Is There a Place for Constructive Anger in Your Relationship?
Anger is one of the most misunderstood and undeveloped emotions we carry within us. Most of the couples I see in my private practice struggle with the expression of anger in one form or another. Either they swallow their anger, or they are harshly blaming but incapable of constructively expressing their angry feelings toward their partner.
Leonard Cohen, the late great Canadian singer-songwriter and poet describes in his most famous song, “Hallelujah,”
Well maybe there’s a God above
As for me all I’ve learned from love
Is how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya…
Essentially, Cohen’s honest writing here captures the tendency we all have of resorting to reactive forms of anger to defend ourselves, retaliate, and/or hurt the other person back but harder. Whether we are spewing out harsh expletives or shutting down lines of communication all together, most of us will fire back despite our best intentions. Once couples are shooting from the hip, it’s only a matter of time before the erosion of trust, respect, loss of affection and sexuality take place, and those losses are the real causalities of love.
Feelings that anger typically masks include fear, shame, guilt, hurt, jealously, betrayal, and helplessness to name a few. What I have come to realize is that there can be a silver lining here for those individuals/couples that can use this as an opportunity to wake up. They can recognize and acknowledge this negative pattern, interrupt these hostile tendencies, and instead, work on learning how to replace these with constructive exchanges. Trust and respect can re-emerge after some devoted work to better understand, manage, and effectively express anger on a consistent basis.
The History of Anger
Historically, we have been taught that anger is a negative or “bad” emotion worthy of repression and avoidance. Early Greek philosophers regarded anger as a “a temporary madness,” but eventually Aristotle conceded that some forms of anger or wrath are justifiable in cases of self-defense. As far as religion, Buddhism tends to sum up anger as a kind of poison, extremely destructive. In the Buddha’s teachings, anger is seen as one of five poisons and the most destructive of the root kleshas.
Judaism speaks of anger as a negative trait to be avoided (The ancient sages said, “Those who are angry—it is the same as if they worshiped idols (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 66b).” In Christianity, I found what may seem like a more balanced explanation, which in summary states, “Anger is not a sin—it is what you do with it that becomes sin.”
What often gets left out of these descriptions of anger are its constructive and important aspects as well as its valued place in the family of emotions. Many tend to write off anger and significantly undervalue its essential worth along with its potential to create closeness and intimacy once understood, mastered, and harnessed for good.
The term “healthy anger” is a new concept in our society which places an emphasis on valuing anger as part of a signaling system, alerting us to something of concern, an emotional trespass, an intrusion by another, a boundary violation, a warning to be heeded. In response to this warning, when anger can be recognized and its meaning understood, it can do good when constructively acted on and expressed. It can grow in stature and be seen as a strength. Standing up to cruelty or repression or asserting one’s boundaries when someone is being abusive or intrusive can support growth in an individual and maintain connection within a couple relationship. It can also help communities address difficult emotional issues and provide a road map as to how to sort them out when they arise.
The problem is that most of us learn very little about anger while growing up. Potential centers for learning such as families and schools often don’t provide an anger education to children, and is it any surprise then that those kids (who grow into adults) don’t learn how to effectively handle disagreement with friends or push back against bullying of themselves or others? Or that they lack skills to navigate intimate relationship conflicts? Instead, children grow up confused about how to deal with this anger thing and tend to avoid and deny its presence. They may become apathetic or fiercely defiant .
Patterns of Anger in Couple Relationships
Every relationship will run into conflict at some point or another. Just as there are the changing of the seasons, relationships will have their ups and downs. During times of difficulty, anger strategies adopted by couples include 1) avoidance or suppression 2) passive-aggression, and 3) aggressive or harsh anger.
Avoidant types try to diminish, minimize, or deny their anger, banishing it from their emotional vocabulary and denying irritations experienced in relationship to their partner. They also are quick to make “nicey-nicey” after a skirmish, unable to tolerate the tension of disagreement or a temporary separation as a cooling off period. This eventually comes back like a boomerang to bite them, as the swallowed anger eventually finds a way to leak out like an old, toxic battery, eventually finding a vent in which to release its noxious chemicals.
Les Greenberg, an internationally recognized researcher and psychologist, said, “The experience of anger can be threatening because it signals potential disapproval, rejection, or loss of a needed relationship. Thus, many people have learned to be submissive, unassertive, and to defer to their partners, thereby suppressing their own needs and swallowing their anger.” They have a knee-jerk reaction to downplay their angry feelings, because they don’t want to hurt their partners’ feelings like they were once hurt. This belief has to be addressed and seen as a holdover from childhood, and a new paradigm has to be considered to replace the old. For many, therapy has been effective in processing the old pain and questioning this belief that impedes the expression of anger.
Individuals who employ passive aggressive tendencies often carry a belief from childhood that one should never hurt their loved one’s feelings and circumvent confrontation at all costs. They have, in effect, learned to turn down the volume on their angry reactions to the point that they may no longer even hear nor sense signs of their anger. This is a childhood lesson, like saying “please” before asking for a food item at the dinner table. It’s actually not the saying of “please” but the respectful attitude that we’re trying to teach children, using the word “please.” Yet, many parents mix this up, and even though their child asks nicely, will insist on that “please.” The same is true with avoiding hurting someone’s feelings. It’s a good orientation, but it gets mixed up as an absolute principle. Somehow, avoiding hurting another’s feelings becomes a tenet, and violating this rule is like committing a crime or sinning.
