Relationships - Why are we so angry?
Reflecting on past cases in counselling, anger seems to be a reoccurring issue in couple relationships. It appears in many forms of behaviour and sometimes is very deeply buried. One thing every form of anger has in common is a destructive nature.
The need for anger management groups and therapy is growing as more people are beginning to acknowledge that their level of anger is unacceptable, destructive and perhaps even uncontrollable. But why are we so angry?
Many studies have been made into the causes of anger; one professed that babies are born aggressive; society has been blamed for creating angry young people because of lack of opportunities; computer games have been said to condition people to become aggressive; and music, movies and television have also had their fair share of blame for aggressive attitudes.
While there may be some truth in all of this, little influences us as much as the examples of behaviour we are brought up with and the ways in which we were treated growing up.
At the root of anger often lies personal experiences of hurt, making anger a symptom of internal conflict provoked by external factors. In other words, if un-resolved past experiences such as disappointment, loss, ridicule or shame are not looked at and explored in a safe environment, they can cause anger in situations where there is a potential for a similar emotion to occur. Anger in this case paradoxically acts as a protection, keeping the hurtful emotions away and so suppressing the issues at the cause of the anger.
Examples of hurtful emotions may include disappointments of being consistently let down, so creating a lack of trust, or being shown up by siblings or - worse still - parents. Neglect and abuse can create a sense of shame; having been shown little or no understanding as a child can lead to lack of empathy toward others and oneself, and loss can create a feeling of fear of rejection. There are plenty of examples of situations that can create anger as what seems like the only protection against hurtful emotions if these are not recognised.
Intimate relationships are often the common playground for anger; for relationships to be intimate we need to be able to safely show our vulnerability and accept our partner’s vulnerability. We feel vulnerable when we show emotions of grief, guilt, disappointment and loss, but even happiness can bring a certain level of vulnerability. If such emotions have not been allowed in the past, or we have had negative experiences showing them, we are likely to protect ourselves for fear of getting hurt again.
Anger in this case works well as a protector as it pushes an intimate partner away and so we have saved ourselves from potential hurt…or have we? We may have stopped the repetition of past hurt, but in the process of protecting ourselves we are creating the rejection of momentarily losing someone dear to us, the shame of hurting someone else, the disappointment of yet again being let down as our partner retreats, and so on. The protective anger becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that actually re-creates the exact emotion we are trying to protect ourselves from.
Saying all that, anger is a necessary emotion, though if it is not recognised and accepted it tends to become overwhelming for both the person showing it as well as the person on the receiving end. To accept one’s own anger as a natural emotion may help in the management of an otherwise potentially destructive emotion and could lead the way to resolving the real issue underlying the anger.
Most people dream of the ideal relationship in which they feel safe, needed, loved and appreciated, all in the right amounts. However, our happiness seems to rely on our ability to reveal our own vulnerability while trusting that our partner will not hurt us, and for our partner to be able to trust that we in turn will not hurt them in their moments of vulnerability.
To recognise that your partner may have different points of vulnerability than you will be a good starting point. Discovering these comes through being willing to get to know what it is that triggers this and what they ideally need in these moments of vulnerability. With time this also has the potential to create the ultimate intimate relationship that is strong in support, respect and love.
There are many websites with advice on how to control anger. The one I would recommend is the Mind website which is empathic and helpful at the same time as being realistic.
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