Contrary to what many of us thought growing up expressing anger is not the same as yelling, breaking things or slamming doors. In fact if the person you are interacting with is doing things that trigger your fight or flight system (make you sweat, shake, want to retreat, raise your blood pressure and/or heart beat, etc.) then you are not witnessing someone's anger, you are in the presence of abuse. Yep, that's right! And the normal human response to being abused is to want to hurt the other person back. So we yell, stomp our feet, throw things or say mean hurtful stuff. Now WE are being abusive as well.
I think this is a very important distinction to make. Anger is actually NOT a damaging emotion. Abuse is damaging treatment. I repeat, anger and abuse are NOT the same. I can sit down calmly and tell you that I am angry because you borrowed my car and ran it out of gas. If you feel embarrassed, guilty, sad or contrite but NOT fearful, nervous, threatened or like you need to yell at me then I have NOT been abusive. I have just been angry. Anger is an indication that our boundaries have been violated. I don't like it when people do not show appropriate respect for my things and so if you use my car and don't put gas in it I am going to be angry. But that's OK. My conveying that I am upset shows you that you have crossed a boundary and so you will try not to do that in the future.
Many of us who grew up in dysfunctional homes confuse anger and abuse. We think that if someone is red-faced, yelling, shaking mad, throwing things or hurling awful accusations at us they are "angry". I would argue it is much more useful to see this as abuse. That way both people can see how unhelpful and inappropriate this behavior is. Abuse never leads to anything good. Anger, when expressed without turning in to abuse, should ALWAYS lead to something good. It is a communication about what you need to feel respected, cared for and even loved. It is essential for you to communicate this so that you are taking care of yourself and protecting the bond you have with that person. It is important for them to hear this message clearly and take corrective action. That is the purpose of anger. The purpose of abuse is to discharge physical energy and to hurt the other person. That is not anger. The expression of anger is about trying to identify and solve a problem. Venting, which many people mistake for the expression of anger, is about hurting the other person in an effort to make yourself feel better without any regard for the other.
In thinking about positive expressions of anger that are clearly not abuse think about the sit-ins of the civil rights movement in the US. There was plenty of anger on the parts of the protestors who saw the racial oppression and abuses going on. However the play-book of those sit-ins was literally that "not a hair on the head of a white man would be disturbed". The protestors wanted to convey their anger appropriately and NOT allow it to turn into abuse, which would have spurred an abusive reaction on the part of the authorities. Abuse begets abuse. Anger, if expressed appropriately and without abuse, should beget positive results and heightened mutual understanding.
Anger can teach us things about ourselves and reveal things about our partners or other loved ones. If the anger seems out of proportion to the event (you bring my car back with no gas and I calmly tell you we can no longer be friends) then there is likely some "unfinished business" being triggered from the past. In this example perhaps I had parents who used my property, resources or accomplishments for their own selfish purposes and I felt used and mistreated. I am, therefore, naturally sensitive to feeling that others don't care how they treat me and are going to take advantage of me. So my anger in this situation, if I can see that it is out of proportion, will direct me to look at areas of my past where maybe I have some unresolved wounds. That in turn provides an opportunity for healing.
Understanding the purpose of anger can help us to not suppress or deny it. Understanding the difference between anger and abuse can help us learn to express anger in an appropriate way that can lead to increased knowledge, understanding and harmony for ourselves and in our relationships.
If you find yourself confused about or uncomfortable with anger I encourage you to think about tackling that problem. Anger turned inward/suppressed can lead to depression, loss of motivation, difficulties in achievement, addictions, poor self-care and even self-attack or self-abuse. Anger expressed as abuse can lead to shame, loss of relationships and/or jobs and even legal problems. Therapy can be an excellent tool for learning more about anger and how to comfortably express as well as witness it, as can the 12-step group Adult Children Anonymous (which focuses on people from any type of dysfunctional childhood) or books such as The Dance of Anger. Regular exercise and/or mindfulness mediation can help stabilize the nervous system so that when you feel angry you are better able to prevent it from veering into abuse. Classes on anger management can help you learn the physiological signs of anger and how to manage the feeling when it arises and stay grounded when you see it in others. There are many options for working on this problem and I hope you consider trying some of them.
