2. Anger in Relationships - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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2. Anger in Relationships

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Conflict Control-Cple

Conflict, Control, and Out of Control in Couples and Couple Therapy

Dirk and Madeline do not hide that there is anger in their relationship.  Other couples may deny that anger is an issue or problem individually and in the couple.  Others may minimize the degree of anger or divert the therapy to other issues.  Depending on family and cultural models, denying and minimizing anger may have been initially habitual but over time gotten out of hand.  The therapist should assert that anger is a key aspect of the human spectrum of emotions.  Anger may manifest itself in the form of temper tantrums, hypersensitivity (excessive or abnormal sensitivity), and hypervigilance (excessive alertness or watchfulness).  Or it may be recognized in a moodiness or sullenness toward everyone and everything.  When it does come out, anger may be expressed as an indiscriminate ferocity that is disproportionate to the situation or transgression against the individual.  This is not the same as when individuals who can and do get angry at times.  Everyone gets angry at times.  Everyone has experienced situations in which getting angry is the most natural response.  Anger empowers individuals to take the risks that they would otherwise be too fearful to consider.  Anger gives people the energy assert themselves to challenge the things that need to be challenged in order to have a healthy and secure life.  Anger is often the key emotion underlying assertive words or actions.  Telling people "Don't be so angry! I don't see why you're so angry!" disables them from the energy that allows them to take care of themselves.  Anger gives them the courage to fight for self-preservation.  It is more appropriate to acknowledge that the anger comes from a place that seeks to be respected.  Anger in response to mistreatment or provocation is natural.  It aids in asserting ones rights and needs and for contesting harmful or intrusive experiences.  However, in the case of a partner who is consistently angry, with or without provocation, it is wise to have a greater level of concern.

Ignoring an individual's anger may cause the individual to feel that his or her essential self and worth are being ignored. This can intensify the anger and thus intensify the negative behavior.  This is the opposite of what is desired.  When Madeline tries to avoid Dirk's wrath, she inadvertently dismisses him.  Anger may be a key issue in understanding and improving mental health and, as a result, behavior.  Some individuals carry anger consistently in their bodies, facial expressions, attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors.  Or the anger lies just beneath the surface, building over days, weeks, months, or even years.  A small transgression or a great offense can equally set off the anger from within.  Many people may not even realize on a conscious level that they are still angry; because they may think they've "let it go."  In such cases, "letting it go" actually might mean they have taken the issue, squeezed it, and crushed it into a hard nugget of bitterness that they dropped onto a pile of resentment growing inside.  The question is not whether Dirk or Madeline each has a significant pile of resentment, but how high a pile, how deeply buried, and how potentially eruptive the resentment may be.

When an individual begins to get angry, the therapist or the partner may react with common responses such as "Calm down." "Don't be so emotional." "Don't get so mad." "Get a hold of yourself." "Let's not get too excited." "Let's not get carried away."  While everyone says these things sometimes, the directives assume that the individual has choice and control over emotions such as anger.  They also assume that the emotions are inherently negative, rather than purposeful.  Both assumptions are incorrect and dangerous.  Emotions and anger in particular are parts of an arousal system that quickly and unconsciously interprets and evaluates information gleaned from the environment.  It directs the individual to immediate and possible pitfalls, as well as potential opportunities.  "…a moderate amount of anger, expressed under the right circumstances, plays an important role in healthy psychology.  It saves us from predators, literal and figurative.  Anger can motivate us to take on unpleasant tasks, like confronting a bully; it can maneuver others into attending to our needs.  Besides, feeling anger doesn't always mean acting on it.  Only 10 percent of anger is followed by aggression, points out Howard Kassinove, a psychology professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead. New York.  'For a lot of us it's anger in.' he says.  'It's usually not shown.'" (Simon, 2005, page 57).

Emotional arousal is not volitional.  In fact, its unfettered intrusion can disrupt the individual significantly.  Intense unexpected emotions can ambush normal functioning and interactions.  The brain is waylaid neurologically by emotional arousal and can confuse or block logical processing.  Emotions, in particular self-righteous anger or rage is extremely difficult if not impossible to close down for some if not all individuals.  Strong emotions block current functioning to direct the individual to address whatever might be more important.  What is emotionally and psychologically deemed more important has origins in a multitude of old dynamics, primal instincts, and possibly deep traumas or abuse.  An abrupt emotional trigger can paralyze rational civilized communication and behavior, and demand attention.  While anger management principles can be useful overall, especially for less intense arousal, it does not address deep intrinsic problems.  "…research has shown that conventional auger management doesn't work very well.  Domestic violence treatment is even less effective.  These programs can help the highly motivated—but most people with problem anger don't think they have a problem and don't seek out treatment.  Besides, merely controlling the impulse to lash out doesn't get to the root of long-term resentments.  At the heart of problem anger, believes Stosny, are severe feelings of shame and guilt as well as a lack of empathy for self and others—or at least an inability to recognize and express it" (Simon, 2005, page 56).

