Tag Archives: anger

“My husband’s anger is wrecking our marriage.”

My husband's anger is hurting our marriage

Brian and Glory had been working with me for just over a year. The complex impulses and patterns shaping their relationship were slowly being revealed. Brian had a war-like energy, and could escalate a conflict to massive proportions in a matter of moments. This frightened Glory, who disliked conflict and shied away from any expressions of anger, even just a raised voice. To Glory it was obvious that, faced with a partner’s anger, any reasonable person would naturally want to retreat.

Glory was a highly intelligent and sensitive woman, and she had been clear in our sessions that she was willing to investigate her role in perpetuating the conflict cycle that had developed. Nonetheless, despite her stated willingness in this regard, she always came up empty handed when searching for her own complicity. After all, it was HE who would raise his voice, it was HIS anger that would spark and catch fire.

Many counsellors, as well as family and friends, will naturally side with the more “peaceful” person in this dynamic, the assumption being that the onus is on the “war-like” personality to change. This bias has its problems, as we’ll see.

To really understand all that is going on beneath the surface of a relationship like Glory’s and Brian’s it’s useful to take problem-solving off the table for a time. I like to do this transparently with clients, and to get their explicit consent and participation. I assure them that we can and will come back to the matter of solutions, but for now, I ask, can we just investigate without any agenda… can we simply be curious? Interestingly, this is where change tends to actually begin. When we start to examine a relationship with simple, genuine curiosity we make new discoveries. Sometimes I make the discoveries and present them to the client to consider, sometimes they make the discoveries.

Putting problem solving aside allowed Glory and Brian to come to some new realizations about their relationship patterns. By doing “little experiments” (this is a Hakomi term for setting up small, carefully controlled interactions for the purposes of observing the experience and noticing habitual responses) Glory discovered that she had virtually no tolerance for anger or conflict. In the face of anger, even the subtlest anger, she would begin to retreat. The idea of meeting anger or conflict face-on had never even occurred to her as a possibility.

In Glory’s world, anger and conflict were intolerable. They were, in the simplest terms… bad. It made sense that she had been unable to identify any role that she might play in the relationship conflict cycles that plagued her marriage. After all, she always did everything in her power to avoid anger and conflict!

Once it dawned on her that her aversion to conflict and anger might actually be her role in the pattern, Glory had something to work with. She experimented with facing anger and conflict more directly. This let her see just how conflict-avoidant she was, and she got a glimpse of how this part of her personality had shaped her life.

Now remember, we’re still in simple curiosity mode. No problem solving, no prescribing, just noticing. And we’re not just talking about anger and conflict, we’re actually working with it as it comes up in session. We’re doing little experiments all the time. This requires a particular orientation from a therapist – they must recognize these opportunities as they naturally arise and use them for a client’s insight and learning.

This is not an orientation every therapist shares. I’ve been witness to many sessions where a counsellor does just the opposite; they try to calm down or smooth over strong emotions or outbursts in session so that they can get back to talking about the couple’s problems from a safe distance. Certainly there are times for de-escalation and peace-keeping, but if this is always the strategy, and if it is an automatic or unconscious strategy, opportunities will be missed, and old cycles will continue.

Back to Glory and Brian… Glory has now realized that she has always treated anger and conflict as inherently bad, something to be avoided, and she is beginning to see how this avoidance has both perpetuated their cycle, and has blinded her to role within it. She sees that her task may be to confront Brian’s anger and, it is revealed later in our sessions, perhaps her own as well; not surprisingly, it isn’t just other people’s anger that makes her uncomfortable.

Here’s what I presented to this couple and asked them to consider –

The moment that Brian feels Glory retreat in even the smallest way, he panics (it took some careful attention for him to recognize the degree of this panic response). Brian’s panic is expressed first as annoyance or criticism, but then moves quickly into rage. His rage is the rage of abandonment.

On her side of the equation, the moment Glory feels the smallest expression of Brian’s annoyance or criticism, she begins to retreat; she knows what is coming next. It’s crucial to note that we are talking about the tiniest expressions here. Barely discernible eye movements. Subtle changes in body language, posture, or verbal tone. Like most long-term couples, Brian and Glory are exquisitely attuned to each others state of being, and like most couples they are in denial of the power that their anxiety holds over each other and the relationship.

As I’ve often explained in my various writings, our nervous systems are in constant communication with each other, for better or for worse. Most of this communication is happening below conscious awareness, hence those conversations that everyone knows, beginning with –

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like THAT.”

“I’m not looking at you like anything!”

As we debriefed a particular incident that had threatened to escalate into a familiar multi-day meltdown, I was struck by the fact that both Brian and Glory experienced major incongruence between their two accounts of the event; they believed that their stories did not match. But I found their two stories remarkably consistent, the only notable discrepancy being this –

Each was acutely aware of each others subtle cues, but more or less oblivious of their own.

