My husband helped me realize something important about anger. It was during a rant in which I exposed how horribly he had been treating me, how humiliated I was by his action, how thoughtless he was being and how he had utterly failed to show me respect as his wife. He listened patiently, and during an unsuspecting lull he said quietly, “I wonder where this anger is coming from.”
Hadn’t he been listening?! I’d just listed all the reasons! So my tirade continued for a while longer. Anyway, later on, as I ruminated, I was struck by that question. Where is this anger coming from? Now that I was calm, it was clear as day to me that no matter what missteps he may have taken, it simply could not have been enough of an insult to my person to warrant that kind of anger.
So I decided to google this and discovered that the majority of articles I ran across concerning anger towards husbands were primarily concerned with dealing with symptoms. Are you upset that your husband doesn’t take out the trash, or doesn’t help with the kids, or has more free time than you, or what have you? The sites often offered solutions like better communication, which is certainly necessary. But none of them ever asked why. Why are these things so upsetting? We could argue that our problem of choice is unfair, that it shows a lack of respect, that it shows that he puts other things before his wife. But my question is deeper than that.
If a stranger on the street treated you that way, would you become so angry? If a friend committed the same offence, would you? How about a distant cousin? What is it about the people that are close to us – but especially our husbands – that make us so angry with their minor infractions?
There are probably many explanations. But here is what I discovered about myself: When I entered this intimate relationship, years of emotional conditioning came to the forefront.
And what’s that supposed to mean? Well here’s how I see it: for years, we create special relationships with our mothers, fathers, siblings, or other family figures who are closest to us. Any time we’re disappointed by one of those relationships in a significant or recurring way, it leaves an impression – especially in our childhood when we’re so impressionable and our perception and understanding of the world is still developing. We may not even think those disappointments bother us anymore because we’ve become so accustomed to them. But when we enter a new relationship, an intimate one, like marriage, all these issues – from Mom, Dad, or whoever – come to the fore, as we forge this new bond.
The other day is a great example. I was expressing my frustration to my husband about, basically, a lack of order in my surroundings. I thought things weren’t being done efficiently, and I felt I wasn’t in a position to change it, even though I would have liked to have been able to step up and fix things. As I’m expressing myself, and my husband is sitting there listening to me, I start to get angry. The more I tell him, the more irritated I got. Suddenly I blurted, “But I know you think I’m just being a control freak, because I always have to control everything!”
He had actually said nothing of the sort. In fact, he countered that he thought my having leadership qualities is a good thing, because a good leader can empower and inspire people. So where had that accusation come from? Why was I so angry with him?
The answer came quite suddenly and unexpectedly. I said, surprised, “Maybe I said that because my Mom used to tell me that my need to control everything was a bad thing.”
Light bulbs were going off everywhere. As I express my frustration about the disorderly conditions I cannot fix, I’m revealing what my mother – who is very free-spirited and contrary to me in that I feel secure when there is a measure of control and she feels secure when she isn’t tied down – had taught me was a flaw.
My closest relationship for most of my life had taught me that my need for control was a flaw that was embarrassing and that others looked down upon, not with words and certainly not intentionally, but by how she felt about it. Because I was a child, I internalized and interpreted my mother’s feeling as a universal truth. This was literally the first time in my life that I realized not everyone thinks that wanting a measure of control is a negative thing. I used to be embarrassed to tell people that I was a Red according to the Color Code, or tell them while laughing at myself, because I thought everyone thought this was a flaw of mine. I was unknowingly redirecting feelings I associated with other important relationships toward my husband.
What’s fascinating about this is that if I had expressed the same thing toward my mother I wouldn’t have gotten upset. I’m already “used” to that facet of our relationship and if you’d asked me if that aspect bothered me, not only would I say no, I would insist that there was no problem to begin with, that it was just a difference of opinion.
Here’s another one. My husband was late and couldn’t let me know. By the time we met up again I was furious. He posed that question again, Why does this make you so upset? Of course I fired back immediately that not all my anger towards him stemmed from childhood emotional scars! 😀 But he did some research and found something very eye-opening.
He found an article on Emotional Abandonment, which I thought sounded harsh and not applicable. But as I read it I saw clear evidence of my relationship with my dad. For example: “It is not okay to make a mistake.” At my house, not getting perfect grades in school wasn’t cool. Coming home with a B invited ridicule. Or: “It is not okay to have successes. Accomplishments are not acknowledged, are many times discounted.” If I did manage to come home with straight A’s, there was no praise, because that was what I ought to have done. If I wrote a story I was proud of, he would critique it for me instead of telling me it was great. (Another one was “Children are treated as peers with no parent/child distinction,” which was, at times, a perfect description of me and my mother.)
(Insert disclaimer, I love my parents and we have a great relationship! 😛 )
The result in my case was constant need for reassurance. Minor infractions on his part became signs that I wasn’t important to him anymore. Which was nonsense, he does more for me and works harder for me than I ever imagined anyone could.
So why the inordinate anger and overreactions? I propose that all our intimate relationships have their flaws, and they have shaped us in ways most of us don’t understand and never address. When we enter a new intimate relationship, these issues surface in new ways. I also propose that trying to research and understand all our issues is an overwhelming project – though I found what research I did accomplish enlightening – and that taking positive, all-encompassing action to combat anger within ourselves in a more realistic first step. Here are some things I’m trying to promote in myself:
- Learn to be vulnerable. The problem with being vulnerable is we’re afraid of the outcome. If I’m completely vulnerable, will I be rejected, will I be unworthy? And when I doubt, I bite. I need to understand that I don’t need walls and guards, especially when I’m with the people I love. Which ties in with the second point:
- Believe that I am worthy. If I believe that I am worthy of love, being vulnerable and showing love to others will become easy. It takes deliberate positive thinking and ingesting positive association, but it will be so worth it.
- Acknowledge and understand that my anger is not someone else’s fault. The next time I want to yell at my husband I need to stop. I need to stop and realize that whatever he’s done does not warrant being yelled at. For whatever reason, what he’s done has triggered an emotional reaction from me, but it’s the emotional conditioning he triggered that made me angry, not him. I need to step back from my anger and realize that my emotions are not because of someone else. I was just reminded of those emotions by someone, and I need to ask the question: Why? Where is my anger truly coming from?
This fantastic and wonderfully vulnerable TED Talk by Brené Brown cuts to the heart of vulnerability and reveals its intrinsic connection to attaining joy and satisfying relationships.
“I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love. And I think I have a problem.”