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I Promise You My Anger

Strange Bedfellows: Romantic Love and Anger by Max Belkin, Ph.D.

Is it normal to feel anger, resentment, and even hatred towards the person you love?

Is it normal to feel anger, resentment, and even hatred towards the person you love?

Last summer, I was witnessing my friends Libby and John exchanging their heartfelt wedding vows on a bucolic island off the coast of Maine when my reverie was pierced by the bride’s words: “I promise you my love, my loyalty, and my anger.” Taken by surprise, I whispered to no one in particular: “she promises him what?”

While I can’t tell you whether the couples I see in my psychology office made similar promises on their (proverbial or real) wedding day, I know they dish out plenty of anger in all shapes and forms. As all of us do. And like me, they ponder the same pivotal questions: “Is it normal to feel anger, resentment, and even hatred towards the person I love?” “What does it do to me and our relationship?”

In my search for wisdom, I turned to poetry. After disqualifying Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Sylvia Plath as unlikely authorities on romantic relationships, I found the following pithy description of our condition in Louise Glück’s latest book of verses: “human beings take profound satisfaction in doing harm, particularly unconscious harm: we may call this negative creation.”

This gloomy sentiment is echoed in the psychoanalytic and couples literature on the subject of anger within relationships. For example, David Schnarch cogently argues that “normal marital sadism” (mutual ongoing emotional torturing) is a common, though rarely acknowledged, experience in relationships. Normal marital sadism runs a gamut from overt, loud, at-each-other’s-throat fighting to covert, passive forms of aggression. The former is more familiar and better researched than the latter.

The emotional dynamic of loud marital sadism was captured in Edward Albee’s groundbreaking play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf. Both the play and its cinematic adaptation starred Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, whose two off-screen marriages were also (coincidentally) volatile and explosive. Albee’s protagonists, Martha and George, personify unhappy spouses whose affection and hatred for each other are intertwined and combustible; their vitriolic antics escalate until they erupt into a nightmarish marital inferno.

Unfortunately, the phenomenon of marital cruelty often rears its ugly head in routine interactions of many couples. John Gottman’s research on what he calls, “the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse”--criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling--demonstrates the detrimental effects of this kind of interaction on romantic relationships. I believe most people know full well that take no prisoners emotional warfare is bad for them individually, and is toxic for their relationships. In fact, many people avoid expressing anger and frustration lest they get out of control and put their relational house on fire.

Often times, partners avoid each other and check out of their relationship rather than openly acknowledge their anger. As a result, many couples settle for a less dramatic, but hardly less destructive, form of romantic warfare. For example, in Hope Springs, the spouses (portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep) retain the façade of civility while denying each other affection and intimacy. Their parallel existence is devoid of any play or joy; they hardly make eye contact. This cold war is deadening and draining for both parties.

In my view, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf and Hope Springs depict more than just two types of relational conflict; they capture the Scylla and Charybdis facing every couple that enters a therapist’s office: either to ride the emotional rollercoaster of anger and hurt in hope of resolving their conflict OR to settle for a quieter, though perhaps less hopeful, armistice.

In my role of therapeutic Odysseus, I assist partners in navigating the treacherous path between these extremes. Before encouraging couples to experience and explore their anger, frustration, and hurt, I insist on developing ground rules to keep their emotional exchanges from escalating and their relationship from exploding.

I tell couples that acknowledging and sharing negative feelings with each other without acting on them might pave the way to greater intimacy. Together we develop honest, thoughtful, and respectful ways of expressing negative feelings. In my experience, the real work commences when both partners, usually with some prodding on my part, begin to acknowledge and own their anger and aggression. Here are the key principles that guide my work:

  • Both partners are contributing to the conflicts and impasses of their relationship(the “negative creation” in the words of Louise Glück).
  • The partners need to examine what each may be getting from the current state of their relationship (feeling right or superior, for example) and what they might be missing (emotional support, for instance).
  • While partners can’t stop each other from saying and doing hurtful things, they can change the problematic interactions by better managing their own temper and promoting a respectful way of settling differences.
  • Frank conversation about differences opens the possibility for deeper understanding, mutuality, and compromise, although this enterprise might feel taxing.
  • Partners develop an honest and respectful way of sharing their negative emotions with each other by acknowledging their anger and aggression.

I believe my friend Libby was promising her future husband more than her anger; she was inviting him to engage in an honest and courageous dialogue about their emotions, needs, and desires. By creating a relationship that respects and cultivates their unique subjective experiences—angry, as well as loving--Libby and John built the foundation for an edifice that might last a lifetime.

Dr. Max Belkin, is a 4th year candidate in the Psychoanalytic Training Program at the William Alanson White Institute. He teaches graduate courses in couples counseling and individual psychotherapy at NYU. His private practice office is in Greenwich Village, New York City.