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Portland Marriage and Couples Counseling
Bernard McDowell, LCSW
Psychotherapist & Licensed Clinical Social Worker
  811 NW 20th Avenue, Suite 104, Portland, Oregon 97209

                     Through the Doorway of Sadness Rather Than Madness: 
Turning Anger Into Gold for Relationships

                                                                                                   by Bernard McDowell, lcsw copyright 2003

     There are endless books, classes, and theories about the virtues and dangers of feeling or expressing anger. Some exhort women to express anger for their health.  Others warn of the correlation of anger and violence for men. In a comprehensive book about anger, Carol Tavris found differences but many more similarities between women and men.  Surprising to many, little variance in blood pressure readings is found between those who freely ventilate anger versus those who suppress it.  One study concluded that “venting” anger doesn't get rid of it but leads to more anger; another found that chronically angry people develop cardiovascular disease at six times the rate of the rest of the population.

     Virtually beyond dispute, too much anger frequently alienates the closest of lovers, beloved children kids from parents, and friends from friends.  If frustration escalates to anger and on to shoving or hitting, many angry spouses land in jail.  This essay isn't intended as a comprehensive solution to habitual anger rather it's offered here to highlight typical relationship dynamics entwined around anger and then to point in the direction of how profound changes may be made.

     To comprehend anger we must consider the whole person.  Here we'll examine the role anger plays in interpersonal dynamics:  Its positive functions as well as its destructive effect on relationships. Common “anger management” tools will be reviewed with some comments about the structure of anger.  That will set the stage to focus on  interpersonal dynamics involved in anger--to go beyond “management” towards incorporating fundamentally different and more satisfying emotional responses when appropriate.  (The commentary below concentrates on the problems of people who get angry too frequently and too destructively rather than those who may need to learn that expressing some anger is good and healthy to express.)

Common “Anger Management” Tactics

     Most anger management classes and books rely primarily on “cognitive behavioral” changes to help people gain control of their anger. Typically, a person desiring to change their angry ways is taught to 1) identify the context in which they usually get angry (family events, talks with their partner about unpaid bills, fixing machines, etc.), 2) monitor their initial physiological reactions (tightened neck, fists, etc.), 3) interrupt their pattern with time-outs (count to ten, listen to three songs on the radio, walk around the block, etc.) at the early warning signs of building anger, and 4) learn to reset their attitudes (e.g.s: keeping perspective, remembering to pick one's battles).   

    Pop psychology has long advised people to “not take things personally”.   That's wise advice in a capsule catch phrase but it takes a bit of work for people to learn how to do that.  The most destructive anger usually emerges in relationships so to 'not take things personally' means relating to other people differently.  As elaborated in another article on this site, our way of identifying ourself is embedded neurologically and developmentally into how others perceive us.  Therefore  learning a new repertoire of responses to others (external skills) and a different internal skill (feeling and expressing sadness rather than madness) will be elaborated here as a viable alternatives to anger that both support self esteem and more effective communication.  In addition the role of appropriate assertiveness skills will be referred to.

Healthy Anger and Its Functions

    What would happen if you go to your car or bicycle and someone is trying to steal it?  Many people react instantaneously in anger followed by attempts to chase the thief away or call for help.  In such a case, anger certainly serves a healthy purpose.  It says, in effect, this is my territory and thieving intruders don't belong here.

    In these situations, anger may help prevent loss (e.g., of the car) by chasing the thief away and, perhaps, mobilizing the body to action for a just cause.  When angry, skin temperature and pulse rate increases while muscles tense.  There are other common physiological responses as well; e.g., epinephrine rises and pupils dilate, though these also happen during other emotionally stressful events.  

    Unfortunately many, if not most, people reflexively respond in anger to emotional losses--to a much worse end.  For example, people getting angry when they are put down, slighted, or refused a raise; note those examples explicitly involve others.  But anger over lost keys, a stock market loss etc is usually traceable to potential embarassment and how others see us to some degree.  In all of these cases, as defined here, these examples entail  losses--any unfulfilled need or desire.  When put down, there is a loss of approval; when slighted, there is a loss of credit that was deserved.  In the case of the lost keys, there are greater losses lurking in the background--being late could mean anything from a little embarrassment to getting blamed by one's partner to losing a job.  And any of those events may mean a blow to nothing less than our sense of identity and self worth.  Angry reactions to others in these types of circumstances may occasionally be an effective communication of a "primary emotion"; even more rarely the person it's aimed at will change their behavior and admit to some wrong doing and acknowledge the angry person's loss/feelings.  However, in the great majority of cases, repetitive anger doesn't elicit an empathic response nor a change in behavior nor a sense of love and connection.  Too much anger typically alienates the people it's directed at.

The Spectrum of Angry Emotions and Their Structure

    Clearly, anger is a common response to loss.  It is a relatively high energy response.  Sometimes, its as if it puts the body on high alert, ready for action.  Imagine anger on a spectrum of emotional reactions which all share some critical structural elements.  At the mild level of intensity, start with annoyance followed by frustration, mild anger, anger, fury, and blind rage.  The exact names or sequence isn't important for now.  The essential feature is that all of these reactions have, at least, some structural sequence in common:  1) a person wants or seeks something and 2) isn't getting what they want (praise, the keys, credit, etc.), and 3) they have an emotional response to that loss along the spectrum of anger--from low level intensity through mild, medium, and violent rage at the high end.  

