Dear Dr. Alasko: I've been with K. for two years and I need to make a tough decision about getting married. Most of the time K. is fun to be with and has a great sense of humor. But he has a hair-trigger when he gets upset, and he gets upset about a lot of things. When I try to talk to him about his anger he says he needs to let it out or else it will just bottle up inside him. His dad is also explosive. I don't want to spend the rest of my life struggling with his temper.
Dear Reader: Nor should you have to deal with a spouse who is easily upset and explodes into anger.
I’ve written many columns about anger because it's one of our most dangerous and misunderstood emotions. Anger is so misunderstood because it's so subject to personal interpretation. Contrast anger to another powerful emotion, pain. We don't tend to argue about whether something is painful or not. Sure, some of us are more able to tolerate pain than others, but we usually trust that another person's experience is painful.
Whereas, what gets one person angry might not faze another at all. This concept — that what we experience is subjective and often a product of our own beliefs and attitudes — is not well known. We tend to assume, "Since I'm feeling anger, the reason or the cause must be true! " Well, no.
Here's a simple example. You invite a friend to your birthday party. She doesn't show up, or even call. You're really upset. How could she be so inconsiderate? You're so angry you’re not going to talk to her for a month. You'll show her!
The next day, though, you learn that on the night before your party, she’d been in an auto accident. Your anger transforms into concern for her welfare.
Your initial interpretation had been that she’d blown you off. But now, aware that your reaction had been only your interpretation, your emotions shift.
Typically, the power behind excessive anger is both a rigid belief system and an inclination to harshly judge everyone including oneself. I'd guess your boyfriend doesn't tolerate fallibility.
For instance, a driver who suddenly veers and pulls in front of him has made a mistake. Or he's an aggressive driver. So what? Neither justifies an uncontrollably angry response. The appropriate (and healthier) response would be a ripple of irritation: There goes another fallible human being.
Your boyfriend has to learn that he grew up believing (as, apparently, his father did) that all kinds of ordinary incidents are a justification for him both feeling and expressing anger. He must recalibrate these beliefs. He needs to edit his lengthy list of ordinary events about which he gets angry and substitute more forgiving or at least neutral responses.
Everyone's daily life is filled with one’s own and others’ mistakes, oversights and misunderstandings — just as our lives will always offer disappointments, missed opportunities and the occasional tragedy.
The mature person knows how to live within these ordinary conditions and not allow anger to overwhelm his or her state of grace.
In this blog's next post, I'll present a specific plan about how to deal with your boyfriend's excessive anger.