What we have called anger may be abuse – David Richo
You can usually tell when someone is angry. It’s visceral. A raised voice, trembling, fidgeting, fast speech, heavy breathing, the furrowed brow, the clenched hand or maybe flared nostrils. But equally, it can be the opposite. Silence or sudden disappearance.
Often couples come to counselling naming a problem with anger in the relationship, anticipating that better communication and anger management skills would help solve the problem of endless conflict.
The problem is, however, that abuse and anger look similar. Abuse is visceral. But equally, it can be the opposite; the cold shoulder, stonewalling or the silent treatment.
Anger is a normal, healthy human emotion. When it is an authentic form of self-expression, anger is assertive and can enrich and repair relationships.
Anger issues can, however, damage and put relationships at risk, especially in controlling or narcissistic relationships.
One Thing You Need To Know About Anger
When people conclude that anger causes abuse, they are confusing cause and effect. “[He] was not abusive because he was angry; he was angry because he was abusive”. – Lundy Bancroft
In other words, anger is a tool of abuse. It must be remembered that control in some relationships is a form of abuse.
It’s important to realise that the purpose of control is to make you small. If you become fearful of your partners’ anger and that fear stops you from speaking up, doing the things you want to do or taking care of your children, then that is a symptom of control.
It may well be true that your partner is triggered and has difficulty managing their anger. But if there is a pattern of anger for which there is no genuine accountability, no will to do something different or it is expressed no matter what the cost or hurt, then perhaps it’s not anger management that’s needed but more rather a closer look at the need to control; the need to control you.
7 Warning Signs That Those Anger Issues Are Abusive
So, while anger and abuse might look the same, there are differences. Here are 7 ways you can tell.
1. True anger is direct. Abusive anger is displaced.
When you are being direct, you speak up respectfully and say what doesn’t feel right. “Excuse me that’s not okay”, or” that’s enough” or ”that hurt me, and I’m angry about that.” No drama, just a few calm words.
How you feel about being direct is another matter. Our relationship with anger comes from our childhood experiences. How did you see your parents manage conflict? Were there slamming doors, violence or loud voices as you nervously sat in your bedroom?
Maybe there were no anger issues at all, they never argued. Perhaps, in that case, the anger was displaced. Was your dad always sleeping and disengaged or maybe your mum always seemed angry with you blaming and shaming? Or maybe you had a genuine sense that they sat down and worked things out in a respectful way.
And what about you? Can you remember your teenage self saying NO to a parent? What about stomping up to your room and throwing a pillow across it or wanting to leave the house to cool down that rage. Did you have a parent who let you be angry, validated your feelings and taught you safer, healthier ways to express them? When a child has their feelings validated, they learn to express them directly and safely.
The alternative is abusive displaced anger. This way, anger is expressed through sarcasm, lateness, revenge tactics and feigned illness. They say, “I’m not angry, but.” And displaced anger issues are directed to the wrong person because it’s easier. So your partner won’t express their anger to their boss or family member, but instead, it is misdirected towards you, situations or other people that aren’t responsible for the pain they feel.
2. Healthy anger is expressive. Abusive anger is threatening.
Some of the expressions mentioned above are normal and healthy physiological responses to anger. Others are choices. These include screaming, swearing, name-calling, threats, intimidation, demands and jokes that are intended to harm, not amuse. Perhaps your partner tells you to “shut up” or barges past you because they want to leave the room. Pushing, shoving, and breaking your personal property are all forms of physical abuse. This is abusive anger.
3. Real anger arises from injustice. Abusive anger arises from an injured ego.
Your partner is unfaithful, they’re not pulling their weight around the house, they have mistreated your children, or perhaps they are driving dangerously when you are in the car. From time to time, they lock themselves in the study for long hours absorbed with their work. These are all things that undermine your sense of safety, intimacy and connection and need to be addressed.
Abusive anger arises from a bruised ego. Your partner feels disrespected because you are paying others too much attention or you’re not taking their side when they are inappropriately disciplining the children. If you are successful at work or other people admire your intellect, your partner feels envious and slighted. You might notice their anger at such times, particularly if they are professionally struggling. Perhaps an argument occurs just before a job interview or presentation.
4. Healthy anger communicates a problem. Abusive anger silences.
Your anger is communicating something to you. When it rears, it’s letting you know that you feel hurt, betrayed, disappointed, neglected, sad, tired, stuck or scared. Additionally, anger is also a sign that a boundary has been broken and needs to be reset. It’s perfectly natural to want to communicate those things to your partner.
In contrast, abusive anger shuts communication down. Your partner may use the silent treatment to bully, blame and intimidate you until you are silenced.
5. True anger looks for accountability. Abusive anger blames.
Accountability means doing something about your behaviour so that change occurs. When you are accountable and take responsibility for your actions, there is an opportunity for personal growth and healing as well as growth in the relationship.
Apologising and then doing more of the same isn’t being accountable. Narcissistically wounded people find it difficult to say sorry and do not take responsibility for their actions. On the contrary, blame, revenge and gaslighting take centre stage.
6. Genuine anger lets go. Abusive anger holds on.
To let go doesn’t mean that you don’t express and communicate your anger. What it does mean is that you work towards resolution and closure.
Abusive anger lingers and results in resentment, hate, grudges and bitterness. What this means is that the issues you thought were resolved come back again and again. For this reason, you feel as if you are treading on eggshells as you don’t know when your partner’s anger will be triggered. Your partner holding on to anger also means that they are more likely to use gaslighting to manipulate you.
7. Healthy anger is safe. Abusive anger is out of control.
Anger management isn’t about not getting angry; it’s about containment and the appropriate expression of anger. Inevitably, that means getting to know how your anger is awakened and how it manifests in your body, as well as mind and feelings. But no-one has the authority to take away your right to be angry.
Abusive anger is often uncontained and uncontrolled with inappropriate expressions of anger. It’s characterised by loss of temper and retaliatory behaviour. You might hear, “I only did that because I was angry” or “I can’t help myself when I’m angry”’ or “you made me angry.” It doesn’t feel safe to be around someone when they are expressing anger in this way.
Out of The Fog
On reading this, you might notice that your legitimate true anger is often responded to by your partner’s abusive anger. Or maybe sometimes you feel out of control. These are all legitimate feelings when faced with abuse anger. In my next post, I’ll let you know why fear, obligation and guilt (FOG) may leave you feeling this way.
Over to You
What do you notice about your partners’ anger issues? Are you able to express your anger issues safety? If you want to understand what your partner behaviour means and discover healthy, safe ways to respond get in touch and book your first counselling appointment.
Or call me today on 07535 864836.
Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you.
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*Adapted from How To Be An Adult in Love – David Richo.
© Sandra Harewood 2019
Soul Centred couples counsellor Sandra Harewood specialises in working with couples and single women with childhood wounding that impacts their adult relationships. Sandra provides a soulful space for her clients to explore and discover creative solutions to their difficulties and create a great relationship.
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