One day my daughter was trying to get her pet rabbit into its cage, but it was tearing around the room and hiding underneath the bed. She became exasperated and yelled: “Get out here right now! What is the matter with you?” I doubted this would calm the rabbit down and invite him out. When someone is yelling at us, our first impulse is to run away. Bunnies and spouses jump back when threatened, even when they are being told not to. We almost can’t help these reactions. Our physical responses override logical thinking.
This is why anger is powerful -- it is connected to basic survival mechanisms. If you are fighting or fleeing for your life, all systems are on high alert. Has your spouse ever stomped into the room looking like they wanted to kill? Your body responded in milliseconds, before any thinking did. We are good at this tense response, because if someone is coming at us in a fury, we need to react fast. However, these instant emotions are often illogical.
Charles Darwin was interested in this. He did an experiment with a snake to see if he could force himself to stay calm when his body felt threatened. He wrote, “I put my face close to the thick glass-plate in front of a puff-adder in the Zoological Gardens, with the firm determination of not starting back if the snake struck at me; but, as soon as the blow was struck, my resolution went for nothing and I jumped a yard or two backwards with astonishing rapidity. My will and reason were powerless against … [a fake] danger.
Even partners who are good at staying calm have to work at it when provoked. The anger that results from another’s threat is designed to protect, but like a snake behind glass, most of our partner’s actions are not life-threatening. This is why anger is deceptive. It distorts the person in front of you, painting them as an enemy. We want to hurt what we think is the source of our pain. A partner who can at other times be a fount of love and security, now becomes an enemy to be dispatched. A man in one of my studies described this sensation: “I felt the rage starting up, the adrenaline, and I just didn’t care…It was at that moment … I honestly just wanted to hurt her physically.”
This irrational hostility happens when part of the brain called the hippocampus goes inactive. The hippocampus usually takes notes, locating events accurately in the memory. But when angry, the brain shuts down this scribe. Facts become secondary, and emotion and attack become primary. This also makes it almost impossible for enraged couples to come to an accurate agreement of what happened.
Relationship researcher John Gottman says anger makes “rational thought almost impossible,” which is another reason this state is damaging. Instead of making choices that will help you and your relationship, anger leads to destructive exchanges that Gottman compares to The Roach Motel, where couples get in, but can’t get out. Like cage fighters, they become trapped, flooded with adrenaline, and their pulse and blood pressure rise. Have you had fights like this? If you are having a lot of them, your relationship is not doing well. The next time you start losing it, remember that “anger” is one letter short of “danger,” and it is time to get out of the cage.
Adapted from Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways We Deceive in Relationships. Cedar Fort, 2016.
Jason B. Whiting, Megan Oka, and Stephen T. Fife. "Appraisal Distortions and Intimate Partner Violence: Gender, Power, and Interaction." Journal of marital and family therapy 38, no. s1 (2012): 133-149.
Cleary Bradley, P. Renay, and John M. Gottman, "Reducing Situational Violence in Low‐Income Couples by Fostering Healthy Relationships," Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 3, no. s1 (1988): 187-198.