Until deeper emotions or issues are addressed, anger management may at best only delay the rage and disruption to a later time.  In fact, successful anger suppression may cause an inevitable eruption to be of greater intensity and damage.  The anger may exist and persist unconsciously or semi-consciously.  This may not be unusual among men in general, but has particular ramifications for domestic violence.  "Intimate partner violent men appear to have difficulty recognizing and labeling their anger.  Reluctant to express primary feelings of sadness and dysphoria, they may express anger instead (Stosny 1995).  Anger management, especially for violent individuals with antisocial or psychopathic features, may be useful adjuncts to battering intervention programs (Babcock et al. 2007).  Therapeutic approaches that target emotional regulation, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) in the context of imagined infidelity would be most appropriate for individuals with borderline features.  DBT may aid in teaching them to manage their anger and regulate their jealousy.  The efficacy of battering interventions may be improved by tailoring emotion-focused interventions to specific batterers based on their personality features and corresponding cognitive distortions" (Costa and Babcock, 2008, page 401).

Emotions are not only personal warnings of issues that need to addressed for the individual, but to an astute therapist or partner, they can also be an alert to the individual's needs.  No doubt that Dirk has an anger issue.  And his behavior is at best highly problematic and at worse, possibly abusive.  Yet ignoring or attempting to suppress his anger or any emotion is difficult and existentially dismissive.  The quality of his anger hints to important underlying issues.  For some individuals, the "problem" that led to the angry response is far more pervasive in depth and breadth than just the behavior that manifests in the relationship.  This may be so with Dirk.  There may be a personality disorder, trauma, medical or physical conditions, and/or searing emotional experiences and compelling family or cultural factors.  With an angry individual, the confusion or the fear from some interpersonal miscommunication or misstep may be symbolic of more profound and painful prior experiences.  If the therapist notices an emotional reaction that is disproportionate to the specific and current situation, then the therapist should consider that other or prior distress, trauma, or characterological distortion is playing a role in the behavior.

It is important to remember that anger is normally not the primary emotion, but often the secondary emotion. Before there is anger, there is an underlying emotion.  There is an emotion that asks for an act of self-preservation, increased security, and nurturing.  Anger tends to be expressed more often by males because they often go through a cultural socialization process that disconnects them from their vulnerable feelings.  This is apparent in the plot of virtually every action movie in recent decades.  Think about it. Shortly after the beginning of the movie, someone very close (mother, girlfriend, sibling) to the male hero has been horribly killed.  As he holds his dying (fill in the blank), he suffers tremendous anguish, with tears streaming down his face.  After the dear one dies, the finality of the death hits him, and his despair intensifies—for about 30 seconds!  Then, he raises his head up, with tears still fresh on his face.  His jaw sets, and his eyes turn hard.  The rest of the movie is relentlessly driven by his cold, hard anger, and the determination to avenge the wrongful death.  Such a plot clearly demonstrates anger as a secondary emotion—and a byproduct of the male training that vulnerable feelings are to be suppressed rather than expressed, except perhaps, in anger and violence.

Both partners often cannot but help feeling angry.  If Dirk expresses in some male stereotypical (or cinematic) style, it directs him towards not just aggression but self-righteous vengeance.  Destroying Madeline symbolically becomes his goal.  Without alternative strategies, empowering Madeline simply to resist Dirk risks prompting similar attempts on her part to also annihilate Dirk.  The therapist can work with the partners to learn appropriate expression of anger.  These are some ways individuals can be helped to express anger appropriately:

1. Verbalization
2. Writing
3. Problem solving
4. Negotiation

It also may be appropriate and necessary to work from an incremental orientation.  Expecting complete and total change is not only unreasonable but also likely to frustrate the partners.  And, doom the possibility of change.  Although the therapist does not ordinarily want partners yelling at each other, an individual who yells instead of hits has made a significant positive incremental change in the behavior improvement process.  After all, foot stomping on the floor is much better than stomping on one's partner.  When the individual has successfully moved from physical aggression to yelling, the therapist can direct further incremental change, such as verbalizing with intensity but without yelling and threats:  "I really don't like what you did.  Please, don't do it again."  When that method of communication has been established, the next step would be verbalization with lower intensity, more overt problem-solving attempts, and so forth.  This strategy to build incremental change does not in any way condone domestic violence or other physical abuse.  The suitability of this strategy depends first eliminating the danger of domestic violence with the hard boundary of no physical abuse allowed.  There are both absolute and relative boundaries among verbal and psychological aggression versus abuse, physical aggression versus abuse, and intimidation versus control.  The therapist is legally and ethically charged to make such determinations prior to and then in conjunction to therapeutic assessments.  If safety is assured through an absolute boundary- a huge qualifier to the process, then an incremental change strategy may be effective.  Of course the therapist may want to move the individual directly to the most civilized process.  However, for angry individual, the downward spiral into anger was probably itself a gradual and incremental process.  He or she went from mild complaints, to loud complaints, to loud complaints accompanied by rants and raves, and to severe acting out.  Undoing this pattern does not happen magically and without sustained effort.

