Odds are, it was just a fit of blind fury when you told your partner that you only married them for their money. But in the moment, you were angry: The world was on fire, and awful things somehow escaped from your mouth. Because if there’s one thing we all know, it’s that anger makes people do — and say — some crazy stuff.
“In that state, you’re not going to be you,” says Allen Wagner, a marriage and family therapist in L.A. “Biologically, the brain shifts. Empathy and compassion are neutralized.” According to Wagner, the sort of anger that makes me people say things they don’t mean stems from feeling hopeless. “When people feel attacked, they’re really just overwhelmed with fear and anxiety,” he says.
Writing in Psychology Today, Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., claims that anger is generally a mask for other repressed feelings. “In my own clinical experience, anger is almost never a primary emotion in that even when anger seems like an instantaneous, knee-jerk reaction to provocation, there’s always some other feeling that gave rise to it. And this particular feeling is precisely what the anger has contrived to camouflage or control.”
In short, when you feel attacked, you feel angry, and then you say the kind of dumb, hurtful stuff that you’ll regret forever. To avoid this happening, Wagner suggests briefly separating in order to allow “a cooling off period” — a term that was coined by Jane Nelsen in her parenting book Positive Discipline. “The ‘cooling off period’ is an effective tool for putting some space between you and your children when emotions run high, and communication breaks down. Basically, the cooling off period is a ‘positive time-out’ that allows everyone a chance to readjust emotionally so that constructive solutions can be found to problems,” reports The Successful Parent.
Wagner tells me that he gives the same sort of advice to couples. “The best thing you can do is separate,” says Wagner. “This allows both people to calm down and think about what started the escalation. It’s better to come back and talk about things at a low escalation point.”
He suggests using that time to trace back your anger in order to better understand where it came from. If you’re the person who the anger was directed at, you should do your best to understand that those awful things your loved one may have said to you about your general appearance or your sexual inadequacy was because they felt trapped. “Whoever is most upset is the most hopeless person in the room,” says Wagner. “Their anger is their pain.”
The question, then, is this: What’s an appropriate amount of time to allow someone to chill out before trying to resolve the issue? Because as we all know, when you’re the angry one, even if the other party has backed down and agreed that they’re in the wrong, it still takes you awhile to simmer down enough to not be mad at them.
“I personally think somewhere between 10 and 30 minutes is a good amount of time to let things cool off,” says Wagner. “Longer than that, it can cause a person to put puzzle pieces together that don’t belong and create a narrative where both parties feel like the victim, and therefore that their partner owes them the apology.” In other words, you shouldn’t use your time apart to arm yourself with a defense for when you come back together. “If you do that, things are going to get worse,” he says.
Also worth noting is that as important as these cooling off periods are, you can’t just walk off anytime you feel like things are on the precipice of exploding. “You have to have a mutual agreement that you’re both going to take time apart,” says Wagner. That’s why he suggests talking about this type of potential scenario in advance. “If one of us has to leave, you have to both agree to let that person take their time, but also establish some sort of timeline for when both of you are going to come back together,” he adds. “It’s important that both parties trust that their partner is coming back.” So, no, you can’t say you’re going for a walk around the block, and then disappear on a two-day bender.
When you do eventually reconvene, if you’re the one who was at fault, it’s important that you approach said angry person with some actionable change to instill hope in your relationship. “You need to take action to show the person that it’s not a false promise,” says Wagner. “Anger comes from hopelessness, and if a person is hopeful again, they tend to calm down.”