Use the Gottman Institute’s Anger Iceberg to Resolve Conflict More Quickly

Photo: Stocksy/Luis Velasco
Anger in a relationship reduces us all to toddlers. You know what I mean—tantrums, tears, screaming, throwing clothes out the window, and then having nap. Anger isn't an invalid feeling, but seeing the Anger Iceberg in time will keep your relationship from sinking faster than the Titanic.

The Gottman Institute's Anger Iceberg suggests we visualize anger as—you guessed it—an iceberg. Above the water, all you can see is a small chunk of ice you'll happily crash your relationship into (that's anger). Below the surface, though, we hide more sensitive, vulnerable feelings like jealousy, fear, or sadness.

"Almost always anger is a sign, a symptom, that underneath we really afraid, afraid that something has is threatening our well being and we feel vulnerable and scared," says relationship therapist Tammy Nelson, PhD. "When someone cuts us off on the highway, we might flip them the bird or scream and yell or experience a flood of anger. Swear words we didn't even know we knew tumbling out of our mouths. But the split second before all that road rage? We feel fear. Fear that we'll smash into that car, that our safety will be at risk, that we would lose our physical well being, that we'll be killed."


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In essence, you can translate that toward getting angry at your partner. We use as a mask to hide the more delicate emotions we're afraid to share with others. Taking a minute to consider the Anger Iceberg, then, allows us to raise our overall Emotional Intelligence, and cool down an argument before it becomes a fight (because yes, bickering and fighting are different).

The next time you feel yourself directing anger toward your partner, stop for a moment and think about the feelings that might be hiding within. Dr. Nelson recommends that you ask yourself a few questions: What is underneath the anger? What do I feel afraid of? What is making me feel vulnerable? What am I afraid I will lose or what will be taken away from me? You might just be feeling scared or insecure about your partner leaving you. Taking a minute to dive deep into yourself can allow for a calmer, more proactive dialogue to unfold.

"If you can identify the emotions underneath the anger, it can help to talk about the feelings, recognizing that anger is a defense against those softer, more frightening emotions," Dr. Nelson says. Keeping your relationship healthy means allowing yourself to look beyond the most visual emotion. And honestly, ignoring the bottom half of an iceberg is always bad for a relationship. Just ask Jack Dawson about that one.

By the way, these are the forbidden phrases you should never say in the heat of an argument. And this is how to know if a fight is really over, even if you have b–ad lingering feelings about it. 

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