Lisa and Hank were engaged to be married. They chose their date and venue and made an announcement to their families. But privately, they were running into difficulties with their relationship and wondering if they were making the right decision.When Lisa and Hank had arguments, they escalated into fights and loud outbursts, resulting in Lisa shouting and Hank walking out. Lisa insisted Hank dismissed her feelings and ignored things that really bothered her, while Hank said Lisa sneered at him, and by the time she got around to telling him what was bothering her she was already fuming and using disrespectful language.
The more Hank dismissed Lisa, the more Lisa attacked him, and round and round they went.
Lisa and Hank decided to go to counseling with a therapist named Bonnie, hoping a counselor could help them with their fighting. Upon hearing their issues, Bonnie recommended the couple start out seeing her individually.
Lisa’s anger issues became obvious in individual counseling after only a few sessions. Bonnie surprised Lisa, suggesting she learn to express anger more. At this, Lisa laughed out loud, saying: “I have no problem expressing my anger! I’m a fireball most of the time, just ask Hank.”
Bonnie patiently explained to Lisa that her outbursts were not an expression of anger, but a symptom of anger that wasn’t being expressed or managed in a healthy way.
Bonnie also explained there were feelings underneath Lisa’s anger, and her outbursts were preventing her from truly understanding them. When Bonnie prompted her to articulate the deeper feelings that triggered her anger, Lisa didn’t have the slightest idea how to describe or articulate them.
Lisa shared she’d grown up with a father who’d punished her whenever she expressed anger, framing it as “disrespect.” Meanwhile, her father dismissed his own abusive outbursts, blaming them on Lisa or her mother.
Lisa’s mother expressed her own anger with passive aggression and taught Lisa that anger wasn’t “feminine” and that girls needed to avoid it. So, in addition to feeling angry, Lisa had grown up with an underlying anxiety about having angry feelings to begin with. The combination of understandable anger and anxiety about that anger led to ongoing outbursts.
What Bonnie was able to show Lisa was that Hank wasn’t the only one dismissing her feelings. Lisa had a tendency to resist angry feelings and ignore them until they got out of hand. Before Hank could dismiss Lisa’s feelings, Lisa’s feelings were already being stifled and ignored – by Lisa.
Hank expressed frustration with Lisa’s fuming, sharing with Bonnie that Lisa often accused him of things, exaggerating his relational missteps, and attacking him before she really understood why he reacted the way he did. He said he didn’t want to walk away from Lisa because he could see she was in distress, but he often felt overwhelmed by her constant negativity.
Signs of Anger Issues in a Relationship
Here are some signs of anger issues in a relationship that you may not have thought about:
1. A lack of emotional awareness
When Bonnie first asked Lisa to explore deeper emotions underneath her anger Lisa couldn’t articulate or describe them.
Consider the following snippet from Psychology Today: “Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. It is generally said to include three skills: emotional awareness; the ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and the ability to manage emotions, which includes regulating your own emotions and cheering up or calming down other people.” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/emotional-intelligence)
Lisa learning to recognize her own feelings and empathize with Hank’s was key to her gaining control of her angry outbursts. An important concept taught in marital seminars is the adage: feelings are neither right nor wrong and they come and go. When we have negative associations with certain emotions, processing them in a healthy way can be disrupted.
2. Counterproductive communication styles
Since Lisa didn’t fully understand her feelings, she exhibited habits of communication that were counterproductive. Once she was able to identify, recognize, and embrace her feelings in a nonjudgmental way, the next step was learning to communicate those feelings in a helpful manner.
People like Lisa, who struggle with anger issues, have certain predictable communication postures they take when they feel angry. Consider the following excerpt from the article Assertive Communication and Anger Management by Harry Mills, PH.D.
“As a social emotion, anger is experienced through communication. Angry people tend to have distinct communication postures that they habitually take up when communicating with others. Psychologists have described four of these communication postures, each possessing its own motto: The Aggressive communications posture says: I count but you don’t count.
“The Passive communications posture says: I don’t count. The Passive-Aggressive communications posture says: I count. You don’t count but I’m not going to tell you about it. The Assertive communications posture says: I count and you do too.
“As you might guess, angry people tend to use the Aggressive and Passive-Aggressive postures a whole lot. Aggressive communicators are more likely to start an argument than they are to get the results they want achieved, however.
“Being passive in your communications is also a mistake, as it communicates weakness and tends to invite further aggression. The Assertive communications posture is the most useful and balanced of all the postures as it is the only posture that communicates respect for all parties.
“Communicating assertively is the most likely way to ensure that everyone involved gets their needs taken care of. Learning how to become assertive rather than aggressive or passive-aggressive is an important step in discovering how to communicate appropriately with others.People who are habitually aggressive tend to fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be assertive. Specifically, they tend to confuse assertiveness with aggression and think they already are acting assertively. This is frequently a mistaken impression, however.