Wishing you health and happiness,
One of the most surprising things about being married can be the fights. I think most people figure that in a good marriage there isn't much fighting. Or at least if there is fighting that things get resolved. Neither are necessarily actually true. Dr. John Gottman, a famous couple's researcher, put couples in a research lab that was set up like an apartment and videotaped their interactions for an entire weekend. He collected lots of data on couples and followed up with them years later. Some of the things that he learned are that most couples fight, that fighting does not predict happiness in the marriage (or divorce) and that about 2/3 of what we fight about never gets resolved.
If you had told me that before I got married I might not have made it down the aisle. It just doesn't sound that encouraging.
But in the end I think for those of us who want to stay married we need to face up to these facts. That fighting doesn't have to be bad. It doesn't have to hurt the relationship. It also doesn't have to, nor should it, go on for hours and hours and ruin the rest of our day/night/weekend/vacation. And in the end there cannot, I repeat there cannot, be a winner and a loser. In a properly conducted marital fight there can only be a compromise on both sides. Anything else is heading for dark waters and eventual Splitsville.
I recently came across a great article in Esquire Magazine in their "Hitched" section (yes, I read everything, even Esquire). The article, entitled A Philosophy of Fighting, by Tom Junod, talked about how fighting is inevitable in relationships. Now, being nerdy I feel the need to point out that there are relationships in which people don't fight. Some of those relationship are healthy and some are not. Remember fighting does not indicate health or un-health or staying together or getting divorced. It's HOW the fighting is done that predicts those things. Fighting dirty = misery > divorce. Fighting fair = 50% misery + 50% bliss > celebrating 50+ wedding anniversaries.
Junod says "You never fail to be surprised by [the fights] and you never fail to be amazed that your marriage has survived them." I would add that you also never fail to be surprised that you are having the same dang fight about the same dang thing yet again. But, as Junod points out, if you are committed to the marriage you stay the course. "You know couples who called it quits after the first big fight, because they didn't like what they saw in the other person when they were fighting, and they particularly didn't like what they saw in themselves....Now you see their point. The first fight is the same as the second fight, and the second fight is the same as the last. If you want to stay married, you don't have to be able to stop fighting; you have to be able to keep fighting, in the same way. When you see elderly couples, you are amazed by the durability not only of their love but also of their animus — because from what you know of marriage, you know they are still fighting." So it's about changing our perspectives on what that long-term bliss looks like. When you see that elderly couple sitting on the park bench together and they seem so serene just picture her throwing his dirty socks at him because he's been leaving them on the floor for the last 50 years. Or picture him chastising her for riding the breaks or not using her turn signal. You get the picture.
Junod also points out something that is too often overlooked. If you were to conduct an autopsy of a deceased relationship it might surprise you to see the actual origin of the demise. It often happens long before "the big one" where someone drops the Divorce bomb. It starts with the small ones, the ones that don't seem too serious. As Junod puts it, "You think that some fights are trivial, because they are over trivial matters....[but] there are no trivial fights, because each fight has the potential to grow into the kind of fight that ends your marriage." I often find that people don't understand the care that relationships need to stay afloat. They feel free to dig deep into each other during fights about things like chores or vacation locations, really letting the nuclear warheads deploy over things that simply should not be worth that kind of damage. People seem to forget that our relationships need care and love and nurturance and that they cannot survive continued bombing and plundering. Each argument needs to be conducted with the rules in mind. No winners, no losers, no prisoners and no nuclear weapons. Period.
Here Junod and I agree again "A fight to the finish is what finishes a marriage. That's because over the course of married life, people supply their spouses with precisely what's required to finish them off. The question is not who can win, because anyone can win if they're willing to go far enough — if they're willing to win at the cost of love and respect. The question is who can abstain from winning, who can resist the temptation of winning, which, like any other marital temptation, is always there."
Or, as I try to tell couples that I work with "you can be right or you can be close". When being right takes precedence over being emotionally close and happy with your partner it may be time to re-evaluate your commitment to your marriage. You really can't have it all in that department. But hopefully you can discover that being close feels so much better in the long run than just being right in that moment. And remember, if you are anything like those couples studied by Gottman you are going to have that same argument over and over again anyway. So even if you "win" this time, you may lose the next. In the end it's just not worth it. Play nice. Follow the rules. Give ground. And stay close.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D., ABPP
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