Anger Management

It is 11 p.m. You’re exhausted and you have to get up at 4. You lie down on the bed, close your eyes and begin the languorous descent into sleep. A few minutes later, your significant other comes into the room and falls heavily onto the bed next to you.

Just a few days before, the two of you had put the bed together by tightening the bolts at each end. You did the foot, she did the head. And now, as the frame and headboard separate and the mattress and box springs slam to the floor, you discover that she didn’t really tighten those bolts after all.

You are up in a flash, raging at her for not tightening the bolts properly, raging that you are tired and need sleep and don’t have time to fix the bed, raging that nevertheless you have to fix the bed, goddammit, because she didn’t tighten the goddamn bolts.

In fact, you are not just ranting, you are throwing the mattress around and shouting and letting rage escalate to the point where without even trying you detonate a small and decidedly non-tactical nuclear device at the epicenter of your relationship.

Does this ring a bell? It does for me. I used to live in that dark and unstable no-man’s land – and no-woman’s land – myself, and not that long ago.

This time it happened to someone else. But hearing about it is like hearing an old song that brings back echoes of an old, bad time that gets no better in the re-telling.

I’ve spent years trying to clean out my anger. I never got into mattress-tossing, but I broke some things, hurt some feelings and busted a couple of relationships, too.

The bed episode happened to a friend of mine who had already begun getting help with his anger, but not soon enough. And if he doesn’t get it under control, it will continue to control him.

His anger is so uncontrollable that after he mouthed off to a passenger on an airplane, the guy followed him into a restroom in the terminal and slapped him around. As for his girlfriend, she is, as he puts it, “on hiatus.”

In other words, she’s packing.

I’d be rooting for him even if he were not a friend, but maybe not as strongly if I hadn’t gone through so much of it myself. I know there’s healthy anger, but so much of what I see — and so uch of what I experienced — was ugly and toxic.

Just a few weeks ago, a woman raged at me for breaking a confidence.  I didn’t break the confidence, someone else did, and she knew it. But I was involved, and she was determined to blame me, and her anger was in full, apocalyptic bloom. It felt like a heavy, poison-tipped spear ripping into my stomach.

My initial reaction was to be defensive and angry myself,  emotions that while understandable, did nothing to defuse the situation. And her reaction to my response was worse than the first, an email full of cold, implacable fury.

I walked around for days drafting and re-drafting in my mind my next reply. I was in a fever to find the perfect words that would establish my innocence while punishing her for what was not only unfair, but insulting as well.

This is not the first time something like this has happened, and the question is always this: “Do I respond in kind or do I elevate my game?”

The former is tempting, because then I get to be “right,” which feeds my ego. But the latter is the path to peace.

So I waited a full week, giving me time to let the flames time to die down and to craft an answer that was fair and balanced. I acknowledged her pain and discomfort, said I was sorry the incident had taken place, and firmly stated my case. I didn’t back down on the guilt issue,  but I didn’t throw lighter fluid on the fire, either.

Her reply, complete and unedited: “Thank you.”

She neither apologized for attacking me, nor admitted that she was wrong, so she didn’t exactly cover herself with glory. On the other hand, I should have known better than to respond to anger with anger in the first place. It’s like throwing the mattress around the room.

The best strategy I’ve heard comes from another friend, a contractor, who recently had to deal with a call from a raging realtor. When she finished her harangue, he said, “Let me get this straight, you’re upset about” and then listed her complaints.

The realtor, incredulous that he hadn’t defended himself and amazed that he not only heard her, but had actually listened, said in a deflated voice, “Yeah.”

They resolved the issues peacably and she has since sent him four more referrals. That’s what I call anger management.

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