Dear Jody

Angry all the time

Q: My girlfriend, "Kristen," yells and carries on when she gets angry. It is something I am not used to because we didn't act like that in my family. It makes me so uncomfortable and I don't know how to handle her anger.

I'll give you an example of the kind of thing she does: Kristen came home from school on Monday (we're in college) and was all upset because she got a "B" on a paper that she expected to get an "A" on. She stomped around our apartment, threw things and slammed her books down several times, I guess to get my attention. Then, someone called from work and asked her to take a shift. She didn't like that and gave them an ear-full about how much homework she had and that she already told them that she couldn't do the extra shift, and why didn't they listen to her. I'm not sure how she keeps a job when she talks like that to her fellow employees. She didn't go in, which was probably a good thing for all the other workers, but not for me because she turned her anger on me. She yelled at me because I hadn't cleaned up my mess from lunch. I was eating my lunch at the time and was planning to clean it up after I got done eating, as I always do - and she knows it! So, that set me off, and we were into it big time about everything including the kitchen sink. This is what we do when she gets angry.

Jody, I try to just go and hide when Kristen gets like this - stay out of her way both physically and verbally, but she comes and seeks me out and gets me into it.

Kristen isn't always like this, though. We have many good times together - and I truly love her. It's just when she gets really mad, she pulls the kind of stuff that I just mentioned. It's like she can't shake her anger and move on; the anger just grows and mutates in all directions. It sure just makes me want to go away from her when she does that.

How can I get her to change? I know that people get angry, and I accept that. I love her and want to help her to change the way she handles her anger. I tell her that she needs to go to an anger-management class. She says she'll think about it, but is there something I can do?

A: I do hope that Kristen does something about her anger, because it is her anger and something she needs to work on. But if you are asking how you can help diffuse anger, I can help with that. Anger tends to escalate when the angry person doesn't feel heard. Quite often, people around the angry person try to calm the person by letting them know that what they feel is wrong in some way. The best thing you can do is to let the angry person know that she is being heard by you, and heard without judgment. You don't have to internally agree with the person who's angry, just acknowledge how they are feeling and why they are feeling that way. This is important because well-intended people are inclined to do just the opposite, thinking that if they acknowledge the person's angry feelings and the reason for it, the anger will intensify when, in fact, it has the totally opposite effect.

For instance, in the case of Kristen, coming home upset about her grade, it would be helpful if you would acknowledge her disappointment, all the work she put into it and her thinking it was an "A" effort. Let her vent and let her know that you understand her anger. It doesn't mean that you would be angry yourself in that situation, just that you can see that this is making her angry. Doing this with Kristen would help her to express her anger and frustration and feel validated. That would have a calming effect on Kristen so that she could move on to figure out how to do better next time.

Jody Valley spent 12 years as a clinical social worker. She worked with the LGBT community both as a counselor and a workshop leader in the areas of coming out, self-esteem and relationship issues. Reach Jody at The Dear Jody column appears weekly. Letters may be edited.

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