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Angry Intimacy

When your partner just wants to win—no matter what.

Last week, we examined a case study of a destructive relationship. Jordan married Carrie, an alcoholic who constantly belittled Jordan. We focused on Jordan’s history, and why he would choose to put himself in this situation.

A comment on that piece raised a really interesting question about Carrie:

I was wondering if you have any thoughts about why the many "Carries of this world get angrier when confronted and want revenge." From your experience and case studies. Why would a person who is inflicting emotional damage get angrier when confronted?

So, why would a person who is inflicting emotional damage get angrier when confronted? Well, we each have our own story. In the past, we have discussed the early damage imposed on children when bonding breaks down. We also covered how bullies often have been bullied themselves. So, there are many roads to this destructive behavior. And, sometimes people just want to win a fight, no matter what the consequences may be.

The Guilt Response: That being said, getting defensive in the face of confrontation is a very human response. Think of a child who has just broken an expensive vase, or a teenager who has just wrecked up Dad’s car. They insist over and over that they didn’t do it, even when the evidence is right in front of their face.

Some people get defensive or even offensive out of guilt. Feeling guilty for doing something like stealing, is normal. Some individuals take guilt to an unhealthy extreme. They hold themselves to absurdly high standards. These are judgmental folks. They can’t tolerate feeling responsible, so they turn the tables and blame someone else, like their accuser. Kids do this all the time; but the point is that normal people usually grow out of the need to sidestep blame at all costs.

People who blame out of an inflated sense of guilt or judgment often come back to their senses after the fight is over. Many normal people are defensive when blamed, even if they are in the wrong. But the overall need to have integrity with your partner will compel a healthy person to apologize and set the record straight, if not in words, then in deed.

Character Pathology and Blame: Here is the real problem with angry intimacy. People with substance abuse problems or character disorders often lack the capacity for ambivalence. This is a term that describes the ability to hold both sides of a problem in one’s mind at the same time. I am annoyed by my husband, but what I did is still my fault.

The child development theorist, Margaret Mahler tells us that ambivalence develops in the third to fifth year of life. In addition, we know that this unique ability to look at morality from all perspectives continues to develop (for some) throughout one’s life.

If you have the misfortune of dealing with a person who lacks ambivalence, it will be hard for you. Such people blame first and ask questions later. They are destructive and will wear you down. They may even be outraged that you were judging them in any way. Often the vitriol is triggered by earlier hurts. These people are tough to deal with; they are into the fight part of fight/flight.

If you are in a relationship with someone who wants to win all the time, watch out. The only way out is to talk to them when the iron is cold, or to be prepared to set limits like threatening to leave unless the issue is addressed. If you knuckle under all the time, there’s a good chance that nothing will change.

Carrie’s Case: Some parents have incredibly high standards and this was the environment of Carrie’s youth. She could do no right at home. No grade was high enough; and no amount of success in extracurricular activities elicited a proud response from her parents. It felt like nothing was ever enough. The pressure to be perfect was oppressive, and in high school, Carrie began to deal with it by drinking and partying.

Carrie had the judgmental voices of her parents in her head wherever she went. She dumped this judgment onto her husband, Jordan, thereby perpetuating the belittling that was all she knew. The Field of Intimacy in this case produced an oppressive, judgmental and angry wife.

Jordan stood up to Carrie and, to her credit, she got into therapy and owned her stuff. Not every marriage or chemically dependent wife or husband is capable of confronting guilt.

For many though, anger and blame are easier than admitting guilt.

The biggest challenge for a person with this kind of history is getting them to a therapist in the first place. As this astute comment pointed out, Carrie became defensive when confronted by Jordan. She had distanced herself from her feelings so severely that she did not feel guilty for the way she was treating Jordan. Plus, Carrie identified with her judgmental parents.

Luckily for Carrie, Jordan was an empathetic individual who was able to support Carrie. Jordan understood her defensiveness, and had the ability to criticize her behavior without being judgmental or condescending like her parents; it was just what Carrie needed to hear.

Carrie also understood that a lot was at stake. Jordan may have been empathetic, but he would not continue to be in a dysfunctional marriage forever. His growth fueled her growth. Carrie got the message, which makes this a heartwarming story.

Everyone has a part of themselves they would prefer no one else saw, and Carrie was brave enough to stare that part of herself down and share it with someone else. That is why this kind of support in a relationship is crucial to its success. We all have things that trigger our defenses, and finding someone who is able to accept that part of ourselves along with the rest of us truly is a gift.

The Intelligent Divorce book series, online course, newsletter, and radio show is a step-by-step program to handling divorce with sanityfrom raising healthy kids to dealing with an impossible ex.

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