Love and Anger: A stoic approach to relationship fights

Love and Anger: A stoic approach to relationship fights – Guest Post By Dr. Pat Owen

Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it. 

-Seneca

 

When’s the last time you got into an argument with your partner? It’s completely natural to get angry and want to yell and fight, but just because it’s natural doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea. 

 

According to Stoic philosophy, anger is the most destructive emotion: “Anger,” writes Seneca, “is a brief insanity, and the damage done by anger is enormous. No plague has cost the human race more.”

 

There is no middle ground when it comes to anger according to the Stoics. They see anger as a poor guide to happiness and have studied the emotion in depth. Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy that reminds us that we don’t control and cannot predict external events and that the only control we have is within us. 

 

This means that no one is responsible for making you angry. You are solely responsible for your emotions. Your feelings are your choices. If you choose anger over calm, you’re not helping anything. In fact, you may just make everything worse.

“He really pushes my buttons”

It’s VERY difficult to control your anger once you’ve given into it. There are plenty of nasty, rude people in the world who don’t care if they hurt you, and this is particularly troublesome if you’re in a relationship with one. 

 

Here’s a scenario:

Mary has always been sensitive about her weight and she’s made that clear to her boyfriend Steve. Whenever Steve is upset with her, he’ll say or do something that insinuates that she’s overweight. Mary tries her best to remain in the moment and not let the re-experiences of all the old pain affect her. When Steve sees that she’s unfazed, he’ll keep pushing her buttons. Mary knows that Steve is an insensitive clod, so she takes a deep breath, and tries to understand why Steve is upset in the first place instead of simply reacting to his provocations. 

 

Now, some people would argue that anger is the right response to Steve’s insults. Steve, after all, deserves to be put in his place. But this would empower Steve because he achieved the desired response out of Mary. Instead, Mary took the Stoic approach. 

1. Don’t suppress your anger. Examine it.

In the above scenario, Mary felt the anger rise inside her but kept it under control.  She’s well aware of her triggers and quickly recognized the micro- or macro-patterns of aggression in Steve’s behaviour. Through practice and mindfulness, she was better prepared to catch and neutralize her triggers far earlier, before her anger could take control. 

 

Let’s be clear: Mary didn’t suppress her emotions: That’s not what Stoicism is about. Research shows that suppressing your anger can lead to chronic resentment and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, especially in women. Stoicism, rather, encourages us to examine the nature of anger within us. Gregory Sadler, editor of the blog Modern Stoic explains: 

 

“Stoic philosophy actually provides us with a complex, robust understanding of how emotions, desires, assumptions and judgements intersect. It also gives us tools for analysis of what’s going on inside of us, and a wide range of practices that allow us — if we put in the work — to respond in more rational ways to the challenges or setbacks we face.”

 

In this regard, Stoicism is very much like cognitive behavioural therapy insofar as they thought that emotions rested on, or had at their core, certain kinds of beliefs, impressions or judgments about the world. Knowing this, it’s important to understand that no good comes from anger, and the only way to deal with anger is to not get angry in the first place. 

 

“The best plan is to reject straightway the first incentives to anger, to resist its very beginnings, and to take care not to be betrayed into it: for if once it begins to carry us away, it is hard to get back again into a healthy condition, because reason goes for nothing when once passion has been admitted to the mind, and has by our own free will been given a certain authority, it will for the future do as much as it chooses, not only as much as you will allow it. The enemy, I repeat, must be met and driven back at the outermost frontier-line: for when he has once entered the city and passed its gates, he will not allow his prisoners to set bounds to his victory.”

-Seneca

 

In fact, stoics thought that no degree of anger was reasonable, as it damages yourself, your partner, and society in general. 

 

“We shouldn’t control our anger, but destroy it entirely – for what control is there for a thing that is fundamentally wicked?”

-Seneca

 

Sounds extreme! But if you think about it, anger is one of the only emotions that entirely takes control of our mind and actions. We do things we later regret and it blinds us to the future and the consequences of our actions. And once we get angry, it’s hard to back away. You don’t feel like calming down – or being told to calm down – and you certainly think that anger justifies itself. Worse, anger is contagious. Remember the last time your partner was angry and you didn’t know why? You probably got angry at them in return for having gotten angry at you in the first place!

