To Vent or Not to Vent

Blowing off angry steam isn't always the best policy.

Posted Feb 11, 2014

Charlie: For the first few years of our relationship, Linda and I were believers, advocates, and practitioners of the theory that the way to deal with anger in relationships is to express it directly and clearly to the person that you’re upset with. This provided me a very convenient justification to rationalize my inclination to convert all of my more vulnerable emotions (like fear, disappointment, sadness, shame, desire, etc.) to anger and to unceremoniously dump them onto Linda. Since I was quite a bit more experienced and comfortable blaming, shaming and raising my voice at people than she was, this worked pretty well for me. At least it seemed to, until Linda let me know that it wasn’t working so well for her.

Linda: Charlie came from a family in which it wasn’t just OK to blast people with your anger, but it was considered a legitimate and reasonable way to deal with all sorts of emotions. He was not only comfortable venting his anger on me, he felt completely justified in dumping his judgments and criticism on me as well, claiming that it was for my own good, insisting that I needed to develop a thicker skin and get over my fear of other peoples’ disapproval. I know that it sounds crazy, but for a long time I bought into the rationalizations that he used to justify his tendency to indulge his temper.

Charlie: It’s not easy to admit it, but I was nothing more than a bully who was picking on someone who was no match for my skillfulness in projecting punitive anger at anyone that I assessed was unable to stand up to the heat of my accusations and was unpracticed in the art of manipulation by intimidation.

Linda: Unlike Charlie, I grew up in a family where the children were punished for expressing anger towards anyone, particularly adults. Arguing or even talking back to a parent could easily result in a severe and painful reaction. There was zero tolerance for any expression of anger or even defensiveness. I learned that if I were to survive I would have to become a master at concealing any feelings that had the potential to cause distress to my parents.

Charlie: In graduate school in the seventies, Linda and I were exposed to a school of thought that came out of the encounter movement in which the notion of venting negative emotions on others was seen as therapeutic and beneficial. This just gave further legitimatization and reinforcement to what had by now become a dysfunctional pattern of hostility and defensiveness in our marriage.

Then I got a job facilitating personal growth workshops in which “catharsis,” which literally means a purifying cleansing of the emotions by bringing forth repressed feelings, was an underlying principle of the seminars.

Linda: By this time, having experienced and survived a great many encounters with Charlie, I had overcome enough of my fear of confrontation that I was willing to stand up to him rather than allow him to intimidate me into submission. While this was definitely a step in the right direction, it was by no means a solution to the impasse that we had come to in our marriage. It had became overwhelmingly obvious to both of us that our policy for dealing with our differences was clearly not working and that we were dangerously close to losing our marriage and subjecting our kids to living out the rest of their childhoods in a fragmented family.

With some guidance from some gifted helping professionals who didn’t embrace the notion that healing comes from venting anger, but rather is a function of bringing greater open-heartedness and vulnerability into the relationship, we gradually began to climb out of the abyss that we had fallen into years ago.

Since then we’ve not only put the painful past behind us, but we’ve experienced a degree of trust and goodwill in our marriage that goes far beyond anything that either of us had ever imagined.

We learned the hard way that projecting your anger and rage onto others is never productive, but we did learn. Along the way we discovered that there had been some hard data, based upon serious and extensive scientific research, most of it conducted after the late 1970’s, which affirmed the conclusions that we had arrived at from our own experiences.

One of the researchers, Russell Geen, author of the book Human Aggression, found that while “blowing off steam” at another person may temporarily calm an angry person, it is also likely to amplify underlying hostility and may provoke retaliation and escalation. According to Geen, what happens during repeated expressions of intense anger towards another is that rather than becoming less violent and neutralizing strong  emotions, social inhibitions against the expression of violence are lowered and people become more likely to engage in additional verbal violence. Also, it is frequently the case that after the projection of anger it is replaced by feelings of anxiety and guilt, trading in one unpleasant state for another. Letting off steam often makes people angrier, not calmer. Those who indulge in venting towards another person may have a large amount of repair work to do after a hostile encounter and it can take several days, or longer, to repair the damaged trust and to establish the feelings of safety, harmony, and respect that allow love to flow freely.

Still, despite ample evidence to the contrary, the “catharsis hypothesis” continues to have appeal.

Many people see only two options: express hostility or stuff it. Neither of these choices are viable or productive strategies for conflict management. A better solution would be to turn down the heat by expressing feelings without hostility, blame, and faultfinding. Instead, to seek to create an outcome in which both parties are satisfied with the result rather than one in which there is a winner and a loser. Anger need not be denied or withheld, but rather, expressed without accusation or an intention to punish or retaliate. In this way there is a much greater likelihood that an open and respectful dialogue rather one characterized by fear, defensiveness and hostility can occur, making it possible to address the underlying causes of the disagreement or misunderstanding. This solution requires assertiveness rather than aggression and prevents feelings of guilt, anxiety, and fear from escalating.

Perhaps the most compelling factor in the tendency that so many of us have to indulge our anger is that we think that we are less vulnerable when we lead with aggression rather than non-defensiveness. Ironically, defensiveness is much more likely to provoke hostility and counterattack than is vulnerability.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the best defense is a good offense and that this strategy will help us to feel safer. While this philosophy may apply well to football and other contact sports, in the game of relationships, it’s rarely successful. In fact, the opposite is generally the case. Vulnerability is disarming and much more likely to promote deep understanding and reconciliation. If that is your goal, give it a try. Or, you can keep fighting. It’s your choice.