Anger. It’s the emotion that goes with self-righteous indignation. It’s also the most “moralistic” of emotions, for it derives from your basic sense of fairness—or rather, unfairness. It’s characterized by self-justifying arguments, or (oxymoronically) “attacking defenses.” For whenever you adamantly regard something as personally inequitable—that what should have happened didn’t happen (or vice versa)—you’re pushing your psyche into fight mode. And sadly, it’s rare that such a reaction helps resolve ongoing conflicts in your relationship. After all, in resolutely taking this oppositional stand you’re giving your partner the message that your position is more legitimate than theirs—more valid, and therefore morally superior.
Think about it. Aren’t you likely to experience anger toward your spouse—or parent, child, boss, etc.—if you feel you have to go along with an arrangement, or acquiesce to a decision, that you perceive as unfair? Unless you're so submissive that you regularly capitulate to others (and probably get depressed as a result), it’s hardly possible not to get mad if you feel you’ve been wronged or cheated..
I once worked with a couple—Brad and Becky—whose problems centered mostly on the husband’s constant put-downs of his wife. Early in their relationship, Becky had felt pressured by Brad to give up a promising career to start a family. And in fairly short order, she gave birth to no fewer than three children. At the time I began seeing them, none of Becky’s kids (two boys and a girl) was over six—and one of them had many special needs, as well as exhibiting early signs of ADHD (from high distractibility, to unruly defiance, to uncontrollable impulsivity). In consequence, Becky’s ability to cope with the daily stresses of being a parent had been stretched to the limit.
Nowhere as maternal as having three children might suggest, Becky was in the throes of a serious depression. She was only in her early thirties but felt hopelessly trapped in life and, despairingly, would frequently complain that she had nothing to look forward to, that her "life was over." Added to the frustrations of taking care of the house and her three highly dependent kids was the fact that her husband, Brad, was constantly on her case. Hard at work all day, when he came home to relax and found his dinner not yet ready and the house looking like a war zone, he couldn’t help but raise his voice and disparage her for her incompetence—both as a homemaker and mother. He’d continually deride her as “lazy,” which left her feeling misunderstood, unsupported, unloved . . . and terribly alone.
Although Brad never physically attacked Becky, he was yet in many ways similar to Becky’s emotionally volatile and physically abusive father. And even before Becky married Brad, he’d betrayed a bad temper, which related mostly to his own abusive childhood and the unresolved anger (if not rage) he still harbored toward his stepfather. Back then he had to suppress this anger or he’d receive an even harsher punishment from his severely critical and rejecting father surrogate. But as degrading and humiliating as were Brad’s own displays of temper toward Becky, she’d been “pre-programmed” to tolerate them. For as a child she’d learned to passively “adapt” to such parental outbursts—and not only from her father but also from her overly stressed mother, who felt overwhelmed in having to bring up no fewer than seven children (and under financially challenging circumstances at that).
At the outset of their work together (and apart as well), I explored with Brad and Becky the problematic dynamic that made both of them so miserable in the relationship. I helped Brad understand that Becky’s difficulty keeping the house neat and tidy, which felt so essential to him, had largely to do with (1) their kids’ “dexterity” in almost immediately undoing whatever attempts she made to straighten up after them (and so minimizing her motivation to further extend such efforts), and (2) her depression, which routinely left her feeling lethargic and exhausted. As unhappy as she was, it felt like a major feat for her simply to get out of bed each morning.
Although I was able to increase Brad’s empathy for his wife—even as I empathized with his own understandable frustrations—he couldn’t help but return again and again to the position: "I'm not angry—but I still think it's unfair to me." So finally I had to let him know that unless he could “get”—and in a truly heartfelt way—that under the circumstances Becky was doing the best she could, that in fact she really was trying as hard as she possibly could to be fair to him, he’d never be able to overcome his anger—and so his everyday attacks on her. And also that, however inadvertently, his self-righteous “exhibits” of indignation might well be prodding her into increasingly passive-aggressive behaviors toward him [and see my post on this subject]. After all, how else could she protest his continual verbal abuse (which he’d actually come to admit he was guilty of)? If, despondently, she felt “captive” in her living situation, her only recourse to experience some control over it was to react to him in distancing or hostile (read, “retaliatory”) ways.
And that’s the thesis of this piece: That frequently anger (and angry acting-out behavior generally) is inseparable from the belief that you’re being exploited or taken advantage of. And however comprehensible such a perspective might be, it’s still hugely counter-productive if what you desire is a harmonious, loving relationship.
Moreover—and this is crucial—in such instances there’s not much of a distinction to be made between anger and resentment. For the word “resentment” means, quite literally, to “feel again.” And the emotion that’s felt (over and over again) is anger—self-justifying, self-vindicating, righteous anger. Which, inevitably, leads to berating one's partner.
It definitely took a while (which is pretty much the norm in such counseling situations), but in time Brad was able to grasp that—if only he could see things from Becky’s point of view, and in a way that didn’t feel threatening to his own—she was being fair. And it was only at this point that the long-conflicted relationship between the two began to fundamentally shift. Brad’s expanded understanding and empathy toward Becky began to short-circuit his powerful tendencies to belittle her (as his stepfather so routinely had with him).
Additionally, Brad, on a gut level able to get that his much earlier childhood issues were not that dissimilar to his wife’s, could finally identify emotionally with her depression, so that his recurrent anger gradually transmuted into a far kinder compassion. He no longer saw her as “lazy,” but as discouraged, lonely, and unfulfilled.
Needless to say, there are many instances where couples’ negotiation and problem-solving can be employed to co-create a relationship that feels equitable to both parties. But still, developing a much more favorable (i.e., less “fault-finding”) image of your partner is precisely what must happen in any relationship if it’s not to be hijacked by anger. And it’s just not possible to let go of your anger through any simple act of will or determination. Rather. you need—benevolently—to change the way you think about your partner, even at times when they’re frustrating you because their needs sharply diverge from your own. Perhaps most of all, you need to reconceptualize fairness as the relative concept it is—as in, fair “to whom?”
For once you can adopt a more kind-hearted point of view toward your partner, you may (re-)perceive them as not unfair at all. And your more benign assessment is altogether capable of dissolving—or resolving—your (indisputably judgmental) anger.
NOTE 1: I’ve written many articles on anger for Psychology Today—each of them examining this so-problematic emotion from a different vantage point. So if you're interested in further exploring this troublesome emotion, here are some titles and links:
NOTE 2: If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, kindly consider forwarding them its link.
NOTE 3: To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.
© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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