For many people, being angry with your co-parent is a recurring and challenging problem. When you’re angry, you lose your ability to use reason and logic. You’re in an emotionally reactive state, which makes you super-dumb and do super-dumb things. You must not negotiate with your co-parent while you’re angry because you’re negotiating about the most important thing to you – your children – and you need to be as grounded and smart as possible during these negotiations.
Consider these six strategies to shift your thinking and move from angry and super-dumb to calm and smart.
- Learn To Sit with Anger: Recognize anger for what it is: an intensely uncomfortable experience. There is a trigger, and “whoosh” the anger comes in. You never ask for it and you don’t want it, but it comes anyway. You may take anger very seriously, and think you have to do something about it. Just because it’s there, doesn’t mean that you have to do anything. Learning to just sit with the uncomfortable feeling will give you the time to think through whether any action is needed and what the best action would be. Anger causes trouble, not because it is there, but because of what you do when it comes. Giving it space will either help you back off and not take action, or take action that is effective.
- Anger Is an Emotionally Active State: Emotionally reactive states like anger, frustration, resentment, and anxiety actually cause you to lose the part of your brain that exercises rationality and good judgment. Brain imaging shows that when people are in emotionally reactive states, the intelligent part of their brain essentially turns off. You do not want to take action when you are missing the most intelligent part of the brain. That is sure to get you into trouble! There are many ways to re-engage the part of your brain that shuts down when you get in emotionally reactive states. For instance, you could pause, breathe deeply, and practice mindfulness (see below).
- Mindfulness Is a Simple but Powerful Skill for Working with Anger: Mindfulness is simply awareness. When anger comes, you can either be aware of it, or not. If you are not aware of it, anger will take control and you will be at its mercy. If you are mindful or aware, you can say, “hello anger I see you’re here.” The part of you that can see that anger is there is not anger. It is another part of you that is separate and distinct from anger. So now, instead of just having anger taking over the show, you have anger, and another part of you that isn’t anger. This gives you the choice to either act out of anger, or act from a more calm, rational part of you. Research has shown that people who practice mindfulness are much better at regulating their emotions. It also shows that the children of parents who practice mindfulness feel better about themselves. There are many resources for learning how to practice mindfulness.
- Remember That Your Co-Parent Is Distressed: Often people think that their co-parents are intentionally difficult, and enjoy driving them crazy. As much as you might want to believe this, it is rarely if ever true. People behave badly because they are distressed. People who are happy, calm and at peace with themselves don’t behave badly. Your ex is behaving the way they behave because they have some form of distress that they don’t know how to deal with. If you feel like your ex is behaving the way they are because they are intentionally trying to hurt you, you are going to be much more triggered than if you realize that they are just a mess inside. Think of them as struggling and suffering (which they are) and you won’t be as reactive. By the way, understanding that they are distressed does not mean you have to give in to them or do anything different. Cultivating an awareness of their distress simply helps you respond less reactively.
- Anger Often Comes from Feeling Powerless: Co-parents often feel like they are powerless and their co-parent holds all the power. But this is not true! It is very common that both co-parents feel powerless and like the other parent holds all the power. This is a very hard thing for many people to wrap their brain around. If you remember that your co-parent feels just as powerless as you do, you are likely to feel less angry. Remind yourself that just as you feel threatened, your co-parent also feels threatened.
- When You Feel Yourself Get Angry, Focus on Your Children: Don’t let your anger take you away from your children. When you stay in emotionally reactive states, you are disconnected from your children. The more you can stay connected to your children, the more it will benefit them. The more you stay connected, the more it will benefit you. The more you stay connected, the more it will benefit your relationship with your children as well. Ironically, co-parents are often angry because they are worried about their children. Remember that working on being connected is what they need most of all!