The date and venue were already announced to the families of the engaged couple, Mary, and John. Everything seemed to go as planned but behind closed doors, the couple were going through a difficult time and were starting to have second thoughts about their decision to get married.
Mary and John’s arguments always seemed to lead to arguments and fights. Nothing was ever resolved because they always end up shouting and walking out from one another. Mary’s felt as if she was being neglected by John and the things that bothered her were being ignored.
John, on the other hand, felt as though Mary was mocking him. Mary was already furious and starting to use disrespectful language by the time she was given the chance to let him know what was eating at her.
It became an unhealthy downward spiral of John dismissing Mary, Mary attacking John, John dismissing Mary, etc.
Later on, they made the decision to get counseling from Sue, a local therapist. They were both hopeful that counseling would help end their constant fighting. Sue began listening to their issue and suggested that she see the couple individually.
It didn’t take long for Mary to reveal her anger issues during the individual counseling. Sue suggested that she must learn to express her anger more to which Mary reacted by saying, “Expressing anger has never been a problem for me! I am usually a real fireball. Ask John if you don’t believe me.”
Sue quietly explained to Mary that her anger outbursts were a symptom, rather than an expression of anger. Specifically, they were a symptom of improperly or unhealthily expressed anger.
Sue also told Mary about the underlying causes of her anger and that she would not be able to truly understand them while her outbursts continued. When Sue encouraged Mary to express the underlying feelings that sparked her anger, she was at a loss to articulate them.
Mary shared how when she was growing up her father would often punish her for expressing her anger calling it “disrespectful.” On the other hand, her father would blame his own abusive outbursts on Mary or her mother.
Mary’s mother demonstrated her anger in more passive-aggressive ways, teaching Mary that it was not “lady-like” to be angry and that she must avoid it. This meant that besides feeling angry, Mary became extremely anxious whenever she had any kind of angry feelings at all. The understandable anger combined with anxiety about anger resulted in recurring outbursts.
Sue showed Mary that it wasn’t just John who was ignoring her feelings. Mary tended to resist her own feelings of anger, not paying attention to them until they got the best of her. Even before John dismissed Mary’s feelings, she, herself, was already ignoring them herself.
John’s frustration stemmed from Mary’s anger. He told Sue that Mary constantly blamed him for things, exaggerated his relational mistakes, and attacked him without trying to understand his reaction. He said that walking away from Mary during their spats was not something he really wanted to do but the non-stop negativity was overwhelming.
Signs of Anger Issues in a Relationship
Consider these signs of anger issues in relationships:
1. Lack of Emotional Awareness
At first, when Sue requested that Mary dig deeper into the emotions behind her anger Mary found it hard to articulate them.
Psychology Today, published a revealing article that defined emotional intelligence as “the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others,” generally involving three skills:
- Emotional Awareness
- Ability to channel emotions into tasks such as problem-solving and analysis
- Ability to manage and control one’s own emotions and helping others manage theirs
It’s important for Mary to identify her own emotions and learn to empathize with John in order to exercise self-control over her outburst of anger. Many marital seminars are now teaching that there are no right or wrong feelings and that they are temporary at best. It can be difficult to process emotions in a healthy way when they carry negative connotations and associations.
2. Counterproductive Communication Styles
Because Mary didn’t have a good grasp of her feelings, she demonstrated ineffective and harmful communication habits. Once she learned to recognize, identify, and accept her feelings without judgment, she was able to learn how to express those feelings in a beneficial way. People struggling with anger issues often exhibit predictable communication postures when angry.
An article entitled “Assertive Communication and Anger Management” by Harry Mills, PH.D., asserts that anger is an emotion experienced by means of communication.
Psychologists have identified four distinct postures of communication that a person can take, each with its own implied motto:
- The Aggressive Communication Posture says: “I count but you don’t count.”
- The Passive Communication Posture says: “I don’t count.”
- The Passive-Aggressive Communication Posture says: “I count. You don’t count but I’m not going to tell you about it.”
- The Assertive Communications Posture says: “I count and you do too.”
It should come as no surprise that angry people tend to lean more toward the Aggressive and Passive-Aggressive postures. Aggressive communicators, on the other hand, typically start arguments rather than focus on the results they want to achieve.
Furthermore, taking the Passive posture in communication is also wrong because it only communicates weakness and tends to incite more aggression. The Assertive posture is the best and most fair among the four postures because it communicates respect for everyone involved.
When people communicate assertively, everyone involved is more likely to have their needs addressed. You will be able to communicate effectively with others if you learn to choose the assertive posture instead of aggression or passive-aggression.
If you’re habitually aggressive, it may be difficult for you to understand what being assertive means. It’s common for people to confuse the two and assume that they already are being assertive.
Both types of communications posture (aggressive and assertive) can involve intense or persuasive communication. At the base level, however, they are different. Aggressive communication tends to be offensive, attacking and mocking the other person, while the assertive communication posture makes use of anger and fierceness as defensive tools.