The primary feature of passive aggressive types is a tendency to indirectly express their negative feelings instead of openly addressing them. For instance, they may respond in an agreeable fashion to the request another person is making of them or agree with someone’s thinking to their face, but their anger is expressed by not following through on a task, disagreeing, or even trashing someone’s thinking behind their back.
The other extreme, the aggressive style of communication can include harsh blaming, unbridled self-expression, and fierce defiance. Once this sort of anger is unleashed, the aggressor may feel relieved, as if they got something off their chest, while their loved ones are left behind, overwhelmed and shaken from this destructive anger. This individual is having no difficulty connecting with their anger and rage, but because they are so revved up, they are not able to downshift into a measured response. Instead, they default habitually without regret into reactive outbursts.
Bludgeoning one’s partner with harsh anger is a sure-fire way to trigger an escalation of their partner’s angry or passive defensiveness and ensures that nothing gets dealt with or resolved. Even if their partner does acquiesce to their point of view on an issue and accepts their perspective, then what? An emotionally abusive individual has coerced their partner with indirect/direct innuendos to behave or think about something the way they want them to. The coerced party will not forget. Their resentment will quietly grow and, eventually, will find an outlet.
Sustaining a close relationship takes work and requires one to learn how to deal with and not shy away from confrontation. Confrontation should include civil and productive conversation, allowing couples to say difficult, angry and critical things to each other but without shaming the other with their words or actions. When we express our anger directly with control and intention, we communicate in a manner that allows our partners to take in our message and listen to our concern. Too often, we communicate from a defensive, hurt stance, which must be first acknowledged and worked through before addressing our anger, so that it can be expressed healthily.
Initially, it may be difficult to say direct things to one’s partner for fear that they may take it badly, react vindictively, or not be interested at all. Over time, difficult conversations can lead to deeper forms of connection. If couples can’t trust that they can express their angry feelings, say, “no” to their partner, or confront issues as they arise, then a growing sense of foreboding emerges about their future. They are unable to see effective anger expression as part of an intelligent signaling system, informing them that something needs addressing, and that this is actually an opportunity to strengthen and deepen their emotional intimacy. It is the development and expression of this thoughtful emotional courage that clears the way to build meaningful friendship, community, and intimate love relationships.
Understanding the Emotional Self
Before we communicate with one another, it is important that we first take the time to know our emotional self on a deeper level. What I find that works best for myself and the couples I see are behaviors designed to identify and release emotional pain. This includes psychotherapy, journaling, meditation, feeling release work, and talking with close friends.
Taking the time to engage in self-reflective activities to get familiar with and monitor our internal experience can help us recognize our impulsive tendencies and defensive patterns. It can also provide an opportunity to understand how adapting to our childhood pain often leaves us covering up our hurt and anger with defensive strategies.
Psychotherapy, in particular, can be supportive in helping us uncover the ways in which we were intruded upon or insensitively treated. Taking the time to identify how we bring our past into the present and understanding how we often project our past emotional trauma onto our current partner can be enormously helpful and lead to the taking back of our projections. Freud’s concept of the “repetition compulsion” refers to one’s tendency to endlessly repeat patterns of behavior, which were experienced as disturbing or distressing events from one’s past. When we revisit unfinished business from the past, it helps uncover buried childhood injuries, so that we are able to recognize and deal with them for what they were and still mean to us.. Otherwise, these end up being transmitted intergenerationally ad infinitum.
Processing and separating out the past from the present allows for the emergence of natural, authentic anger. At this point, we are ready to build on communication strategies to express our anger effectively and productively. Once we learn to read ourselves accurately, we can come to realize that anger is most often an attempt to draw attention to something that needs addressing in ourselves or with our partner.
What are things you can start doing?
1. Make a commitment to work on yourself to understand your emotions, triggers, and defenses. Success in a relationship weighs heavily on how much each partner takes the time to process past trauma and invests the time needed to heal themselves on an emotional level.
2. Try and find common ground in a discussion with your partner or close friend/family member about how to address disagreements and conflicts that come up between you.
3. Come up with a plan of action when things go awry. If one party feels angry at being disregarded or mistreated, and you want to express yourself to clear up the matter, what would effective anger look and sound like?
4. Try to come up with a framework for giving direct feedback to your partner.
The following internationally recognized Couples Therapists offer you a sense of what’s involved:
- Terry Real, 4-part feedback involves: 1. What you saw/heard? 2. What you made up about it? 3. How you feel about it? 4. What you would like to have happen in the future? (The New Rules of Marriage)
- Tara Brach maps out another process: 1. Express something you feel gratitude for, 2. Express something you do that interrupts closeness, 3. State only one thing that your partner does that interferes with the closeness (Dharma talk on Anger.)
- Others worth researching to find their framework are: The Imago Therapy Dialogue, (Harville Hendrix, Ph.D) has a structured “Sender and Receiver” Process. Les Greenberg and Sue Johnson created and developed the Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Model.
Once you reach agreement on something that works for you, commit to the plan and try it out for a period of time (1-2 months).
If you already know that it’s not worth trying out the above steps (or because you’ve tried and there was no movement), and you’re feeling demoralized by the unreceptive communication, then seek out individual or couples therapy to evaluate your situation. If there is still enough goodwill, then get on with finding a couple’s therapist you can work with to support you in: clarifying what ails the relationship, sorting out the destructive vs constructive anger issues, and working on repairing emotional trust and intimacy.
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Tags: anger, anger between couples, angry at partner, arguing, avoidant, constructive anger, couple fighting, couples therapy, fighting, fighting between couples, fighting with partner, passive aggressive, passive aggressive partner, passive aggressive spouse, patterns of anger, The History of Anger
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