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You Make me So Angry

Who's really responsible for your emotions?

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A client and I got into a debate about emotions. She was grappling with the concept of feeling sad/angry/hurt because of something her wife said. When I said, "your emotional response is not her responsibility," this client balked. Her view was that if her wife does something mean and she feels hurt, this feeling hurt is her wife's responsibility. "She must take responsibility for causing me pain."

This is a sticky issue. My view is that your partner being mean is HER problem, but your hurt (or rage or withdrawal) is YOUR problem. That doesn't mean that your partner doesn't have some clean-up to do around her bad behavior. What it means is that YOU have the responsibility to respond in a way that is effective, compassionate (to yourself and her) and nourishes the relationship.

That's a tall order. And we all slip up sometimes. Forgive yourself, apologize and move on to be better next time.

There's a concept of boundaries that is useful here. Your partner violated your boundaries by doing X (calling you a mean name, shutting you out for days, breaking a promise, etc.) Your job now is to:

  • keep your outer boundary firm, i.e., "your behavior is not acceptable to me in this marriage."
  •  tell your partner what she/he did that you didn't like
  • make a request, e.g., "I would like you to apologize" or "I would like to explore how we can learn to fight better."
  •  keep your inner boundaries firm.

Keeping your inner boundaries firm means that just because she was mean and lashed out isn't a free ticket for you to do the same. Tit for tat make look good in the movies, but it's a dungheap for your relationship. Do not, as Pia Mellody puts it, "offend from the victim position."

One important note: when it comes to abuse and your safety, don't talk boundaries - leave. Leave the argument, leave the room, leave the house. And then decide if you need to leave the relationship.

You are not always responsible for what happens to you; you are responsible for how you react. You have a choice and you have control. The more you exercise that choice and control, the more powerful you will feel in a heated situation. So, if my partner leaves the kitchen a mess/criticizes me/tries to control me (fill in your own situation here), I deal with THEIR behavior and MY emotions. Of course, I may feel hurt or angry - AND it is my choice and within my control how I react. That is my responsibility.

Check out Pia Mellody's work on boundaries and co-dependence.