Anger is Not the Bad Guy: How Understanding it Can Change our Relationships

In couples work, I often find that anger is one of those emotions that drives the biggest wedge between a couple. Women talk about how their husbands anger is scary or off-putting, so they distance themselves from it quickly. Men report that seeing anger from their spouse becomes overwhelming for them and they do what Gottman refers to as “emotionally flooding” and shut down. However, I think that these responses to anger, even though they may be understandable, are more of part of the problem than they are the answer when it comes to understanding anger and actually helping it. Before I continue any further, it should be mentioned that any type of violence, as a result of anger, is not justifiable and principles in this article may not necessarily apply when violence is present in the relationship. Healthy anger does not implement any type of physical violence, or verbal abuse such as name calling or belittling.

Anger is so misunderstood! Anger is like that kid in a classroom who is constantly acting out and people have just come to describe him/her as a bad kid when it really turns out that he/she is having a lot of problems at home and is just begging for attention but doesn’t know how to ask for it in the way that everyone else wants or deems appropriate. Turns out, that paying attention to the child and getting closer to the child actually dissipates the acting out behavior more than trying to discipline the child or teaching prosocial ways of communication. When we see anger in our spouses and respond in anger or distance it is like we are punishing the anger rather than really paying attention to it. Anger, being a defense response, doesn’t then go away when it is being punished or ignored, it only grows.

We really need to understand what is underneath the anger or what is really driving it. Generally, anger is known as a secondary emotion which means that there is a more primary emotion that is fundamental to the person’s experience and that is also driving the anger to reach out to others. In my clinical practice I have found that it is often hurt, sadness, pain or fear that sit beneath anger. These latter four emotions are often too vulnerable for people and anger becomes the protector or the scapegoat.

Let me give you one last illustration so that we can understand what anger is really trying to do and then we will talk about how to engage anger in a healthy way. Let’s say that sadness and hurt/pain are driving down the road and they get into a big accident. Sadness and hurt/pain are still alive but are unable to call or reach for help. Anger is the first emotion on the scene. It is not actually knowing what sadness or hurt/pain are experiencing but it knows that they are in need of some help. So anger runs around calling to others to get help because sadness and hurt/pain are really struggling and are unable to really ask for help themselves. However, when people see anger running around frantically screaming and yelling for help, because that is what I would probably do if I were first on the scene with a big accident, they grow more distant thinking that anger’s responses are inappropriate or offensive in some way. What the people lack is the knowledge that anger is doing these things because hurt/pain and sadness are in need of some serious attention.

So how do we fix these responses. First, when we feel angry in our intimate relationships we must realize it is just the surface of our experience and that in many ways we are feeling something else. We should always do our best to tap into the primary experience and share that first and foremost with our partners or spouses so that they can see the true vulnerability of our experience. What should a partner or spouse do? Brene Brown uses the phrase of “leaning into the vulnerability” in some of her most popular literature and lectures. Spouses and partners need to practice a healthy sense of leaning into their partner’s vulnerability with the understanding that there is something like sadness, hurt or pain underneath.

Doing these things may prove difficult at first but if you can 1) understand that anger is not the real experience and there is really some hurt, sadness or pain underneath. And 2) lean into the anger rather than running away or trying to punish it, you will find that the need for anger as a protection or guard will dissipate. I encourage all to give healthy non-abusive anger a second chance and to see it for what it really is.

Jeff Crane, PhD, AMFTComment