The New York Times Sunday magazine published a piece entitled “I Used to Insist I Didn’t Get Angry: Not Anymore.” The author, a woman, courageously explores the topic of societal and internalized prohibitions against women experiencing, much less expressing anger, and talks about growing up believing that she didn’t get angry, and only got sad. She thought that sadness was “more refined and also more selfless” than anger, “as if you were holding the pain inside yourself, rather than making someone else deal with this blunt-force trauma.”
Men have always had a problem with anger in women; boys are conditioned to be that way from a very young age. The author cites research that suggests that young boys and girls both get angry about as frequently, but that boys are socialized to feel OK about their anger, while women are taught to feel ashamed.
Angry women make men feel uncomfortable, even threatened. Sad women make men feel gallant and protective.
In my work as a psychotherapist, I often witness these social prohibitions against women feeling angry. It’s not unusual for women to cry while talking about feeling angry. This can be very frustrating, both because their tears often make it difficult for other people to know when they are angry, and because they sometimes feel that their tears get in the way of feeling their own anger.
While women are often largely unaware of their own anger, men are acutely aware of women’s underlying anger, even if that anger is not openly expressed. In fact, many of the problematic dynamics in heterosexual relationships can be explained by men’s fear of women being angry with and disapproving of them. Men tend to scan their wives/partners carefully for any sign that they might be angry or disapproving, orienting their emotional lives around the presence or absence of anger in their wives/partners.
Men often talk about walking on eggshells, considering everything they say and do in terms of whether it will make their wives/partners angry with them. There are a number of old sayings like “happy wife, happy life,” and “If mamma ain’t happy, nobody’s happy” that speak to the truth of how scared men are of women’s anger. I had one man tell me that he was so sensitized to his wife’s emotional state that he could tell with unerring accuracy how she was feeling when he walked in the front door, before ever seeing her!
- Men are scared of women’s anger for a number of reasons:
- Men are generally afraid of their wife's/partner’s disapproval, so they watch anxiously for any sign of anger that may indicate disapproval
- Men are often uncomfortable with any expression of strong feelings. When their wives/partners are angry, it raises the emotional temperature in the relationship, which makes men feel uncomfortable.
- Men often feel responsible for their wives/partners well-being. When their wives/partners are upset, most men go quickly into “fix it” mode, believing it is their responsibility to soothe their partners and re-establish equilibrium.
- Men don’t typically do well emotionally on their own, which is why men generally remarry much sooner than women. As a result, men tend to watch out for signs of potential anger that may lead to periods of emotional separation with their wives/partners that may like abandonment to them.
- Men often feel emotionally inadequate in comparison to their wives/partner’s emotional capacity. On some level, men often recognize that they do not have nearly as much access to their emotional experience as their wives/partners do, and when relationships become more emotional, they are reminded of feeling less than adequate.
The recent Kavanaugh confirmation hearings highlighted for us as a country the persisting discrepancy between our acceptance of open expressions of anger in men and women. When we are able to make more room for women to acknowledge and express all of their feelings, including anger, then we give men more permission to have fuller, less fear-based, and more mutually rewarding relationships with women.
This post was originally published on The Good Men Project.
Jamison, L. (2018). I Used To Insist I Didn't Get Angry: Not Anymore. New York Times Magazine, January 17, 2018.