 

2. Take a deep breath…

Mary took a deep breath before responding to Steve – a strategy that the American Psychological Association suggests as one of the fastest ways to reduce the intensity of your anger. It allows you to pause and reflect, giving you time to allow reason to overcome passion. In essence, just wait a bit before reacting.

 

“The greatest cure for anger is to wait. So that the initial passion it engenders may die down and the fog that shrouds the mind may subside or become less thick.”

-Seneca

The next time you feel anger welling up inside you, remove yourself from the situation and go for a walk, or withhold all actions until you feel better. Use that time wisely to regain tranquility and focus. This is very hard to do in practice, but with time, it works amazingly! The worse thing to do while walking away is to ruminate and justify your anger. Anger motivates revenge and retaliation and drives us to confrontation – all of which will never solve a problem. So sit on that angry email or text for a while before sending it. Take a deep breath, count slowly to ten, and repeating a phrase like, “Let it go”, “Take it easy”, or “Don’t let this mess up my Zen”.

 

Stoics also recommend using art, poetry, and music as calming devices, a technique known today as creative arts therapy or expressive arts therapy. This also includes dance, drama, and writing. In one study, 66 healthcare professionals (one of the most stressful jobs there is according to the CDC) used expressive writing as a way to voice their moods and emotions. The practice had a massive positive impact on both their physical and psychological health. It improved social interactions, increased cognitive abilities and made work much easier to cope with. 

3. Repair and restore. Don’t punish.

In the above scenario, Mary takes steps towards repairing and restoring the relationship instead of trying to convince Steve that he’s a jerk (which he’ll likely never admit to). Mary’s not a pushover, however: If Steve continues to push Mary’s buttons, then he shouldn’t be surprised to find himself locked outside the house with a note inviting him to find somewhere else to stay. 

 

In the moment, Mary attempts to understand why Steve is angry. To do so, Mary needs to admit that she herself most likely acted exactly the same way at one point in her life. We’re all human and we all have acted in regrettable ways. Think back and ask yourself if you’ve ever been mean to your partner and later regretted it? Have you ever tried to manipulate them? Have you ever acted badly or even violently? We’ve all doled out pain and we’ve all received it. Trying to see yourself in others is a great exercise on how to deal with anger. 

 

Let us put ourselves in the position of the man who is making us angry: in point of fact, it is an unjustified estimate of our own worth that causes our anger, and an unwillingness to put up with treatment we would happily inflict on others. 

-Seneca

 

Once Mary figures out why Steve is angry, her goal is to heal rather than punish or seek revenge. Steve may have caused an injustice towards her and that needs to be recognized rather than ignored. However being angry with Steve only adds further damage to the situation, while showing discretion allows healing. 

 

How much better is it to heal a wrong than to avenge one! Vengeance takes considerable time and it exposes a man to many injuries while only one causes him resentment: We always feel anger longer than we feel hurt. 

-Seneca

4. Choose your partner wisely.  

You’ve heard the expression: “There are no problems, only solutions”. Well, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, you have to face up to the reality that some problems can’t be solved. As a stoic, your goal is to get rid of anger both in yourself and in your partner. But if your partner isn’t willing to resolve their anger issues or continues to be abusive, you may need to consider ditching the relationship. 

 

Choose those who are honest, easygoing, and have self-control. The sort who will not arouse your anger and yet will tolerate it. 

-Seneca

 

You need a partner who supports you, not one who brings you down. In a study involving 163 married couples, psychologists found that subjects with supportive spouses were more likely to take on potentially rewarding challenges. Those who accepted challenges experienced more personal growth, happiness, and psychological well-being just a few months later.

 

As a general rule, surround yourself with people who bring more joy into your life instead of creating more misery and turbulence. 

5. Don’t find reasons to get angry.  

We live in a world of comfort and luxury, which makes us thin-skinned.  As we grow up without real hardships, we learn to expect things from the world and we get angry when those expectations aren’t met.  Consequently, we get angry at insignificant things, like having to do chores, losing our keys, getting cut off in traffic, or when our partner makes an inappropriate joke. It makes us feel good to be angry in the moment, but if we get angry every time our expectations about reality aren’t met, we’ll live an angry existence. Did you expect to be married with kids at this point in your life? Did you expect to be as rich and successful as those you follow on social media? Did you expect to be further along with your career by now?  Don’t worry, you’re not alone. None of our lives are turning out as we expected, but that’s no excuse to get angry about it. 

