Therapy Space with Dr. Sara

My husband ex-wife and I had a heated verbal altercation a year ago and never resolved it and as a result that anger has festered. I have regrets about the relationship because we are all vested in the same child and I would like to make amends. Clearly, we are not going to be close friends but I want to make peace. How do I approach someone who harbors such extreme anger towards me to make peace or make peace within myself so I can move on?

First off, I commend you for not just pointing fingers. There are many layers within this dynamic, so I will break it into parts. Let’s start by looking within. You have been grappling with this for a year. The enduring discomfort is an indication that you stepped outside of your personal value system during the altercation. Your desire to seek peace and the investment in your stepdaughter lead me to believe healthy parenting may be a personal value of yours. Engaging in a yelling match with your stepdaughter’s mother does not align with this value. However, to find peace within, you will need to embrace the notion that two opposing facts coexist: that you are not proud of how you handled a tense situation and you are still a good person with intact values. 

Is your stepdaughter privy to the altercation? You could extend an apology to her, sharing your regret in your choices and make a commitment to not engage that way again. This could provide an opening to talk about your intention to be supportive in your stepdaughter's life and respectful to her relationship with her mom. 

Next I recommend reflecting on some questions, honesty being paramount. What emotion were you feeling that day? Anger is a secondary emotion. What was the anger masking? Helplessness, powerlessness, fear? In states of heightened emotion we go into “fight or flight mode,” meaning that humans have a fear-based response to threatening stimuli such as another person's anger or a sense of intimidation. We then respond automatically by fighting back, freezing, or fleeing/avoiding the situation, without the immediate capacity to think through ones’ response. Try to identify your triggers. I don’t know any particulars about your relationship or role your husband plays but there is room to explore these as well. Take some time to journal if possible. These steps will foster helpful insight as well as provide information for preemptive measures for future exchanges.

The next step may be a challenging one - contemplating her perspective. What possible emotions evoked her response? I don’t know the details surrounding the divorce or custody, but there may be unresolved feelings of shame or loss. Now envision what you may symbolize to her? This process is meant to give you space to contemplate without judgment. Stepping into the other person's shoes can develop the perspective needed to help you with inner peace and moving on. 

Now you will need to make a decision, knowing her needs may differ from yours. If you decide to approach her, what are your intentions and expectations? If you are hoping to get a specific reaction from her, you are setting yourself up. If your intention is to create a dialogue that aligns with your values of healthy parenting, then okay. Approaching her without warning may cause friction. Perhaps when coordinating the next solo exchange, you could request a minute to share something weighing on your mind. If she is amenable, take responsibility for your part in the heated exchange and create room for dialogue. Keep it brief, without bringing her daughter into the conversation. You could conclude, if this feels right for you, by letting her know you are available to talk further if she wants. Keep in mind, there is not an established level of trust, meaning you would not lay your heart on the line. In addition, know your boundaries, particularly when it comes to safety and respect. In alignment with your quest for peace, you may construct internal boundaries. For example, if you commit to yourself that keeping the peace with your stepdaughter's mother is crucial, this will reflect emotional containment.

No one is perfect. The good news is that uncomfortable emotions spark opportunities for self-discovery, growth, and personal alignment. Best of luck!

Dr. Sara Edrington is a clinical psychologist practicing in San Rafael. She is passionate about her work with adults, adolescents, and couples, using an interactive approach that explores neurobiology, shame, trauma, relationships, parenting and managing stress during life-transitions. She received her Doctorate in Psychology in 2005 at the Los Angeles campus of the CA School of Professional Psychology. She is the Co-founder of Pacific Psychology and on-going supervisor to new professionals. She holds a certification in early childhood education, has presented at several high schools, and works to bring learning outside the classroom through community service, which has enhanced her own personal and professional growth. She is the proud mother of a spirited daughter and son who keep her on her toes, even when everyone should be sleeping.

Dr. Edrington can be reached at 415-690-8208.