“Both aggressive and assertive communications postures can involve fierce and persuasive communication. They are fundamentally different things, however, in that aggressive communication tends to go on the offense – it attacks and berates the other – while assertive communication uses anger and fierceness only in defense.
“Assertive people stand up for themselves and their rights and do not take crap from others. However, they manage to do this without crossing the line into aggressiveness; they do not attack the person they are communicating with unnecessarily. Assertiveness is “anger in self-defense” whereas aggressiveness is “anger because I feel like it”. (https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/assertive-communication-and-anger-management/)
3. Distorted cognitions or unhelpful self-talk
Cognitive distortions are irrational lenses we can all fall prey to and see the world through. Distortions are exactly what they sound like – distorted perspectives. The top 10 distortions are often present when anger issues exist. They are as follows:
- All or nothing thinking – You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
- Over-generalization – You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
- Mental filter – You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it so exclusively that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that colors the entire beaker of water.
- Disqualifying the positive – You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. In this way, you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
- Jumping to conclusions – You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion. (Involves mind-reading and fortune-telling.
- Magnification and minimization – You exaggerate the importance of things, or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny.
- Emotional reasoning – You assume that your emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are, as in “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
- Should statements – You try to motivate yourself with “should” and “should not,” as if you have to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything.
- Labeling and mislabeling – This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself.
- Personalization – You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible for. (David Burns’ book “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. The Clinically Proven Drug Free Treatment for Depression”)
4. Minimizing behaviors
People like Lisa, who have difficulty managing anger, can develop some concerning and very obvious behaviors that must be addressed. Minimizing is one common trait among those with anger disorders. Belittling what happens during escalation with a partner is an obvious sign that anger is not being dealt with in a healthy way.
Abusive behavior can include: expressing disgust at a person rather than a problem, screaming, name-calling, and even hitting. Consider the conclusion of the prior case study on Lisa and Hank described above:
In counseling, Hank finally disclosed to Bonnie that on two occasions Lisa’s temper got the better of her, and she actually hit Hank during an argument. When confronted, Lisa retorted defensively that Hank was “a strong man” who could hardly feel it when she hit him.
Bonnie found that Lisa repeatedly blamed her violent behavior on Hank’s dismissiveness and walking away from her, so Bonnie gently explained the problem of blaming and minimizing. Gradually, Lisa’s attitude began to change, and more and more, Lisa took responsibility for her abusive behaviors.
In more chronic and dangerous cases of domestic violence, perpetrators are known to engage in minimizing and blaming on a regular basis. A perfect example of this behavior happened in my own work with offenders of domestic violence in the state of Georgia.
In group counseling, I remember a participant being confronted about his partner needing to go to the hospital for stitches after he hit her. The perpetrator retorted, saying, “It was only one or two.” This is classic minimization.
Perhaps the best place to start in assessing anger issues in a relationship is to look for the most obvious signs that anger is not being handled appropriately. The website psychguide.com does a good job of articulating those signs, describing them in terms of emotional and physical states.
The emotional and physical symptoms described are good indicators that a relationship may benefit from anger management training or counseling for anger issues. Emotional states include constant irritability, rage, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, having scattered thoughts, and fantasies about hurting ourselves or others.
Physical Symptoms include Tingling, heart palpitations, tightening of the chest, increased blood pressure, headaches, pressure in the head or sinus cavities, and fatigue. (https://www.psychguides.com/guides/anger-symptoms-causes-and-effects/)
Losing our cool from time to time doesn’t mean that we have anger management issues. Anger is an overwhelming emotion that can trigger our adrenal system, and many believe it is meant to spur us to healthy action on our own behalf or on the behalf of our loved ones.
Anger becomes an issue when it is not taken seriously, when the underlying emotions are not validated and expressed, when relational issues cannot be resolved because of it, and when unresolved anger hardens into hateful attitudes and abusive behaviors. It should be no surprise that unaddressed anger can become physically harmful and a corrosive force in relationships.
Unresolved anger tends to progress into full-fledged contempt, one of the four horsemen described in Gottman’s book, Seven Principals for Making Marriage Work. Gottman explains that four horsemen are indicators of future marital failure, and Gottman singles out contempt as the most dangerous of the four.
The good news is anger can be successfully addressed and managed before it becomes an issue, threatening our relationships. Anger management classes and counseling have proven to be highly successful in helping those struggling with anger issues and gain skills to better manage it.
“Looping”, Courtesy of Chraecker, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Hide My Face”, Courtesy of MMckein, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Overlook”, Courtesy of Mc7000, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Sunset”, Courtesy of Cleverpix, Pixabay.com, CC0 License