Frequently clients ask for help with their anger. I specialize in relationship and sexual issues so the context of this request frequently includes anger in a relationship. For that reason, I’ve decided to share a couple of my thoughts about different types of anger in relationships.
Before I go into this discussion, I want to identify that the anger that I’m referring to is not anger that comes with domestic violence, sometimes also called intimate partner violence. When there is violence, these principles and the ways to treat them are very different. If you aren’t sure if the anger in your relationship is being expressed through domestic violence, follow this link for help identifying domestic violence.
Types of Anger
I like to think about anger as coming from three potential triggers. The first is primary emotions. That is, the person feels sad, scared, vulnerable, or jealous for example but rather than feeling and expressing that emotion directly they respond to whatever is causing that emotion with anger which is the secondary emotion. The second anger trigger is injustice. That is, the client experiences something as a violation of their physical or emotional integrity and they feel anger which gives them the energy and intensity to reassert their emotional integrity. A clear physical example of this is if someone hits their thumb with a hammer and they get angry and begin swearing. Their body doesn’t know that the hammer strike was accidental. The anger is an evolutionary adaptation intended to help the person generate the strength to fight off the bear that might have caused the injury. The third trigger is a sensory sensitivity. A good example of this is someone who experiences intense and immediate anger in response to nails on a chalk-board. Each of these types of anger problems require slightly different treatments from the therapist.
Anger as a Secondary Emotion
Anger problems arising because the person feels a different but more uncomfortable emotion is the most common anger problem that I see in my practice. If anger is being used to respond to another emotional experience, I like to view the anger as the person’s attempt to soothe the less comfortable primary emotion. So, a person who feels like your criticism is making them vulnerable might yell back at you to get you to stop criticizing them. My first intervention for anger as a secondary emotion is to try to help the person with this type of anger problem to get safety and then to broaden their repertoire for self-soothing (a complex skill which I break down into five categories of methods, cognitive, emotional, social, mindfulness-based, sensory, and physical).
The next intervention that I will try is to help the client develop the capacity to tolerate the expression of the primary emotion. Eventually instead of getting angry, the person might say, “I feel really hurt when you criticize me because pleasing you is really important for me because I love you.” Vulnerability often has the power to end threats and also has the capacity to increase intimacy.
The third intervention, which in some cases is not necessary, is to help the client develop a deeper source of self-confidence. If small daily issues are creating intense vulnerabilities, it may be necessary for the client to cultivate a way of creating a sense of self that is based more in values and less in performance, or more in their intentions and behavior and less in other people’s responses to that behavior. This kind of work may be a little slower but pays deep dividends in a wide variety of situations beyond just helping to decrease anger.
Anger as Defense Against Injustice
The first intervention that I like to bring to clients who are using anger to defend against an injustice is to question whether they actually are experiencing an injustice. It is very common for clients to walk in the door with a lot of expectations about other people’s behavior or how loving partners must treat them in a relationship. Most of these are actually very idiosyncratic and boil down to a belief that, “When I love people, this is how I behave and the capacities that I have and I expect others to feel, think, and behave the same way under similar circumstances.” Furthermore, there are a variety of situations where one or more social pressures might help us to believe that we are experiencing an injustice, when really all that is happening is that we are having our expectations violated. This is common when people with some kind of social privilege do not get treated to the entitlements they expect with that privilege. A fairly common example of this in my practice is when men who work get angry at the state of the home when their wives are stay-at-home parents. Even very liberally minded-men bring a host of subtle beliefs about those experiences which can be challenged relatively easily by asking when the last time was that they watched their children for 40-60 (or in the Bay Area 80-100) hours a week alone. In addition to those techniques for challenging expectations, I can also bring tools from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to bear to aid in exposing, questioning, and changing beliefs where appropriate.
Sometimes unfortunately, even in loving relationships, there is actually an injustice that has triggered the anger. One simple example, would be when one partner calls another a derogatory name. Anger might be an appropriate response here to establish a boundary on inappropriate argument behavior. But how long is that anger necessary to establish that boundary? Once the injustice has been brought to the partner’s attention, can the angry person let the anger dissipate or do they nurse the anger and keep it cycling and intensifying? When there are actually identifiable injustices I work with clients to help create decision-making processes so they can use the minimal amount of anger necessary to bring the injustice to halt and then help then with the self-soothing techniques alluded to above to help bring the episode of anger to an end.
Especially when injustice is present in a relationship, it is probable that the person coming to me for treatment for anger is not coming in for a single angry out-burst. More often, the injustice (or perceived injustice) is a repeated event. At some point, it is valuable to ask my client, “So, why are you choosing to stay with a person who treats you with injustice on a regular basis?” The question is sincere. Sometimes my clients have good reasons to stay with a partner who treats them with injustice. In those cases, I work with my client to acknowledge that whatever is behind that reason, their choice to stay with such a partner means that they have also chosen to receive the injustice as the price to pay for the benefits (however, please see the caveat above regarding violence which is a different situation than what I am referring to). Sometimes, by helping my client to see that they have chosen to receive that injustice and helping them articulate the reason(s) they have made that decision can help them to accept the injustice with equanimity instead of anger.
Finally, if I am seeing a client in individual therapy for an anger problem which is appearing in their relationship, I will recommend couples therapy. A couples therapist has a lot of different tools to help clients end cycles that lead to anger at injustices.
Anger Caused by Sensory Triggers
When clients report that certain noises set off their anger, the anger pattern often follows a characteristic pattern. First, it includes a rapid escalation. Second, the person remains agitated for extended periods of time following the initial stimulus. Third, because the process is so rapid, the client will report that they feel like they have little control over the process to prevent the anger from arising. Because there’s such an immediate escalation, of the three triggers, this one can be the hardest to work with.
One of the best ways to start, is to help the client identify and acknowledge the sensory trigger to their partner and loved ones. Sometimes, a supportive family or partner can do something to accommodate these sensitivities, or at least, to begin understanding, expecting, and preventing the client’s response. Sometimes, there’s also a power for change when others respond by identifying the sensitivity as in, “Honey, I think you’ve been triggered by that loud noise, do you want to go reset?” instead of yelling defensively as in, “Hey don’t yell at me, I had a rough day too!”
Eventually, these reminders and this awareness can help the client divert their angry response by removing themselves from the situation instead of expressing anger. The client can go to a different room, put in ear plugs, change the scents they are smelling, or something else to reset from an environmental trigger.
But the very best way to end this kind of anger sensitivity is to get treatment for it. Sometimes, this kind of sensitivity is caused by PTSD, ADHD, Autism Spectrum disorders, sensory processing disorder(s) unassociated with another disorder, or another medical or psychological cause.
One of the most important things to remember about a pattern of anger is that we all have weaknesses. We all have behavior that we may not be entirely proud of. What defines us as a person, what defines our character is not whether we have weaknesses, and not even which weaknesses we have, it is whether we are willing to acknowledge, accept, and do something about our weaknesses to minimize the ways that they hurt us and others.