I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my husband early in our relationship regarding his anger issues. I was trying to ascertain whether or not he understood the impact his volatile temper had on his personal and professional life. When I realized that he didn’t necessarily consider his anger a negative attribute, I asked him, “How do you figure your temper helps you?” His answer was swift and decisive: “People are afraid of me, so they usually do what I want.” He was a little slower in answering my next question: “And how does it hurt you?”
Like most angry people, when he is ‘in a mood’ his focus is on his own needs and first and foremost is his need for control. As long as people are catering to his desires, he assumes he is not only getting what he wants, but that people are okay with it. That is a dangerous and generally erroneous assumption. He appears to have no concept that his ‘scorched earth’ policy might be closing more doors than it is opening.
So how does a highly intelligent and educated man get it so wrong? Lest you think he is a monster, let me assure you that he is the most thoughtful, compassionate, kind, and loyal man I have ever met. He is also frequently short-tempered and irritable. As I tell him on a regular basis, he is a very good man who sometimes behaves badly. Probably the dominant culprit is the tendency of those with a hot temper to underestimate the long-term effects a tantrum can have on those around them. Once they have vented their anger and frustration, they feel purged, refreshed, and ready for a new start. It’s often inconceivable to them that those on the receiving end aren’t in step with that progression, that in fact, they may be mired in their hurt, anger, or fear for hours, days, or even months or years to come.
Perhaps understandably, I think my husband confuses conformance with acceptance. People may do what he says, but there are a thousand ways those same people can register their dissatisfaction; in the event that they don’t feel safe confronting the anger directly (and isn’t that the point of intimidation?), there will be a subtle, internal shift to a defensive posture. At the very least, he will not be getting the best that those close to him have to offer; at worst, his friends, family or workmates may be moving away one tiny step at a time, until he is shocked to find them gone. I believe that this dramatic lapse between cause and effect, between one’s behavior and others’ reaction to it, is a primary contributing factor to ongoing verbally abusive behavior.
Ironically, angry people, who feel such a compulsion to control others, usually have a faulty inner governor; as a consequence, they are often unable to control themselves. Anger has become a habit, like any other, and in the absence of compelling reasons to change, no change will occur. I used to think that threats were the answer, until a wise therapist cautioned me against ever making threats that I wasn’t absolutely committed to following through. That took the wind out of my sails. What was I going to say that would really make a difference? I wasn’t leaving; I wasn’t giving up on the marriage. I needed to look for a more creative solution, one that moved beyond my knee-jerk desire to hurt back.
One obvious method was to help him see how his temper was undermining his credibility. When someone resorts to yelling or otherwise treating others with disrespect, the weight and validity of their argument goes out the window. They are, in effect, forfeiting their content when they choose that method of delivery. Seen in that light, my husband began to understand that what he said didn’t matter if it was said in the wrong way. Especially if you are in the right, there is nothing quite so baffling as watching your opponent get the upper hand by virtue of your own actions. For whatever reason, this was meaningful to him, and has helped him better navigate difficult conversations.
I have also spent a lot of time thinking about the instigating cause of his anger, thinking that if I could get to the root, I would magically discover the key to dissembling it. I wasn’t looking for the short-term causes, which often seem incidental, but what it is that makes him react so forcefully to the routine frustrations that living in this world—and with other people—bring with it. Eventually, I realized the futility of that quest. Where it comes from doesn’t matter; it’s only how I choose to react to it that counts.
One of the tougher side effects of an angry world view is the need to assign blame. I am convinced that angry people are just as mystified as the rest of us, as to why they behave the way they do. I know that my husband is frequently mortified at the things he says and does when he is angry. Where someone with a more balanced perspective might move quickly into an apology at that point, seeking to right the wrong, he will instantaneously create an alternate scenario in his mind, one which justifies his behavior by reassigning blame to another. He isn’t lying, you understand. Once he creates this scenario, and it is instantaneous, it becomes his absolute truth. He will defend it with all the venom that created the situation in the first place. It is a startling and incredible thing to witness.
So one of my coping mechanisms is to refuse to accept blame if I am the target, and fail to support his assertion if the target is someone else. Often, I will try to sit it out and not involve myself at all. It was a liberating and necessary realization to discover that I was not the cause of all of his outbursts. Despite what he might say in the heat of the moment, it usually has nothing to do with me or anything I’ve done. I try to ignore him, and if it’s too upsetting, to remove myself physically until he has himself under control. If he has resorted to calling me names, I will calmly and respectfully remind him that I don’t appreciate him speaking to me like that, that it hurts my feelings, and leave it at that.
I realize as I write this, that I am making myself out to be some sort of a saint. I’m sure you know that is not the case. I have my own neuroses (pride, superiority, and general bossiness, to name a few), but as a rule, am not an angry person. Though I’m sure my parents had their issues, there was not a lot of yelling in our house. This type of overt expression of frustration or hurt is, by turns, both fascinating and terrifying to me. This brings me to my final point about how anger, indiscriminately or disrespectfully expressed, can erode relationships over time.
Probably the most subversive impact of an angry personality, is the influence it has over all the actions and words which are expressed (or not), in the in-between times. The power of intimidation is in its insidious nature; it exists even when you can’t see it. Call it walking on eggshells, but those of us living with angry people will do almost anything to avoid an outburst. The danger is that it becomes almost second nature to defer—whether it is our opinions, desires, or needs—in an effort to maintain peace. And speaking just from personal experience, nothing upsets my husband more than finding out that I have capitulated on something just to avoid an argument. Talk about your chicken-or-egg scenario. Because what he really wants is a partner—someone with whom to share decision-making, to resolve problems, and to build dreams. That’s just one more perfect reminder of how often we act in ways that are in direct opposition to our goals. I’m guessing that another reason that it makes him so crazy is that it is a living, breathing reminder of something he’d rather not acknowledge—that he can be a bully. It’s not a flattering self-image, not one which gibes with the better side of his nature, and one that he works hard to overcome. And he does work hard at it.
I can’t leave you without mentioning that, despite the obvious drawbacks, his temper has a high side as well: he is highly passionate in thought and deed; you always know where you stand with him; he is emotionally honest 100% of the time; he does not suffer fools gladly; and, he is fiercely protective of those he loves. Whenever I start to feel sorry for myself, or succumb to playing the victim, I think of all those reasons that I love him. Living with an angry man is difficult, but not impossible, especially when you recognize that his anger is just a part of him; not the best part, not the biggest part, but just a part of the total package that makes him who he is.