Psychotherapists like to reduce the complexity of human emotional experience to four categories: mad, sad, glad, or scared. Of the four, mad is the emotion that men are most familiar and comfortable with. Ask men how they feel and you are likely to get a puzzled expression, unless of course, they are angry, in which case they are often quite clear about how they feel.
Of course, men do have emotions other than anger. Men feel sad, glad, and scared; but anger is the only emotion that is socially acceptable. There are a lot of social prohibitions against men expressing emotions other than anger, and a lot of social reinforcement for being angry. We think of men who are angry as powerful and more masculine, and men who express sadness or fear as weak and less masculine.
Jackson Katz (2006), the author of The Macho Paradox, wrote that “Countless men deal with their vulnerability by transferring vulnerable feelings to feelings of anger. The anger then serves to ‘prove’ that they are not, in fact, vulnerable, which would imply they are not man enough to take the pressure.”
Women are socialized to direct their anger inwards (Dittman, 2003) and to believe that open expressions of anger are not feminine. Men are socialized to express their anger overtly and to use their anger to control their partners and their own emotional experience. Anger appeals to men because they can be angry and still remain well-defended and not vulnerable. Being angry not only helps men to feel more in control of their own emotional experience, but many men also use anger in an attempt to control their partner’s expression of feeling as well.
Men get emotionally activated when their wives or partners are more emotional, so they often use anger to control their partners' expressions of emotions as well as their own. As a result, anger becomes the go-to emotion for many men, the default feeling they are most familiar and comfortable with. Other feelings are either suppressed or hidden beneath their anger.
Although anger has gotten a bad name in our culture, anger itself is not a problem. In its simplest form, anger is just a way of letting someone know that you are not happy with the way things are going between you and that you want to find a way to make things better. Anger becomes a problem in relationships either when it is not expressed or when it is acted out rather than talked through.
In many instances, men go to the familiar experience of anger to hide from themselves and others what they are really feeling. What men most often feel underneath their anger is fear. Men get angry to cover their fear.
See if you recognize yourself in any of these everyday situations:
- Your anger that your wife or partner spends so much time texting and talking on the phone with friends might mask your fears that she might not enjoy talking with you as much as she does with her friends.
- Your anger at your wife for coming home late from work and bringing work home with her might mask envy and fear about being less successful than her.
- Your anger that you are always being criticized by your partner, to the point that you can’t ever seem to get it right, might mask your fear about not being able to please her.
- Your anger that the kids always come first with your partner, and she never seems to have any time for you, may mask your fear that you don’t really know how to have the kind of close relationship that she has with the kids.
Once you begin to recognize some of the deeper fears underlying your anger, you might consider the truly intimate act of talking with your wife or partner about some of your fears. This act of loving vulnerability may be very frightening to consider, but the rewards often far outweigh the risks.
This post was first published on The Good Men Project.
Katz, J. (2006). The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help. Sourcebooks.
Dittmann, Melissa (2003). Anger across the gender divide: Researchers strive to understand how men and women experience and express anger. Monitor on Psychology , (34), 3. American Psychological Association.