A New Way to Understand Your Partner’s Rage

How does unresolved childhood trauma lead to adult rage and verbal violence?

Posted Oct 28, 2020

Photographed by Bart / Flickr Free Image
Source: Photographed by Bart / Flickr Free Image

This post is in no way recommending that you stay in a relationship with someone whose rage is out of control and who won’t take ownership of it or get professional help. It’s only when their rage is remediable and they’re motivated, whether by guilt or shame, to remedy it that you might decide to exercise some patience with them. And in such instances, this post should help you take their attacks far less personally and respond to them far more empathically—and, at the same time, more effectively.

The most important thing is that social scientists now agree that underlying an individual’s rage is unresolved trauma frequently going all the way back to childhood. That hardly means that you should resignedly put up with these outbursts that are disturbingly disrespectful and disparaging. In a word, abusive. But if nonetheless, you can find a way to be more understanding and supportive, it’s a lot more likely that their rage will soften than if you attack them for attacking you. Or, if you duck and cover when the wounded child deep inside them desperately needs to feel heard.

What’s essential to remember is that typically another’s rage arose in the first place because they feel attacked or neglected by their family. And their subsequent explosiveness—which out of intimidation and anxiety had to be suppressed earlier—later manifested as a pivotal defense against such abuse, which made them feel disrespected, disparaged, and (perhaps most critically) not good enough. Even worse, at this tender age, they may have concluded they couldn’t be good enough.

Indirectly, that’s one reason that rageful people can also be perfectionists, every bit as hard on themselves as they are with others. Or, on the contrary, exhibit a marked tendency to procrastinate or avoid people or projects because of their haunting fear of failing, which could “re-shame” them.

The younger the person, the more likely they’ll experience an adverse situation as traumatic. Why? Simply because they’re without the emotional and cognitive resources to process it through, toward self-validating completion. Lacking the knowledge and confidence required not to have it seriously upset them, it jeopardizes their very ability to function.

I’ve written previously about the immobilizing effects of the freeze response in the face of that which exceeds our coping resources. These are circumstances when, however unconsciously, our defense mechanisms come into being to protect us from what, realistically, we can neither fight against nor flee from.

The defense of anger, generally the most potent of our defenses, serves to project feelings of anxiety, guilt, or shame onto those who unwittingly have triggered it. Regrettably, it causes us much more harm than good, especially in relationships. But immediately it compensates for the powerlessness we felt when, say, our family didn’t adequately address our paramount need for security, love, and acceptance. And the emotion of rage—anger intensified to the point that it totally takes us over and clouds our better judgment—suggests that the enormity of the threat we experienced required us to vigorously resist it, with all our aggressive might.  

Viewed from this more sympathetic perspective, rageful expression isn’t to be appreciated as outright evil or malevolent. True, it’s misguided and can be inexcusably vicious. Yet in terms of safeguarding a person from suicidal despair, it constitutes an urgently needed defense. Embroiled in rage enables the perpetrator to avoid feeling weak, defective, or helpless. As Richard Schwartz, the originator of the integrative Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) model, puts it in his essay “Perpetrator Parts” (all of which he deems self-protective parts):

The perpetrator part [because of past victimization] felt forced into the role of heartless victimizer . . . [and was] left . . . with a strong urge to dominate in order to be safe. Vowing never again [to feel so powerless], it developed a selfish, survivalist mentality and sought to control the environment. As a result, the part would do whatever it took to survive, without regard for consequences [or anyone else’s feelings].

Additionally, and as the great Austrian poet Ranier Maria Rilke (1875-1928) astutely observed: “Perhaps everything terrible in its deepest being is something helpless that wants help from us.” In The Mosaic Mind: Empowering the Tormented Selves of Child Abuse Survivors (2002), the authors Goulding and Schwartz state that a person’s perpetrator parts “who act like tyrants or bullies are often concealing fear like a scared child.” That is, their destructiveness—even to the extent of ruthless sadism—stems from an intolerably vulnerable sense of frightened helplessness.

What’s key to understand here is that these rageful perpetrators act automatically, on the basis of extreme survivalist programming, which over the years has become habitual. And as long as these perpetrators’ behaviors remain unconscious, they’re unchangeable. For the underlying emotional fragility of these abusers continues to compel them, at all costs, to escape their alarming frailty. And that’s what dictates their so autocratic, tyrannical behavior, leading most people to view them, frankly, as unworthy of compassion.

It’s not that other people don’t have every right, or shouldn’t be vigilant, about protecting themselves against those likely to harass, gaslight, or otherwise exploit them. It’s that these perpetrators can be seen, defensively, as super-vigilant, or overly reactive. Having been victims of trauma in the past, they’re unconsciously obsessed with the possibility of being taken advantage of in the present. And for them, it’s not just possible but probable.

However innocent your words or deeds might be in relationship to them, they’re unfortunately primed to perceive you as threatening. When their knee-jerk defenses are set in motion, trying to reason or clear things up with them is futile. You’re better off devoting your energy to calming yourself down and summoning up enough detachment to listen to them, thereby helping them feel they’re being taken seriously—the opposite of what they experienced growing up.

Again, depending on how rigid or “far gone” they are, your responding non-reactively to them will serve to neutralize the anxiety beneath their aggressiveness, and calm them down. In the moment they couldn’t feel safe, anything you can do to minimize the threat they're imagining will be beneficial to both of you. However obliquely, what you want, non-verbally, to teach them is that their abusive encounter with you potentially could be replaced by a more caring, trusting, non-confrontational dialogue.

The fact that the perpetrator’s off-putting mechanisms of defense inevitably create a union that precludes intimacy doesn’t mean that deep down the perpetrator doesn’t desire it. Although it’s anything but transparent, they may actually long to be closer to you. But until they can develop the confidence and trust to believe that such proximity won’t overwhelm them with anxiety, getting closer to you will remain too scary for them to let their guard down.

It’s this frequently overriding fear which necessitates that for the great majority of perpetrators, without engaging in PTSD-type therapy to conquer their as yet unrectified trauma it’s simply not reasonable to expect them to change. The ultimate goal is for them to become capable of assimilating at the deepest possible level that their defenses against vulnerability are excessive, distorted, self-sabotaging—and out-of-date. And ironically, these perpetrators can be just as abusive to themselves as they are to others.

Looked at globally, Peter Levine, the originator of the highly respected, sensation-based therapeutic technique of somatic experiencing, concludes that “much of the violence that plagues humanity is a direct or indirect result of unresolved trauma that is acted out in repeated unsuccessful attempts to re-establish a sense of empowerment” (1997, Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences).

One last point: On an ethical plane, rage can be comprehended as the moralistic emotion. And complementing Levine’s perspective is James Gilligan’s, who in his book Violence points out that “the attempt to achieve and maintain justice, or to undo or prevent injustice,  is the one and only universal cause of violence.”

If all this seems confusingly paradoxical, it’s nonetheless a fitting end to this piece, since rage is in so many ways the most curiously ironic of emotions. Moreover, it’s probably the most misunderstood of emotions, too. And, to further the irony, it’s chiefly about the misunderstanding between individuals, groups, and even nations. Researchers’ efforts to better understand its sources, as well as how best to alleviate it, could in the world today hardly be a more important pursuit.

© 2020 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.