Anger is the “I matter” emotion. It is a hormonal surge of raw motivation that wants things to be different. It narrows our focus so we pay attention to nothing but the problem, and it shoots us through with adrenaline so that our raised heart rate and tensed muscles can do the job.
When angry, we want to express our impulses and feelings to another person. While anger can be motivated solely by pure physical self-protection, it is more often a relationship-based emotion, magnifying interpersonal issues. This kind of anger says, “I matter” and “you matter to me.” Anger insists that unhappiness between people is a big deal and must be fixed.
When two people care about each other, anger motivates relationship repair. The energetic intensity of anger is hard to ignore, and it gets the full attention of the other person. If we have been hurt by someone we care about, we express our anger until we are sure that the other person understands our pain. Once we have that connection back in place, our anger ebbs and we calm down. But first we must throw together a sloppy bridge toward some kind of reconnection, and anger does that.
Babies and toddlers use anger like this all the time. If they are not tended to, they can skyrocket into rage, which usually forces an intense interaction with the adult. Once the little ones are back in the center of the parent’s attention and interaction, they feel better, even though they may still be upset. People often misinterpret young children’s rage as willfulness or defiance, but the motive is a need to be seen and taken into account. Babies and toddlers have a primal fear about emotional separation. If they sense they are not the center of the parent’s attention, they become profoundly anxious. A child showing extreme anger is often trying to find that place of interpersonal intensity where beyond a shadow of a doubt he or she has the parent’s full attention.
Teenagers are not so different, even though they could find ways to survive without us. For teenagers, the fear that fuels anger is about losing autonomy or individual identity. They still need connection with their parents, but they are trying out new ways of relating (usually verbally, but sometimes in acting out) in order to defend their independence and individuality. Their anger is begging the parent to treat them as adults and respect their wishes. That is why talking things out with teens and setting limits respectfully, works better than the rigidly authoritarian approach. When teens feel taken into account, that their point of view matters, the anger energy is less necessary.
In adulthood, anger in relationships is a combination of the toddler and the teen. We want our partner or close friend to respect our individuality and point of view, but even more deeply we want to know that our needs matter to them. In long-term relationships, anger toward the other person can be a very healthy sign (as long as it is not a tool to control or humiliate.) It means that we care enough to attempt relationship repair.
People should worry when anger is replaced by detachment. This is a signal that the other person is giving up on relationship repair and is withdrawing. When a relationship has deteriorated to this point, it can be very difficult to come back from. As long as there is communication going on, even angry communication, there is hope for renewed closeness.
When a person’s loses touch with normal anger (often by being penalized for expressing it), he or she can use passive-aggression. In this case, instead of experiencing anger directly, the person acts calm but repeatedly does things that frustrate other people and make them feel disregarded. This pattern often shows up in relationships as the man appearing pleasant and laid back, while his female partner falls back on hysterical outbursts to engage him at an emotional level. The passive person denies any distress and seems puzzled about why the other person is so upset. But in fact, the passive partner’s lack of emotional response is a slap in the face, sending the message that his partner’s feelings and needs cannot touch him. That is what infuriates the other person, prompting her to do whatever it takes to push the passive one into emotional involvement.
Sometimes anger has no positive purpose. When anger seems senseless or goes nowhere, it is because the person’s most basic feeling is not about anger at all. In these cases, anger has become nothing more than an all-purpose distress signal. Instead of the anger being about a specific relationship issue, it becomes a wholesale barrier to intimacy. Unproductive anger is used to cover up all kinds of real feelings that would feel shameful to express. This use of anger can hide hurt, fear, or humiliation. When a person is using anger in this way, it prevents closeness because it is a huge distraction from the truth. The chronically angry person hardly knows what they are feeling at all. When you are mad about everything, you are blind to what your real feelings might be.
Being aware of the many uses of anger helps us to figure out the best response to each. There are three questions to ask when anger is an issue in the relationship: What is the emotional need that my anger is expressing? What is the emotional need that the other person’s anger is expressing? Is the anger so frequent and unproductive that I cannot tell what the real problem is? All three questions can point to a direction to take. Understanding anger’s many signals gives us crucial information about the emotional closeness and healthiness of our relationships.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.