Question: My wife is a wonderful woman but she can get mean and angry over minor issues and I have trouble not reacting and escalating things. She says she has a right to express her feelings and in some ways I think she is correct, but her angry episodes are more frequent now and they are wearing down what has been a pretty happy marriage. Can you help?

 

Answer:

Your wife’s belief that she has a right to express her feelings is, in my view, misguided. She may have the right to ‘have’ the feelings, since feelings simply surface and are usually beyond our control, but what we ‘do’ with our feelings is a measure of our emotional maturity. Having a bad day at the office doesn’t give us the ‘right’ to kick the cat when we get home from work: neither does it give us the right to spew our anger out and onto the nearest person available.

 

In many ways anger is an anachronistic emotion. It’s a holdover from an ancestral period where intense expression of displeasure was needed to protect family, food, life and limb. Rooted in fear and the need to appear menacing, ancestors, whether animal or human, puffed themselves up, displayed their musculature, hissed, spit, and screeched at the enemy until the enemy either backed off or entered the fray. We don’t need near that degree of intensity in most interactions today, but our reptilian brain is more powerful than we like to believe so there is still a lot of puff, hiss and spit out there in the wild world of relationships.

 

The number of requests for anger management coaching suggests that you are not alone in your wish to find better ways of handling anger. Anger is an interesting emotion in that, despite its destructive consequences, it feels pretty good in the moment. The adrenalin rush creates a pressure cooker of pent up energy that is looking for release. When the lid blows off the pot, the cooker is calm but unfortunately, the beets are all over the walls.

 

Unlike other species, humans have options other than fight or flight in response to anger. Your engagement in the battle with your wife is ill conceived, if conceived at all. Retreat is sometimes wise in the immediate turmoil but as a long term strategy, it too will fail. To do well with anger we need to be able to think about it as information: an indication that something important requires address. If you can get calm and thoughtful about your own reactivity in the face of your wife’s anger, if you can face the fear that lurks beneath most angry exchanges, you’ll have a broader base from which to respond.

 

People tend to hook their anger to the irritants of the moment: the socks on the floor, the dishes in the sink. These are usually just the launching pads for blast off. It’s a mistake to give them too much legitimacy. What’s really going on lies deep beneath the socks and crockery and your ability to address the real issues requires the courage of a calm and curious mind.

 

Margaret Anne Speak, M.A., C.C.C. works with couples, individuals, and families from a Bowen Family Systems perspective at Family Services of the North Shore. Questions? Write This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 604-988-5281.