Building a Healthy Relationship and the Problem of Disowned Anger

Building a Healthy Relationship and the Problem of Disowned Anger

“Beware of him that is slow to anger; for when it is long coming, it is the stronger when it comes, and the longer kept. Abused patience turns to fury.” ~Francis Quarles

  • Is there a place in your marriage or relationship for the appropriate expression of anger?
  • Does maintaining a healthy relationship involve the shared handling and negotiation of anger when it arises?

We all get angry at times. It’s a natural and universal response to a particular set of circumstances. What you do with your anger, however, is unique to you. For some, anger becomes all-consuming, infiltrating almost every aspect of their lives. When you run into such a person, you may think, “Boy, what an angry person. I feel bad for whomever is in a relationship with him/her.” This person’s anger is obvious to others even if his/her awareness of it is limited.

Then there is the person whose anger seems to exist in the shadows, hidden from clear view but alive nonetheless. This is the anger-avoider, the person who continually denies being upset or angry, even when asked if something is bothering him/her. This is different from feeling angry and choosing not to express it—this is the denial of anger.

Why would the denial of anger be a potential problem for your marriage or relationship?

Building a Healthy Relationship: Anger as Information

The experience of anger can act as an important signal that something isn’t working in your relationship or within a particular life circumstance. When your partner acts in ways that emotionally wound you or stir anger directly, recognizing and using your reaction to help communicate your experience can go a long way in creating a relationship that is built upon mutual understanding and respect.

Anger is an emotional reaction that informs you that something has gone wrong. Perhaps someone is treating you in a way that makes you feel disrespected, demeaned, minimized, or mistreated, and anger is your body’s way of readying yourself to deal with what is occurring and/or what comes next. Anger should not be confused with aggression. Aggression is a destructive force that is meant to lash out and/or hurt another. Needless to say, aggression should not be part of your relationship or marital landscape.

Anger, on the other hand, is there to inform and guide you. You’re not alone if you struggle with anger and determining the role it can play in your life. Anger can make others uncomfortable, and the person experiencing anger may experience unease over the intensity of his/her own anger.

Fear of Your Own Anger: Why Anger Is Denied

One common aversion to anger is the fear of losing control when the anger is fully experienced. To experience any feeling to its fullest potential is to let go of a certain level of control, to step out of the way and allow your emotions to unfold and radiate through you. When our feelings appear bigger than us, when our sense of self shrinks in proportion to what is being felt, then our emotional world is experienced as dangerous. The issue here isn’t that anger itself is bad, but rather, the underlying fear of not being in control of our emotional life and the fear of what will happen if we really “let go.”

Anger is also denied when it clashes with the person we want to be or think we are. When our self-image (or ego ideal) doesn’t allow room for anger, then being angry is seen as a shortcoming, a failure of sorts. As one husband, Allan, recently shared:

“I’m a spiritual person who is guided by love and respect. These are my core values, yet my wife Janie keeps telling me I’m so angry all the time, and my two kids seem to avoid me. I just don’t get it.”

Allan’s example points to one of the inherent problems to disowned anger—that anger continues to exist and spill over into different areas of our life even when it is denied. And what is disowned, what is repeatedly side-stepped, cannot be processed, understood and released. Nor can it be negotiated within the boundaries of a relationship.

Because of Allan’s denial of his anger, he remains cut off, estranged from an important part of himself. His anger is trying to point him toward something that isn’t working for him—this insight may point him inward, to discover something about himself that needs addressing, or his anger may direct him to a particular relationship dynamic that is problematic for him.

When his anger goes unrecognized, Allan remains under the hidden sway of anger’s influence with little power to address the circumstances fueling his discontent.

To Express Your Anger or Not, that Is the Question…

The experience and expression of anger may also be avoided out of fear or concern about the other person’s reaction. Your anger (even if appropriately communicated) may upset your partner in some way, either causing an angry-defensive retaliatory response or leading to some kind of emotional wounding (sadness, self-reproach, guilt). In either case, it can feel like the direct expression of anger has made things worse rather than better.

This is the challenge we all face: Can our relationship sustain the expression and negotiation of anger when it arises?

To think that you will never get annoyed, frustrated and angry with your spouse/partner is a form of denial. It’s normal and healthy to feel angry. However, if you’re feeling this most of the time, holding and feeding it, then something is clearly not right. In these circumstances, you’re becoming a prisoner to your own anger.

The goal in a healthy relationship or marriage isn’t to release anger with little change in the interaction patterns between partners. Rather, appropriately expressed anger—a healthy assertion that communicates what your emotional needs are—should lead to a shared understanding of which changes should occur in the relationship. How you express anger is what’s important, not whether or not it should be communicated. Repeated feelings of anger that aren’t adequately addressed have the potential to wreck any relationship.

All best,

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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