It’s a paradox that isn’t lost on many of us: Relationships have the power to expand and enliven us in remarkable ways; and when things go awry, relationships can just as quickly turn us inside out, plunging us into what feels like darkness.
“I didn’t know I had that much anger inside me. During my divorce I was filled with rage. I said things I can never take back. There were verbal attacks that were ugly and mean. I wanted to hurt Joan. I knew what her vulnerabilities were and I went after them…” ~ Alan, 43
In reading the above quote it’s easy to distance ourselves from the harshness of Alan’s anger. Here are a few reactions you might have that would help you achieve this distance:
“He’s one angry guy; I’d never react that way, no matter how upset I was.”
“The guy clearly has emotional problems that need to be addressed.”
“I bet his wife left him because of his anger, and I don’t blame her! He’s probably a misogynist.”
And so on.
While Alan’s marriage was unraveling, all he could do was vilify Joan. She turned his life upside-down and she couldn’t care less about the causalities left in the wake of her selfish decision (all according to Alan). But despite the intensity of his anger during this period of his life, Alan seldom became angry before then. In fact, most people who knew him would probably describe Alan as a mellow, level-headed guy who was thoughtful and kind to the people in his life.
It turned out that Alan and Joan become pretty good friends post-divorce, collaborating effectively as co-parents for their two daughters. On occasion they even socialized with mutual friends. And when asked about what Alan called his “ugliness” during the breakup of their marriage, Joan shared, “Alan is a good guy. It turned out that we just weren’t right for each other. But that was a very difficult time for him. For both of us. A lot of us were concerned about him during that time period, but he came through it and the old Alan reemerged.”
The Anger Within?
Alan entered individual therapy about a year after his divorce because he was disturbed by the anger he believed existed within him. He was convinced that the vitriol he expressed toward Joan was evidence that he had emotional demons that required attention.
After working with Alan in individual therapy, it became clear that the evidence of his life didn’t support his theory that a pool of anger existed within him, a pre-formed rage just waiting to be unleashed upon some unsuspecting person.
⇒Could it be that the potential to react in ways that are uncharacteristic to us exists in all of us?
⇒Is it possible that under certain circumstances, our virtues are likely to give way to desperation — a desperation that consumes us; one that steers us down dark emotional alleys?
You’re not alone if you can recall times in your marriage/relationship (or a past relationship) when things turned “ugly” (to use Alan’s word), moments when you acted in ways that showcased your dark side. When our relationships devolve and the security of our love begins to crack, even “good” people can behave in ways that defy their goodness.
The context of emotional disconnection, of not being able to recognize and reach the person you love, brings us to emotional places filled with anguish. With anguish comes desperation. And with desperation comes extremes.
It wasn’t that Alan carried anger that was buried in the crevices of his unconscious; more accurately, he became desperate and grief-stricken. And from this place Joan became an ominous threat to everything he knew and cared for. He then verbally lashed out at the threat.
Communication Breakdown: When Desperation, Despair and Fear Converge
John Gottman’s research on the dynamics that tear relationships apart highlights our capacity for aggressiveness. Couples drowning in mutual criticalness and contempt didn’t start out this way. Their stories were once love stories filled with hope and dreams realized.
We shouldn’t see ourselves as different from these couples, except for the fact that they are living in a state of ongoing fear: of losing the person they once cherished, of uncertainty, of a life without the person that mattered most to them, of a life of aloneness.
And they are also living in an ongoing state of desperation. Desperation and hopelessness are closely linked. Couples who are caught in endless cycles of marital and relationship conflict didn’t get there overnight. They made attempts to make things work; in their own way, they reached for each other (even if these attempts failed and became part of the problem).
Over time, failed attempts can set in motion a sense of despair, a helplessness which may have existed under the consciousness radar — helplessness quickly manifests as anger, thereby making the original helplessness unrecognizable. It’s easier to feel indignant and react angrily than it is to feel helpless and react in ways that show our vulnerability.
Facing the Underlying Pain That Fuels Hurtful Communication
Communication breakdowns are inherently frustrating. And they’re common in long-term relationships. This happens to all of us, and frequently we rebound from these communication mishaps to regain our relational footing. This back and forth movement between effective engagement and frustrating disengagement is the dance all couples must learn to navigate. It’s when the disengagement side of the relational ledger outweighs its engagement counterpart that desperation sets in.
As patterns of negativity grow, so does our helplessness. The pain of feeling chronically misunderstood by your spouse/partner is a pain like no other. And the distress in your failed attempts to make things right between you and your partner grows with each try.
It is in these moments of feeling completely ineffective to change the course of your relationship back to loving engagement that desperation, despair and fear take hold. It was this emotional cocktail of desperation, despair and fear that brought out the worst in Alan.
When faced with the enormous weight of these feelings, some of us have reacted similarly to Alan. It’s easy to think we wouldn’t, that we’d somehow be able to tap into a higher level of being that would elevate us above these murky emotional waters. But denying this “ugly” potential leaves us vulnerable to being consumed by it.
Not acknowledging these deeper experiences blinds us to the reality of our despair and fear. And when these powerful feelings are denied, they have true power over us.
Remember, desperation makes us act in extreme ways. It is these extremes that can do damage to our relationship when we fail to give voice to our underlying fears. And your marriage or relationship doesn’t have to be on the verge of ending for you to feel desperate—relationship or marital conflict that makes you feel helpless can take you there. Intense anger that leads you to say things you later wish you could take back is a clear sign that desperation has taken hold.
Dr. Rich Nicastro