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Anger and Intimacy: Incompatible but Unavoidable Housemates

When might you need (defensive) anger to protect yourself from your partner?

Pixabay Free Image
Source: Pixabay Free Image

If two facets of a committed relationship don’t dovetail, they’re anger and intimacy. Yet, as far from complementary as they are, they’re almost always connected—or “coupled.” Why?

There are several overlapping reasons for this almost inevitable disharmony. And this post will attempt to describe them, as well as suggest a key remedy for this age-old conundrum.

Perhaps what’s fundamental here is that of all your relationships your single, most intimate one is also the one most likely to revive deep-seated feelings of vulnerability. As a result of being emotionally committed to another person, you can’t help but experience what they say to you, how they seem to feel about you, and how they react to you, as important—if not crucial—to the security of your bond with them.

So if they contradict you, seem critical of you, appear bored, distrusting, or upset with you—or if they make it clear they’d like more time apart from you—all these possibilities are bound to feel threatening. In such instances, then, what might you be driven to do?

If at a primal (and probably unconscious) level, your partner’s attachment to you begins to feel precarious, you’ll experience anxiety and feel compelled to do something. To minimize your distress, you might meet their seeming disaffection with the withdrawal of your own. If they pull away, so will you—as a means of experiencing them as less critical to your welfare. Or you might be extra-nice in the effort to close the gap between you, to get them to see you in a more endearing light. Or, just as likely, you might protest their apparent disengagement by challenging them, criticizing them, confronting them, or even reading them the riot act. And raising your voice—admonishing, rebuking or reprimanding them—will help convert your worry, anxiety, or fear into quasi-comforting, self-protective anger.

If, though probably out of awareness, you happen to choose the final response, you’re, well, all-too-human. As I’ve emphasized in many of my posts on anger, when you’re feeling anxiously out of control in a situation, your immediate impulse could well be to resort to anger as a “quick and dirty” fix for your emotional distress. The energy-recharging adrenaline that your anger manufactures will provide you with at least the illusion of regained power or strength—at the same time, it substantially reduces the feelings of vulnerability that your partner’s seeming disregard or dismissal may have triggered in you. For getting angry enables you to “externalize” back onto your partner whatever emotional disturbance their perceived neglect or abuse engendered. That's how, childishly, you can “get even” with them.

Anger—and its more belligerent first-cousin, rage—represents one of the most vigorous defenses against being overtaken by the burdensome feelings of anxiety, guilt, or shame. In fact, it can be so robustly effective in masking these far more upsetting emotions that at times it can be irresistible. The diametrically opposed emotions here are sorrow, grief, depression and despair. And how many of us would actually choose the latter over the former?

So, to encapsulate what I’ve been portraying, it’s only human nature to value, and be emotionally invested in, intimate relationships more than less personal ones. In consequence, inasmuch as there's a lot more at stake for us in such relationships, we're going to feel much more at risk in them. At its core, our very sense of survival may feel inextricably bound to them.

Consider that when we were young children, our most intimate relationship was with our parents, so we were acutely sensitive to the messages about ourselves we received (or thought we were receiving) from them. Because we were literally dependent on them for survival, their adverse reactions to us could easily provoke fear, even panic, in us. As adults, when our committed partner—experienced deep-down as our current-day “replacement” for them—has supposedly detached from us, or is disapproving, angry, or rejecting of us, we’re unconsciously reminded of this original, and still resonant, threat to our survival. But whereas back then we may have been too intimidated by our caretakers to react with anger, we may now feel safe enough to let ourselves go and verbally snap at our “new” antagonist.

The result of raising our voice at our significant other is to take away any authority we might otherwise feel compelled to give them. And although it ends up being self-sabotaging, our anger helps us hold onto our sense of dignity, power, and control by pushing them away, as we might not have dared to do with our original family. By distancing ourselves from our partner (in the moment viewed as our adversary), we reduce their influence over us. For this is how we let them know that we disapprove of them as much as they appear to disapprove of us. And unconsciously, we’re also downgrading their personal importance, which serves to lower our (below-the-surface) fears of them abandoning us.

Another reason we might get angry with our spouse—and even with little to no provocation from them—is that we may have longstanding issues of distrust. Again, returning to our childhood, we learned either to trust or distrust others largely based on how trustworthy our parents were. If they were inconsistent in the standards they (erratically) set for us, if they didn’t keep their promises, if their punishments seemed unjust or baffling, then—however unwittingly—they taught us not to trust others.

And that’s one reason why cynical people generally have good reason to be so. For when they felt manipulated, not cared about, or treated unfairly by their family of origin, this problematic “trait” became an integral, almost necessary, aspect of their defense system.

Obviously, such distrust, (over-)generalized from our upbringing, is something we need as adults to work through and resolve. For it’s not our partner’s issue but our own. Otherwise, we may find ourselves driven to push them away at the slightest pretext or provocation. We may advance all sorts of rationalizations for such distancing, but its main cause is the peril that we learned to link to intimate relationships. Not so much because our partner is endangering our autonomy but because real closeness to them has become associated with fear, failure, humiliation, and rejection. Our unfortunate programming has prompted us to conclude that it’s wise to “moderate” intimacy—or to avoid it altogether. And, of course, the final irony here is that, without ever recognizing it, we chose our partner in the first place to heal these old childhood intimacy wounds.

But needless to say, the intimacy with another that all of us crave can’t ever be achieved until we’re willing to forego our vulnerability-protecting anger, go out on a psychological limb and—taking a courageous “leap of faith”—give trust another chance. For, as has by now been noted countless times in the literature, the paramount prerequisite for intimacy is the willingness to be vulnerable. And by definition, vulnerability can't ever be free from danger. Which is precisely why it’s invaluable not to lean on someone else for soothing and validating but learn how to provide it for ourselves. (For more, see “The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance")

But returning to the negative link between anger and intimacy, in my very first piece on anger I pointed out that:

Anger [is] a double-edged sword: terribly detrimental to relationships but nonetheless crucial in enabling many vulnerable people to emotionally survive in them. [If] symptomatic anger covers up the pain of our “core hurts,” [including] feeling ignored, unimportant, accused, guilty, untrustworthy, devalued, rejected, powerless, unlovable—or even unfit for human contact . . . [it's] only reasonable that . . . one might eventually become dependent on the emotion to the point of addiction.

And further:

Anger functions to ensure safety in close relationships by regulating distance. It's only logical that if a child's caretakers proved distressingly unresponsive, unreliable or untrustworthy, the "adult child" is likely to be gun-shy, or defensively cultivate a certain emotional detachment, in intimate relationships. While such individuals may desperately yearn for the secure attachment bond that eluded them in childhood, they will be wary of openly expressing such needs and desires. Doing so to a partner who might respond negatively to them could reopen ancient wounds. . . . And so (however ultimately self-defeating) the protective role of anger in non-disclosure and distancing can feel not simply necessary but absolutely essential. (For more, see "What Your Anger May Be Hiding")

So, if you can relate to this post at all, are you willing to look at your (defensive) anger anew? And consider “shedding” it like a skin no longer required, which by now has become stifling?

For more on anger, see:

© 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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