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Emotional Abuse: Why Anger Management Didn't Work

Why is anger management risky in emotionally abusive relationships?

Anger management programs for emotional or verbal abusers sometimes produce short-term gains that disappear when follow-up is done a year or so later. That was probably your experience if your partner took an anger management class. If you're lucky, you may have seen a lower tone to the chronic blame - anger management classes sometimes turn a yeller into a stonewaller.

The worst kind of anger management class teaches men to "get in touch with their anger" and to "express it" or "get it out." The assumption is that emotions are like 19th century steam engines that need to "let off steam" on a regular basis. These kinds of classes include things like punching bags and using foam baseball bats to club imaginary adversaries. (Guess who would be the imaginary victim of your partner's foam-softened clubbing?) Studies have shown that this approach actually makes people angrier and more hostile, not to mention more entitled to act out their anger. Participants are training their brains to associate controlled aggression rather than compassion and reconciliation with anger.

Hopefully, your partner did not attend one of these discredited classes on anger expression. But you might not have been so lucky when it came to the second worse form of anger management: "desensitization." In that kind of class your husband would identify your behaviors that "push his buttons," things like you "nagging" him or asking too much of him. The instructor would then work to make those behaviors seem less "provocative" to him. The techniques include things like ignoring it, avoiding it, or pretending it's funny. Didn't you always dream that one day your husband would learn to be less angry by ignoring you and avoiding you or thinking that you're funny when you ask him about something serious?

His feelings of inadequacy and sense of entitlement -- not specific behaviors -- trigger his anger. Even if the class succeeds in making him less sensitive to your "nagging," he will nevertheless get irritable when you tell him you love him, as that will stir his guilt and sense of inadequacy.

Desensitizing doesn't work at all on resentment, which is the precursor to most angry and abusive behavior. Resentment is not simply a reflexive response to a specific thing you say or do; it works like a defensive system in itself. That's why you don't resent just one or two or two hundred things. When you're resentful, you are constantly scanning the environment for any possible bad news, lest it sneak up on you. Anger-management classes try to deal with this constant level of arousal with techniques to manage it, that is, to keep your husband from getting so upset that he feels compelled to act out his anger. "Don't make it worse," is the motto of most anger management classes. If he was aggressive, they taught him to withdraw. If he shut down, they taught him to be more assertive.

What they didn't teach him was how to act according to his deeper values, which would make him stop blaming his vulnerable feelings on you. If attempts to manage anger don't appeal to core values, resentful men begin to feel like they're "swallowing it," or "going along to avoid an argument." This erodes their self-esteem and justifies, in their minds, occasional blow ups: "I am sick and tired of putting up with your crap!" Then they can feel self-righteous: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

In a love relationship, managing anger is not the point. You need to promote compassion, which is the only reliable prevention of resentment, anger, and abuse.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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