 

Stoics had a special exercise to deal with unexpected hardships and chaos: it’s called negative visualization. It’s basically asking yourself: “What’s the worst that can happen?” and truly visualize what that might look like. Oftentimes you’ll find that things aren’t as bad as you make them out to be. When hardships do occur, you’ll be more prepared and you’ll be grateful for the times when hardships were absent in your life. 

6. Roll with the punches.  

How do you deal with insults? If your partner is criticizing and berating you, don’t let it get to you. Remember, you’re the one who’s in control of your emotions. 

 

“Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves — that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?” 

-Epictetus, Discourses I,25.28-29

 

Here’s a neat trick to use next time someone insults you: agree with them! Stoics often use self-deprecating humour to disarm their insulter. It’s a practice in which we insult ourselves even worse than they did. By laughing off the insult, we not only prevent the insult from taking root in our psyche where it will cause us needless anguish, but we are also implying that we don’t take them or their insults seriously. This denies them dominance over the situation and will deeply frustrate them. Isn’t that more effective than a counter-insult?

7. Practice Self-Awareness  

Self-reflection is central to Stoicism. To improve and grow, you must analyze your own character and actions so you’ll gain a greater sensitivity towards how you think and what triggers your negative emotions. Here’s a great trick that I’ve personally put into practice with my wife: At the end of each day, when you’re both calm and even-tempered, ask your partner, “What could I have said or done differently today?” The goal of this conversation is to help identify patterns of behaviour and specific reoccurring elements that cause you to become angry, impatient, or anxious. 

Alternatively, document situations and your behaviour in a journal or diary. Ask yourself “What happened today that made me stressed or angry?  What was provocative about the situation? What thoughts were going through my mind? How can I improve myself the next time something like this happens?

 

“These are the characteristics of the rational soul: self-awareness, self-examination, and self-determination. It reaps its own harvest.. . . It succeeds in its own purpose . . .”

 – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.1–2

Put it into practice.

The push and pull of our relationships shouldn’t be a source of constant stress and frustration – that’s basically how normal relationships are defined! We have an amazing opportunity to engage with our partners and develop a more productive and enriched life together. But it requires you to be proactive about it. Put the recommendations you’ve read here and put them into practice. 

 

Today, let’s try a little more self-reflection and test ourselves when a trigger arises. Learn from it and grow. Isn’t the goal of life to be content and fulfilled? Anger, anxiety, and fear are normal human emotions, but they can seriously derail you from your path towards peace, and fulfillment, and a long, happy life.

 

The choice is yours.

 

“Then what makes a beautiful human being? Isn’t it the presence of human excellence? Young friend, if you wish to be beautiful, then work diligently at human excellence. And what is that? Observe those whom you praise without prejudice. The just or the unjust? The just. The even-tempered or the undisciplined? The even-tempered. The self-controlled or the uncontrolled? The self-controlled. In making yourself that kind of person, you will become beautiful—but to the extent you ignore these qualities, you’ll be ugly, even if you use every trick in the book to appear beautiful.”

— Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1.6b–9

 

 

 

 

About Dr. Patrick Owen, Ph.D.

Patrick OwenBio:  Dr. Patrick Owen is a Lecturer at the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, McGill University, where he teaches a graduate course on the psychological and physical effects of non-nutritional compounds in foods. He is CEO of BodyBuddy, an app currently in development that uses 3D scans of the human body to calculate individual-specific nutrition, exercise, and sleeping plans. 

 

He is Montreal’s leading expert on Ancestral Health and Functional Nutrition and runs a consultation practice to help those looking to lose weight, overcome a carb addiction, and attain a level of health that nature intended. 

 

Patrick has conducted international academic research in Tibet, Papua New Guinea, India, and Northern Canada, has co-written two books, published more than a dozen peer-reviewed scientific papers, and is host of AskMen’s THRIVE web series. 

 

Find out more at:

Website: www.drpatrickowen.com.

Facebook: Dr. Patrick Owen – Ancestral Health and Functional Nutrition

Instagram: @drpatowen

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/patrick-owen-8a061332/

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