Assertive people tend to stand up for themselves and their rights and do not tolerate other people’s negative attitudes. However, they are able to manage this without it turning into aggressiveness. They are unlikely to attack the person with whom they try to communicate. Assertiveness uses anger in self-defense while aggressiveness uses because it feels good.
3. Distorted Cognitions or Unhelpful Self-talk
Cognitive distortions are lenses of irrationality through which we can tend to view the world. Distortion is exactly that – a distorted perspective.
The following 10 distortions typically accompany anger issues:
- Over-generalization – Where one negative event is seen as representative of a non-stop cycle of defeat.
- All or nothing thinking – Everything in life is viewed in black and white categories. Any imperfect performance means you have completely failed.
- Rejecting the positive – You disqualify positive experiences insisting they “don’t count” for one reason or another. This allows you to maintain any negative idea that doesn’t reconcile with your experience.
- Mental filter – When one negative detail becomes the focus to the point that your view of reality is darkened. It’s as if a single ink drop fell into a beaker of water, coloring the whole thing.
- Magnification and minimization – You blow things out of all proportion or you dismiss important things as insignificant.
- Jumping to conclusions – You immediately adopt a negative interpretation even in the absence of significant facts that support that conclusion. This typically involves projecting.
- Should statements – Self-motivation through saying “should” and “should not,” as if punishment will result in the proper drive to succeed.
- Emotional reasoning – Assuming that your emotions exactly reflect reality. It’s like saying, “If I feel it, it must be true.”
- Personalization – You consider yourself to be the reason why a negative external event happened when you were not really responsible for it.
- Labeling and mislabeling – Overgeneralization to the extreme. Rather than merely describing your mistakes, you characterize yourself negatively.
(From David Burns’ book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. The Clinically Proven Drug Free Treatment for Depression)
4. Minimizing Behaviors
Some people, like Mary, who struggle to manage their anger can develop some alarming and typically very obvious behaviors that desperately need to be addressed. The tendency to minimize, downplaying their behaviors during the anger escalation, is an obvious sign that they are not handling their anger properly.
Abuse can include a number of different behaviors such as disgust at another person instead of the problem, as well as name-calling, screaming, and even striking.
Think through the conclusion of the case study of Mary and John:
During the counseling, John finally revealed to Sue that Mary lost her temper on two separate occasions where she actually struck John during one of their arguments. When questioned, Mary protested that John was strong and would hardly feel anything when hit by her.
Sue discovered that Mary continually blamed her violence on the fact that John would dismiss her and walk away. Sue then patiently explained the issues of minimizing and blaming. Slowly, Mary’s attitude started to change and she began to take responsibility for her actions.
In many repeated cases of domestic violence, perpetrators have been known to blame and minimize regularly. A certain case in the state of Georgia regarding domestic violence offenders can serve as an example.
During the group counseling, one of the participants was confronted by her partner who had to spend time in the hospital receiving stitches after he hit her. The perpetrator then answered in their own defense saying, “I only hit her once or twice.” This is a perfect example of minimization.
The best starting point for diagnosing anger issues is to look for the most obvious signs that anger is being handled badly. Psychguide.com does an excellent job of listing the signs of emotional and physical anger mismanagement.
If you see any the emotional and physical symptoms described on their website in your relationship then you may benefit from anger management training or counseling for anger issues. Common emotional states can include constant irritability, rage, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, having unorganized thoughts, and fantasies about harming yourself or others.
Physical symptoms can include tingling, heart palpitations, tightening of the chest, increased blood pressure, headaches, a pressure in the head of sinus cavities, and fatigue.
It’s normal for a person to lose their cool every once in a while – it doesn’t mean we have anger management issues. The truth is that anger is an overwhelming emotion that can trigger our adrenal system and a lot of people believe it is a healthy action our body takes for ourselves and for our loved ones.
Anger only becomes a problem when it is dismissed, when the underlying feelings are not recognized and managed, when relationships issues cannot be resolved because of it, and when unresolved anger develops into hate or abuse. Unaddressed anger becomes a physically harmful and corrosive force in relationships.
Anger, when unresolved, transforms into contempt, one of the four horsemen described in Gottman’s book Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. The author explains that the four horsemen are signs of future marital failure. Gottman specifically points out contempt as the most harmful of the four.
Fortunately, there is a way to successfully manage and address anger before it becomes a problem that can ruin our relationships. Anger management classes and counseling has shown positive results and high success rate in helping people struggling with anger and acquire skills to better deal with it.
“Married Fight,” courtesy of Gratisography, pexels.com, CC0 License; “Angry Adult”, Courtesy of Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Hide My Face”, Courtesy of MMckein, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Punching Fist”, Courtesyof PublicDomainPictures, Pixabay.com, CC0 License