Dirk, much like many people with significant anger issues believes that things outside of him make him think, feel, and react.  Circumstances and people, especially an intimate person such as a partner, other family member, teacher or boss, or classmate or co-worker in the environment control the individual.  It is a fundamental personal paradigm shift to believe that within him or her is what regulates emotions, no matter what other people may do.  Despite how much he or she may aggress against another person, the individual sees him or herself as retaliating against unjust actions by unfair others, including partners in a fundamentally hostile world.  This can be a family model.  "In this way, we learn from early relationships to blame our unpleasant feelings on others. So as adults, when we feel shamed or disregarded in situations that have nothing to do with loved ones—say, in the hierarchical workplace or in rush-hour traffic—our reaction is to get angry, targeting the person who made us feel that way. At the same time, we get a neurochemical rush from anger that relieves anxiety and provides a physiological boost. The nasty cycle turns many into… 'anger junkies'" (Simon, 2005, page 57).  Getting enjoyment or a rush akin to compulsive satisfaction becomes plausible, since anger is often a secondary emotion to distressing vulnerable feelings that the individual may want to avoid.  And anger is an empowering emotion as well.  In the relationship, the anger coalesces around and is directed at the partner.  "When considering the relationship between anger, hostility, and IPV (intimate partner violence), an important issue is the theoretical difference between anger and hostility. Anger usually refers to a subjective, phenomenological, emotional state, while hostility refers to aggressive cognitions involving an attitude that includes dislike and negative evaluation of others, cynicism, and mistrust" (Clements and Holtzworth-Monroe, 2008, page 353).

Anger is often but not always associated with domestic violence.  Anger is considered a major risk factor, although there at least one sub-group of abusers that constitute a significant exception.  This will be discussed later.  "In a meta-analysis of 11 studies (n = 2179) of anger and hostility as risk factors for intimate partner violence, a mean effect size of d = 0.54 was identified, indicating a substantial effect (Stith, Smith, Penn, Ward, & Tritt, 2004).  Many cognitive deficits associated with anger in other groups of violent offenders can be identified in domestic violence groups, for example, maritally violent men have been identified as providing less competent responses to marital conflict situations (Anglin & Holtzworth-Munroe, 1997), and abusive males report higher levels of anger-related concepts such as jealousy, rejection, abandonment, and attributing greater negative intent to their partners than non-abusive men (Moore, Eisler, & Franchina, 2000).  A recent study of articulated thoughts identified that those who had been violent in a dating relationship differed from those who had not in terms of the anger-related concept of high demandingness and low anger control (Eckhardt & Jamison, 2002).  Furthermore, in a review of domestic violence interventions, anger reduction was associated with successful treatment outcomes (Feldman & Ridley, 1995)" (McMurran and Gilchrist, 2006, page 110).  The therapist should assess the individual such as Dirk for the anger-related concepts.  The therapist should probe Dirk for expressions and Madeline for experiences of jealousy, rejection, and abandonment.  The more Dirk blames Madeline for purposely harming or disrespecting him, the more objectified his anger becomes.  This blaming would be expressions of hostility that raise the risk for abusive behavior.  Since anger appears to often increase risk for domestic violence, interventions that attempt to reduce anger are a component of therapy.

"Interestingly, data suggest that male and female perpetrated relationship violence occur at similar rates.  Nonetheless, male perpetrated physical violence often has more serious negative consequences than female aggression, including more physical injury and psychological harm (e.g., Archer, 2000; Holtzworth-Munroe, Smutzler, & Sandin, 1997)" (Clements et al., 2007, page 369).  Madeline may aggress against Dirk as well.  The therapist should not ignore the possibility of Madeline physically hitting or abusing Dirk.  Uncovering how she may be physical with Dirk is important.  However it is clear based on Dirk's 15-30% greater body weight and probably higher percentage greater upper body strength that any unrestrained physical assault on her is almost certainly more dangerous than her on him.  If either partner uses any implement whether a household item or a designed weapon, the level of danger dramatically increases when anger gets out of hand.

