Have you ever observed a hostile couple and thought, Why do they stay together?
When I was a rookie therapist over a decade ago and encountering such partners, it was a case of the more you know, the less you understand. That scared me since a master's degree in social work meant I should have had a leg up on helping others to help themselves. The lesson learned, much later, is that people may say they want a harmonious relationship, but that's not always the case—especially when anger is the glue binding their dysfunctional union.
(Partnership is defined here as a romantic relationship, but it extends to other interpersonal duos—parents and children, bosses and employees, and others. I see the dynamic constantly, no matter the age, race, or socioeconomic level.)
Here's the thing: You have two choices when a friend, family member, or coworker complains about a relationship. You can continue to dispense advice (seemingly unheard) about how this person is lovable, smart and deserves better—or politely tell him or her that this topic is off-limits for you.
Sound harsh? I know. It's hard seeing someone you care about go through emotional pain. But it's also hard being mentally and physically exhausted after yet another 2 a.m. phone call. You deserve a good night's rest too.
So what's a happy medium between showing support, but also establishing boundaries? Working to understand the dynamics at hand. Here are 11 things I've learned about angry partnerships in the past 13 years:
- Things are not always what they seem in relationships. For example, the seemingly dependent (or subservient) partner may actually hold the power.
- The meek and mild may act anything but angry. This doesn't mean they're not seething inside. Their anger is just expressed differently.
- Verbalized or not, anger always goes somewhere.
- The partner who does most everything is the Power Player. Whenever there's an uneven distribution of jobs within the relationship, the not-so-active partner is dependent upon the other—the one who runs the household, controls the finances, disciplines the children, organizes family events, decides on vacations, etc. (And when you know where everything is—important documents, account IDs, passwords—your partner is lost without you.)
- Dependent people are angry people.
- Partners develop patterns or "agreements." This becomes unhealthy when the purpose of those patterns or unspoken agreements is to enable or hide dysfunctional habits, such as infidelity, overspending, or substance abuse.
- Whenever there is ongoing conflict, there is underlying agreement. Adults are willing participants in partnerships. And as unhealthy as relationships may be, there are ulterior gains for both parties. Common reasons cited for staying together include: the kids, finances, time invested, the shame of splitting up, and religion, among others, but the bigger issue can be that a partner believes he or she deserves to be maltreated. Once you internalize the message that you don't deserve emotional abuse, the stage is set for change. You will eventually develop a healthy ego, and learn to say no. In time, you will realize that no amount of social status, material possessions, or external pressure justifies your unhappiness.
- Dysfunctional agreements mean both parties are complicit and secretive. If the truth is buried, reality is a lie, and in order to keep the lie alive, both partners have to continuously lie.
Lying creates shame and guilt, which leads back to anger. This can be anger at yourself for not upholding your values, or anger at your partner for not changing their unhealthy habits. And when you project anger onto your partner, you not only gain temporary relief—you don't have to experience it for yourself.
- Emotionally healthy people learn to tolerate, accept, and control their anger.
Once anger is acknowledged in all its forms (hidden and overt) and anger management tools are in place, you are ready to walk away.
- The ultimate reason for taking the solo plunge? You are no longer afraid to be left alone with your anger.
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An edited version of this article appeared here.