Glory could describe in detail Brian’s eye movements and the change of tone in his voice that led her to retreat, and yet she was blind to her equivalent cues to Brian, cues that essentially said “I’m disconnecting from you now.”

Conversely, Brian had a photographic memory of the moment Glory averted her gaze, and how that affected him, but he could not understand how his accusatory tone could possibly elicit such a strong response from her.

This was a good opportunity to draw some parallels. I explained that their two accounts of the same event sounded remarkably congruent to me, and I observed that each of them put disproportionate significance on each others cues, while downplaying the impact of their own responses on each other.

In other words, Brian couldn’t believe that a tiny little bit of criticism from him could make Glory retreat so dramatically, and Glory was baffled that the mere hint of disconnection or retreat from her could throw Brian into a rage. Each downplayed their own cues and reactions, while simultaneously inflating the other’s.

“I get a little angry. No big deal. But then she totally withdraws!”

“I take a little space for a few minutes, like any normal person, and then he totally blows up!”

The behaviour of each is deeply habitual, and feels completely “natural” from the subjective point of view. Neither Brian nor Glory could imagine how their minor little habits could trigger such a strong reaction in the other. A switch gets flipped, for both of them, a switch that runs right to their core.

As we continued experimenting and gaining insight through a collaborative curiosity and a willingness to suspend judgement, Glory and Brian each discovered how much impact their own triggers had on each other, and how this caused the escalation they experienced.

This was in important and ongoing discovery. Previously, they had dismissed each other’s reactions, while simultaneously holding their own to be natural and valid. Now they were each beginning to see how the other’s experience was as legitimate, in its own way, as their own. This, by the way, is an example of genuine empathy.

Practicing empathy is a foundation of much couples therapy. In my counselling practice, however, I have found it more or less futile to try and make couples “practice” empathy by force of will. Empathy has its own nature and arises spontaneously when the conditions are right. Having an actual felt experience of each other’s vulnerability, coupled with a growing understanding of each other’s life experiences, outlooks, and character provided the right conditions for empathy to organically emerge. This allowed Glory and Brian to imagine themselves more as allies than adversaries, and it set the ground for co-operation as we began to address behavioural change.

As we began to address behavioural change and taking responsibility for one’s own actions, we started with some education on what I call “building capacity.” Both Glory and Brian needed to develop tolerance for each others anxious behaviours.

Brian needed to practice allowing Glory to make small retreats. Glory needed to practice allowing Brian to express anger or criticism. Neither Brian’s anxious anger nor Glory’s anxious withdrawal were inherently bad or wrong, and they only threatened the relationship to the degree that each could not tolerate the other. By growing their capacity, stretching their tolerance for each other, the burden of change falls on neither, and yet both are apt to find their own way of changing. Like most profound relationship work, it’s paradoxical. By allowing each other to be themselves, by practicing tolerating one another, a behaviour pattern is interrupted and the stage is set for change based on personal maturation; much more valuable than ultimatums or even negotiated compromise.

Change that comes out of growing our capacity feels satisfying and nourishing. It’s a source of pride and freedom. Change that comes from making demands, ultimatums, or even negotiated agreements about behaviour – “You promise to do this and I promise I won’t do that” – tends to be short-lived and can even be potentially destructive.

You might have noticed that there is virtually no story, no content, no “he said/she said” included in the account above. That’s because the issue that this couple faces isn’t, at core, about a particular disagreement or argument. Their conflict is rooted in something much deeper. We might call it habituated nervous system responses, or we could use another lens and call it attachment styles. The point is, we could spend forever dancing around the details of who said what and who did what, but underneath all that are two nervous systems doing their thing. Attending too much to “story and content” would just distract us from the work of capacity building.

So how to build capacity? How to develop tolerance for our partner’s small cues that set us off?

First we must begin to notice that which has always gone unnoticed. Brian and Glory, like all of us, developed strategies early in their lives for getting their needs met – needs for safety, for connection, for soothing, for autonomy, and so on. These strategies are unconscious, and are sometimes even pre-verbal. We make certain decisions about how to be in the world and with others before we even begin speaking as children. These strategies do not live in our conscious mind, they are held in the body, in the nervous system, in the emotional and instinctive parts of ourselves.

When these unconscious strategies get expressed in our adult relationships, they might create strong impulses and feelings (or perhaps numbness), but they tend to elude conscious awareness. Because they feel so naturally a part of us, it’s necessary to practice recognizing them. Until we do some work examining them, they really aren’t negotiable, they’re more or less hardwired. It’s also worth mentioning that the gender associations in Glory and Brian’s case can just as easily be reversed; a woman might tend toward anger and a man toward withdrawal, in fact I see this just as commonly.

