“Is it Anger or is it Abuse?
Leonard was yelling at his wife, “Damn it, Mary, when are you going to give me any respect. I work all day long and come home to a messy house and dinner isn’t even started. What do you do all day?!”
Mary was clearly intimidated. She was sitting wordlessly on the couch while he stood threateningly above her, clenching his fists as if he would hit her. She was hugging herself in a desperate attempt at self-protection, while the tears gave away her fear and pain.
No question here. This is obviously abusive and unhealthy anger. How about this next example:
Tammie in a loud voice, “I’m so pissed off at you Phil. You did it again. You said you’d be home at six, and it’s now seven. You don’t care shit about me.”
“I’m really sorry Tammie. The traffic was bad and I wanted…”
“I’m not done Phil. It’s only been one week since the last time you were late. I don’t trust your word anymore. You say you’re going to do something, and then you don’t. Don’t I matter to you?”
“Of course you matter, I tried to call but only got your voice mail.”
“Always with the excuses. I’m tired of your excuses. You don’t mean anything you say. I’m done with this marriage!”
Is Tammie’s anger healthy or unhealthy? While definitely healthier than Leonard’s, it is still not healthy.
Lana and Cade went through the same scenario and here’s how they dealt with it:
“Cade, I feel hurt and angry. You said you’d be home at six, and it’s now seven. I felt scared that something might have happened to you.”
“I’m really sorry Lana. The traffic was bad, but that’s no excuse. I should’ve called you.”
“I’m just feeling disrespected, hurt and angry.”
Lana is being healthy with her anger. Why? Because she has made no blanket accusations like Tammie’s, “You don’t care shit about me. I don’t trust your word anymore. You don’t mean anything you say.” She allowed Cade to speak without cutting him off. She didn’t make threats like Tammie’s, “I’m done with this marriage!” Instead, she kept to “I” statements, letting Cade know how she felt, rather than making him wrong or shaming him.
Expressing anger is rarely enjoyable to your partner, but it can still be healthy and safe. I remember going through a phase in our early relationship where I felt expressing anger was definitely not healthy or safe. Joyce would express her anger and I would repress my anger, and even put her down for getting angry. Because that didn’t work for her, her anger would then escalate to the next higher level. This would feel intolerable to me, and I would leave, regardless of where we were. Definitely not healthy on my part.
One day, we were outside the house, and Joyce was expressing anger at me. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I yelled at her in anger. First there was a look of shock on her face, then gradually a smile appeared and she reached out and hugged me. She was actually thanking me for my anger.
I have stopped holding in my anger. Sometimes I go to the other extreme and let it out too loudly. At those times I imagine Joyce wishes I would go back to the way I was. But she assures me she rather have me yell too loudly than not at all.
Ideally, most anger can be headed off by addressing the feelings underneath, which are usually hurt or fear. When these deeper feelings are expressed and acknowledged, there often is no need for anger. For example, it is unavoidable for Joyce and me to sometimes say or do something that triggers hurt feelings in the other. Usually this is completely unintentional. Our goal is to say something like, “I know you didn’t mean to hurt me by saying/doing ______, but it did hurt me.” I have to admit, Joyce is better at it than me. When she makes that statement, it helps me in two ways. First, it acknowledges that I didn’t mean to hurt her. This is very important to me, often preventing me from going to an old tape, “I’m a bad boy,” or “I can’t ever do it right.” Second, it allows me room to hear her hurt and immediately apologize, which can bring us back to love very quickly.
When the hurt or fear is not felt and expressed, anger is the next level. Just to be very clear, here are some guidelines for the healthy expression of anger:
- “I” statements are rarely abusive. “I am angry,” rather than “You did _____,” or “Why did you do ____.”
- Healthy anger is not intimidating or controlling. Even “I” statements can be abusive if you are scaring the person you are addressing. If you are physically or emotionally dominating this person, you are being abusive. This includes not letting him or her speak or respond, and of course touching him or her in inappropriate or aggressive ways.
- Healthy anger stays in the present, rather than bringing up unrelated things from the past to fortify your argument. “You came home an hour late without calling, yesterday you forgot to bring out the garbage, and the day before you left your dirty dishes on the table.” Not healthy.
- Healthy anger does not generalize. “You’re always breaking your commitments.”
- Healthy anger does not make threats of any kind. “Break one more commitment and I’m out of here!”
- Name calling or swearing is unhealthy.
After the anger is expressed in a healthy way, then it’s time for both of you to address the hurt or fear underneath the anger. It’s time for each of you to take responsibility for your deeper feelings, and apologize for hurting the other. Cade’s apology to Lana allowed her to quickly let go of her anger. Lana acknowledging her hurt and fear made it easier for Cade to apologize.
Address the hurt or fear beneath the anger and there will usually be no need to express anger. Prevention is always more effective. But if the hurt or fear remain elusive, you have a conscious choice to express your anger in a healthy way. Follow the above guidelines and you can have an abuse-free interchange.
When Joyce and I are angry with each other, we stay connected and work it through to the very end. We know we are done when we can sincerely hug and kiss one another and even laugh at our behavior. Because of this the flame of our love and commitment to one another has been allowed to burn brightly.
Here are a few opportunities to bring more love and growth into your life, at the following longer events led by Barry and Joyce Vissell: Nov-Apr—Personal Mentorship/Coaching Program; Jan 31-Feb 7, 2010—Hawaii “Couples in Paradise” Retreat; Jul 18-23, 2010—Breitenbush Hot Springs Summer Renewal in Oregon.
Joyce and Barry Vissell, a nurse and medical doctor couple since 1964 whose medicine is now love, are the authors of The Shared Heart, Models of Love, Risk To Be Healed, The Heart’s Wisdom and Meant To Be.
Call TOLL-FREE 1-800-766-0629 (locally 831-684-2299) or write to the Shared Heart Foundation, P.O. Box 2140, Aptos, CA 95001, for free newsletter from Barry and Joyce, further information on counseling sessions by phone or in person, their books, recordings or their schedule of talks and workshops. Visit their web site at www.sharedheart.org/ for their free monthly e-heartletter, their updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.