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Thinking Clearly in the Face of Anger, Part Two

May 9, 2009 | by Zelig Pliskin

Practical solutions for dealing with anger and negativity in marriage.

An excerpt from "Marriage" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

When your spouse is angry, how you react will either increase his or her anger or decrease it. We find this wisdom in a well-known verse from Proverbs 15:1: "A soft reply turns away anger."

As the Vilna Gaon elaborates in his commentary:

"When you communicate to others in a soft manner, this will calm someone who is already angry with you. [Note: This refers both to your tone of voice and the substance of what you say.] When the person who is angry with you has a valid complaint, admit it, and this will calm him down.

"There are some people, however, who frequently say the wrong things. Such people cause others to become angry even when the anger was not present at the outset" (Proverbs 15:1 and 14:30).

When interacting with someone who is angry, the most important thing to remember is: Don't say anything that would just add fuel to the fire.

Try to understand why your spouse is angry. Why does what was said or done elicit such a strong reaction? What does this mean to your spouse? When you understand why your spouse is angry, you might be able to deal with the issues that are bothering him or her. If your spouse has a valid reason for being angry with you, apologize. Sincerely express your regret at having caused him or her distress.

What if your spouse has a reason for being angry, but you feel that the present anger is much more intense than necessary or appropriate?

It is usually wisest to apologize. In most instances, nothing will be gained by attacking your spouse's anger right then. After the issue is worked out, you might say, "You had a valid reason for being upset before. In the future I would appreciate it if you would word your complaints in a softer manner."

At times you might think that the anger is based on a mistaken assumption. If so, be careful how you word your clarification. Don't start by saying something that sounds like a put-down, "You are all wrong. You are getting angry for no reason." It is preferable to say, "I don't blame you for getting angry since the way you understood what happened would be upsetting. Please allow me to clarify."

When you are calm and in a peaceful state it might still be difficult to think clearly about what to say when you are spoken to angrily. But that is still much easier than when you yourself are also angry. If your spouse speaks to you in anger, that energy can easily elicit anger on your part, but you can still maintain a centered state and think clearly.

If you had a group of people encouraging you, it would be easier. So imagine a multitude of people saying, "We know you can do it. Stay calm. Speak softly." Since it's impossible to have this multitude when you need them, you must create this inner voice saying, "You can do it. Stay calm. Speak softly." By repeating this over and over again, you will have created an inner voice that will reinforce your ability to actually stay calm and speak softly when you are faced with anger.

Anger is pain, so have compassion for an angry person.

Anger is pain, so have compassion for an angry person. When you view your spouse's anger with compassion, what you say is more likely to be helpful. The challenge is to access compassion when you are the target of someone's anger. This level can take much time and effort to master, but those who do so live elevated, joyous, and loving lives. When you actually feel compassion, your facial expression, the look in your eye, your tone of voice, and your words all give the message, "I care about you. I am sorry that you are suffering. Is there anything I can do to alleviate your pain?"


Human beings are influenced by their environment, including the attitudes and perspectives of the people around them. Our own emotional states in varying degrees respond to the emotional states and energy of those in our presence. When we are around people who have a balanced optimism and tend to be cheerful, we tend to feel better.

In the presence of someone who is excessively pessimistic, bitter, cynical, and consistently negative, we feel worse. Unless, of course, we share this outlook. Then we might feel good in the presence of a kindred spirit. "Here's someone who thinks as I do." Someone growing up in this environment may adopt this as his or her reality and will need to work hard to develop a more optimistic and helpful perspective on life in general and on the specific challenges with which one is faced. It can take a lot to upgrade his or her thinking.

If you are married to a person who is consistently negative, how this will affect you depends on how negative your spouse is and how positive you are. In the short-term his or her negative energy can be contagious, or at least put a damper on your positive energy in any situation when you are together. In the long term, you might pick up your spouse's outlook on life and make it your own.

How can you change someone from being bitter and cynical into someone who is cheerful, optimistic, and consistently appreciative of the good and the positive? It isn't easy, but before you try to change someone, your first priority is to protect yourself from being brought down. Influencing the other person requires a long-term plan based on strategic thinking. You need patience and a willingness to have a positive influence one small step at a time.

Be totally resolved that every negative statement of your spouse will automatically be met with a mental defense on your part. It might be inappropriate and counterproductive to express these statements, but you can think whatever you like. Strive for the goal of responding to every unnecessary negative statement with a statement that is Torah-consistent.

We all have automatic associations. For example, suppose someone says to you, "Please tell me the first letter you think of after I say the letter A." Most likely you will think of "B."

If the person then asks you for the first number that comes to your mind after he says, "one," most likely it will be "two." We respond this way because we have made these associations repeatedly.

Similarly, we can build up an association of thoughts of gratitude and appreciation whenever we hear an unnecessary negative statement. Therefore the negativity of someone else can set up a positive response in our minds. Then not only will someone's negativity not bring you down, but it will be a catalyst to make you into a more positive person.

The negativity of people in your environment is your Divine test.

Be careful how you try to influence someone who is negative. If this person suffered a lot in his or her life, be compassionate and empathetic. Try to understand his or her pessimism and bitterness in the context of his or her entire life history. Perhaps life has been full of suffering; perhaps he or she grew up in a chaotic or dysfunctional environment. Then judge what is appropriate to say, and what would be better left unsaid. When compassion is required, that is our Torah obligation. A person who is suffering can't listen to a long lecture about being more positive. Only after feeling genuinely understood can this person hear about another outlook and attitude.

If a person who tends to be cynical and pessimistic views himself or herself as highly intelligent and sees you in a lesser light, he or she will usually ignore the positive things you say. They will think, "This person is naive."

Asking questions might help this person see things more positively. You might ask, "Is anything going right in your life?" or, "Can you think of anything that is already the way you want it to be?" You might even ask, "Can you think of a plan to improve the situation?" Suppose they say, "No." Then you can say, "Perhaps you can find someone who could suggest improvements."

Some people who are cynical need to be told, "You think your thoughts are reality, but anyone who has a more comprehensive view will see that your perspective is limited." Maybe the person will concede you have a point and his or her way of thinking is just a habit that can change. Then you are making progress.

Remember that the negativity of people in your environment is your Divine test. You need to maintain your dignity and Torah perspective, regardless. Keep practicing. Imagine the negative statements that your spouse or anyone else might say to you, and immediately change your images and words to reflect a positive state. As you keep practicing, this will become a spontaneous and automatic reaction.

Click here to purchase Rabbi Pliskin's book, "Marriage," Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

In loving memory of my uncle
Herbert J. Philipson (Herzl Zvi ben Lazer) of Utica, NY
Gregg Philipson

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