 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, running 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.



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4. Consider giving the benefit of the doubt

Initially, I thought I should tell my 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 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 my Husband’s behavior:

  • He thought he was helping.
  • He needs saltier 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 I tried to explain how "wrong" he was. We were getting nowhere, time to tap into my best adult self.

happy couple kiss in the sunlight

Photo via Getty

5. State your intentions, then your feelings

"I appreciate your apology and that you listened to what upset 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 stuff into the pot, I felt unseen and unacknowledged. And really, I know that’s the last thing you would want me to feel."

Identifying 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 a 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 has been dual-licensed in Psychology and Marriage and Family Therapy for most of her professional career and over 20 years taught graduate students in counseling and therapy programs.