Each family has its own rules for expression of anger within the family that children experience.  However, how anger and other emotions are manifested in one pattern of behaviors or another varies greatly.  How did Dirk's family-of-origin model anger?  How did Madeline's family-of-origin model anger?  Was anger expressed or suppressed?  There often has been generational modeling of- that is, exposure to violence for both partners.  This is thought to increase the risk of cross-generational transmission of behavior, including overall negativity.  Exposure to parental domestic violence may have a greater pronounced effect on males.  "Relative to male-unexposed couples, male-exposed couples, both the male and female partners were much more negative in their affect and behavior, even though the women had not been exposed to parental violence.  A parsimonious explanation for this finding is that the women are reciprocating the negativity of their male partners, which is consistent with the more general finding that there is a high degree of correlation between the levels of negativity of partners within a couple (Weiss & Heyman, 1997).  However, it is also possible that men exposed to parental aggression select partners who are more negative in their affect and behaviors than do unexposed men.  What is clear is that there is a strong degree of interdependence of the negative behavior of the two partners" (Halford et al., 2000, page 232).  While it is not clear of the extent of influence or specific causal nature of exposure to parental domestic violence on subsequent relationships, there are clear associations that the therapist should be vigilant to note for assessment.

In a study of male to female sexual aggression (MFSA) and female to male sexual aggression (FMSA), "only severe psychological aggression predicted MFSA or FMSA, after controlling for alcohol and other covariates.  Couples reporting male-to-female severe psychological aggression were at a four-fold risk for MFSA.  Male psychological aggression was a stronger predictor even after controlling for physical assault and alcohol use" (Ramisetty-Mikler et al., 2007, page 40).  While husbands' psychological and physical aggression has been shown to be related over time, physical assault alone "failed to account for variance in MFSA in this study.  Psychological aggression has been found to predict the onset of husbands' physical aggression longitudinally suggesting that it might be a stronger precursor for male SA than the presence of physical assault. Regression analyses indicate that females who engage in severe forms of psychological aggression are more likely to engage in sexual aggression" (Ramisetty-Mikler et al., 2007, page 40).  Madeline's description of Dirk keeping at her and not letting her disconnect from a conflict may be indicative of psychological aggression.  The therapist should explore psychological aggression between the partners, including potential prior modeling of psychological aggression in response to anger in the family-of-origin for both partners. While the couple may not have degenerated to Dirk sexually assaulting Madeline, whether or not he has been physically abusive, his psychological aggression is alarming.  It may be a precursor to greater aggression and violence.  Psychological aggression in of itself would be detrimental to relationship cohesiveness, and a focus of couple therapy with or without domestic violence.

The difference and relationship between state anger and trait anger may contribute to understanding and assessing the couple's dynamics.  Lafontaine and Lussier (2005, page 357) described the two types of anger and their measurement.  The state anger scale evaluates the presence and intensity of angry feelings.  Anger can range from mild annoyance or irritation to intense fury and rage towards the partner at a particular time.  The trait anger scale, on the other hand measures the individual's tendency to interpret many or most circumstances as annoying or frustrating.  The "avoidance of intimacy by men led to a dysfunctional experience of anger in their couple, which in turn resulted in the use of intimate psychological violence.  More specifically, being uncomfortable when a partner wants to be very close, feeling uncomfortable being dependent on a romantic partner, etc., induced irritation and rage towards the female partner at a particular time (high state anger) and a tendency to perceive a large percentage of circumstances involving the woman as annoying or frustrating (high trait anger), which in turn influenced male use of psychological violence.  According to Mayseless (1991), the hostility displayed by avoidant males may be passive aggressive rather than overexpressive.  However, on some occasions these men may become overtly violent."

Therapy should address both types of anger.  With Dirk and Madeline, the therapist should explore state anger- how much and the intensity of upset to anger to rage along with the quantity and depth of resentments held by each partner.  Greater state anger would indicate higher volatility and imply a greater likelihood to be activated.  Activation may come out in overt behavior or internalized emotional processes.  Reducing high state anger through therapeutic and other processes may be important for treatment.  The therapist should also explore trait anger to learn how Dirk and Madeline respectively tend to perceive each other's actions.  The symbolism rather than the fact of a particular circumstance would probably be what triggers this anger.  This is an important distinction to make in therapy.  Attention only to restrain from the specific actions that trigger trait anger will not be effective, since there will be unanticipated interpretations depending on the individual's mood that can also trigger trait anger.  The symbolic origins of trait anger would tend to be from family-of-origin developmental or other problematic experiences.  For example, Dirk's trait anger interpreting Madeline's actions or words as unappreciative or disrespectful may be from early experiences of being ignored as a child.  Madeline's trait anger from being intimidated by Dirk may be from childhood experiences with dominating parents.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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