My wife tells me I have a problem with anger and I tell her that, if she didn’t make me angry so often, I wouldn’t have an anger problem. I do regret the amount of yelling I do when I am upset, but it seems it is the only way to have her listen to me. She said that she is now afraid of me after I smashed a chair and broke some dishes last week in a fit of anger. It feels like she knows how to push my buttons and will not back off to the point where I feel like I am going to explode. Is it her or is it me? What should I do? I am afraid that our young daughter will be affected by these situations if we don’t find a way to make it stop. I want to go to couples’ counselling because we are both part of the problem, but she says that I am the one with the problem and should seek therapy for my anger.
What should I do?
— Too Often Heated
Yes, you have an anger problem and you are the only one who can do something about it. That is not to say that that she is without responsibility for the poor communication, but it is to say that you have to start with yourself. I am glad that you have presented this situation for some ideas and perspective. Many people struggle with strong emotions like anger, and the destructive consequences of doing things that they regret later. It is important to face the reality of what is not working in your life and to do things that can change them.
It starts with a basic premise; that we are responsible for our actions, which includes all the things we say and do. It means that being extremely angry does not justify behaviour that we find regrettable, that hurts others or is destructive. Anger is a normal and helpful emotion that tells us something is unfair or not right in the world around us. It is when the intensity of the anger starts to control us that we find ourselves in trouble. Anger is not the problem — intensity is the problem.
It is our responsibility to regulate our emotions, something you have not yet learned to do. It is common for people to believe that something outside ourselves can make us feel the intense way we do. We quickly shift from knowing an effective way of responding to a situation that is anger-producing, to a state of reaction fuelled by anger and the need to control the situation. Healthy levels of anger help us understand that something is wrong or unfair; they enable us to use effective assertiveness to see the problem through to a solution.
Unhealthy anger seeks to control the situation, and often another person with aggression, creating fear and intimidation as a method of functioning. It creates a new problem, which is, now that I am this angry and feel out of control, how do I get out of this feeling? It creates its own escalation, often with regrettable consequences.
Two things are important to understand. The first is that most people have a storehouse of anger in reserve. These are unresolved feelings that are associated with past feelings of victimization or frustration. Many people are already angry when they are triggered by something in a particular situation. It means that intense anger happens more quickly, because the old anger is ignited as well.
Part of doing therapy is to discover the ways that a person has built a storehouse of anger, and most of the time the reasons make a lot of sense. We have to learn how to offload some of that old anger and the stories that go with it in order to create a calmer baseline from which we live.
The second important thing is that anger is associated with power. It is a false kind of power that comes from creating fear and intimidation, but it can feel good in the short run to dominate a situation and get one’s way through this method. The problem is that people can become dependent on this kind of power and that it has a diminishing strength. People tend to avoid those who bully them through angry outbursts. It is always the short-term solution at the expense of the long-term connection we would want with others.
It is important that you develop a way to avoid being triggered by your wife and set boundaries that help you to keep from escalating.
I recommend that you seek help to understand your own anger and to learn how to regulate the intensity that takes over your rational self. It might be a first step towards understanding what is going on between you and your wife, a relationship which might also benefit from couples’ counselling.
I wish you well,