Our task is to start noticing how we respond to particular stimuli, how we react to our partner’s cues. We practice in session, slowing down these interactions and noticing the subtleties contained within. From here, with a little experience under their belts, client couples will take this practice into their lives. If they will continue this difficult work, they will likely be rewarded. To learn more, read my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples – Insights and practices for cultivating love, sex, and intimacy (even in difficult times).

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I hate my husband. I hate my wife.

Counsellor confession… “I hate my partner.”

 

 

 

I hate my wife. I hate my husband.

Relationship articles, facebook memes, and lofty platitudes about what makes a “healthy” relationship float across my virtual desktop daily. They always emphasize high ideals of respect, non-violence, kindness, trust, empathy, validation, etc. They never include anyone saying –

“I hate my wife.”
“I hate my husband.”

It’s no wonder that my counselling clients feel like failures, and doubt the legitimacy of their marriage or relationship (or even of themselves) if they experience intense resentment, anger, grief, rage, frustration or jealousy.

What are we supposed to do with these unwanted feelings when we’re repeatedly told that they have no place in a “healthy” relationship (or life)?

For many, the answer is simple. Ignore the feelings. Reject them. Stuff them deeply into a sack and drag it along behind, pretending it does not exist, even as it grows into elephantine proportions and begins to crowd everything else out of the room.

I confessed in an interview recently that I was feeling grateful for being able to express my outright rage and seething hatred of my spouse… to my spouse. That’s right, I told my partner that I hated her. And guess what? The world didn’t end. And neither did my relationship.

As a marriage counsellor working with clients worldwide, it felt risky to publicly share that I sometimes hate my partner, and that I have told her so. But I believe that because I am able to express a full range of feelings toward her, and because she can hear them, disaster is averted. This works in both directions in our relationship; I hear about her anger as well. It has at least once been expressed as “I want so badly to punch you in the face.” (She contained the impulse, but the message was received.)

In our relationship, my partner and I allow each other to express these difficult, dark feelings, and so they are, in a way, over time, transformed. Left in the dark corners they fester and grow, and they sneak up on us, often in disguise. Faced head on, they tend to reconcile of their own accord. The result? A clean slate.

That’s worth stating again: To the degree that we are able to identify and express our darker feelings about each other, to each other, we’re able to avoid lingering resentments in our relationship.

As I state in my book, The Re-connection Handbook For Couples – 

If your ideas about love are too narrow to accommodate the relationship you actually have right now, you may want to try expanding your thinking. Love is certainly not just good feelings, kindness and caring. Romantic and erotic love is compatible with resentment, mistrust, selfishness and even cruelty. Perfectionism, lofty platitudes and willful naivete about love are common in our culture, but real love may demand dark expressions from time to time.”

Are negative emotions so bad?

Emotions in our culture have been neatly divided into two columns: negative and positive. But what if emotions were neither negative nor positive? Neither good nor bad? What if emotions were simply acknowledged on their own terms?

There’s a popular idea that we should be able to control our feelings through sheer force of will. I’ve never, ever seen this to be true. But I have seen the damage that this belief causes. It IS true that by practicing mindful awareness, we may be free of some of the more painful and destructive emotions, but they fade largely of their own accord, and usually only after being acknowledged, and even expressed.

So how can we safely express potentially destructive emotions like rage and hatred? Perhaps we can’t. Perhaps they are inherently unsafe. If so, it appears that we must risk something if we are to give our anger, cruelty, resentment any real voice. (Sometimes what we risk is intimacy; the intimacy aspects of engaging with the darker emotions often go unrecognized.)

Popular communication techniques would have us calmly and quietly stating our angry feelings – “It makes me feel angry when you leave your socks on the floor.” But anger, real anger, is rarely calm and quiet. It is fiery and fast. It burns. I’m suspicious of techniques that sugar-coat or rely too much on pretending.

Of course, raw, unchecked rage and hatred freely expressed in a relationship is clearly not going to be acceptable to most self-respecting people. If we want to work with darker emotions, to allow them an appropriate place in our awareness, our relationship and lives, the answer must lie somewhere in between; still potent and alive, but not full force. We can practice allowing an emotion like anger without becoming it entirely. The key is awareness; the ability to have an experience (really HAVE it), and also to notice it at the same time. This requires us to grow our capacity for seemingly contradictory experiences, what I sometimes call “holding opposites,” and it takes practice.

There’s no reliable formula for successfully navigating difficult emotions like anger in a relationship. Talk with your partner. Examine your own taboos. See if there might be room to experiment with allowing some expression, even a basic verbal acknowledgement of the feeling.

Every relationship has its own unique culture, a set of agreements and rituals, implicit or explicit, that guide it. Does your relationship make room for expressions of the full range of human emotions? Or are only “positive” emotions allowed?

 

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email justice@justiceschanfarber.com to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com

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