    The various reactions on that spectrum differ primarily by the vector of intensity.  I would go further to suggest the value of considering anger not just as a reaction but as an attempt to make the loss go away-particularly those related to our identity.  This may be obvious in some cases.  Anger at a spouse, a merchant, or any other person may intimidate them enough to do what the angry person prefers-e.g., issue a refund.  Imagine someone getting angry at a spouse for a put down.  Certainly in some instances,  a spouse will make a sincere apology.  But more often than not such anger comes with a price--resentment, withdrawal, or retaliatory anger.  Almost any kind of repetitive, intense anger in a close relationship isn't just to defend or advocate a position on particular issues.  Rather, by the very nature of psychological identity, we are quite vulnerable to the way others see us.  In the face of a dismissive put down, or virtually any loss, we are challenged to varying degrees to maintain self worth and/or our preferred identity.

Dr. John Gottman's team learned to predict divorce 93% of the time within 5 mintues in their studies of thousands of couples. When one partner expressed contempt, the likelihood of divorce goes sky high. Now, we're getting to the crux of the matter.  When one spouse explodes with anger, the other often implodes with loss of self worth.  If both parites learn more refined psychological skills to self validate in these cases, there will be little need for destructive anger or collapse of self worth.

Example 1:  Anger, Couples, and the “Prime Psychological Force” [note there are no references to actual people in the examples below; in fact, the stories depict very common situations]

    Couples most often get angry, irrespective of the specifics (bills, in-laws, etc.), when one doesn't fully acknowledge the value of what's vitally important to the other .  Here's a typical scenario: At a first visit to a program to quit gambling, a man said that he was tired of wasting time in front of slot machines and felt foolish about $1,000 he'd racked up in credit card debt.  But within a few sentences during his intake, he related how his wife responded when he said he was going to quit gambling.  In sharp tones, she said “you better quit gambling”.  He calmly repeated that he recognized how stupid his gambling was; but she became exasperated with accusations that his gambling was threatening their retirement.  He lost his cool and came back with antagonism and rebuttals; and she came back with full fledged anger.  Within minutes, he yelled that he worked hard at his job, had saved money, and could spend some.  He stormed off to the bar and played video poker until 2 AM. 

Amazingly, he failed to notice that he'd lost track of his goal to quit gambling--even in the counseling session presumably dedicated entirely to his goal, almost his entire energy and focus stayed on the insensitivity of his wife. Before analyzing what this angry argument is really about, let's investigate a similar scenario.

    A woman sought counseling for weight loss saying she really wanted to get back into exercising knowing how much better she'd feel.  Indeed, she met her partner in her early 20's at a running event.  As the years went by, her work demanded longer hours.  Her partner had a parent who died of congestive heart failure.  Her partner, a nurse, increased the pressure on this woman for high cholesterol and weight gain.  After just a few comments, the woman told her counselor alone how she had some ice cream the night before and “kind of hid” the container out of sight in the back of the freezer.  But her partner found it and angrily confronted  her about breaking her commitment to cut back.  After three angry exchanges, she was yelling that she'd eat as much junk food as she wanted--and she did!  In both examples, these clients lost sight of their own highly prized goals very quickly.  How is that possible?


     Neither of these couples are discussing gambling or healthy eating except at the most superficial level. Sure those words are in the “scripts”, but the real discussion is better understood in light of the prime psychological force”--the desire (frequently the intense need) to be seen and acknowledged in accordance with our preferred identity.  Right below the surface discussion, the exchange amounts to:  “I'm not getting your validation and that hurts.  I'm not getting what I want so I'm resorting to my default strategy--anger--to make it clear what you're going to do so that I don't have a loss”; the other responds with a variation on “Oh no, I'm hurting even more than you because of your unwillingness to give me validation; so I'm angrily telling you where to get off even if your basic intent is healthy for me".

    Both partners want the other's validation, respect, and support.  Intellectually, they may be clear they don't really need a supportive response, but, at the level of their psychological identity, their hearts are nothing less than sharks blindly striking out in anger to get what they want.  I'm using dramatic images like “prime force” and “sharks” for good reason--getting validation or being “seen” by others isn't optional.  As elaborated in another article on this site, it is actually necessary for fundamental human development-even for developing some physical movements.  It really doesn't matter if a person has a PhD in Physics or Psychology, when very sensitive, painful issues hang in the balance, logic is out the window.  When these partners didn't get the acknowledgment they thought they deserved, they reflexively responded along the spectrum of angry emotions.  The issues never got discussed.  

    Of course, many people who habitually react in anger believe that anger is appropriate to communicate in these situations because its “justified”; but chronic anger rarely effectively communicates anything other than “do what I tell you to do”, “be scared of me”, and “stay away from me”.  The examples above were offered to highlight the problem of anger.  The resolution to couples problems of this sort have many other aspects, so let's look at one more example of anger in families and then consider a solution that goes one step beyond typical “anger management”.

Example 2:  Anger and Families

    A 17 year old teenager came home two hours past curfew for the third straight time.  The parents had already established the consequence, grounding for the weekend of a big dance.  In frustrated tones, dad reminds his daughter of her fate and, at some point, the daughter reacts by calling him a newly learned obscene name. Now consider responses from two different fathers, A & B, at that moment.  Father A points his finger in her face and screams “no daughter of mine is going to talk like that.  You'll never call me a name like that again”.  Father A literally uses a 'direct command form of the verb' telling his daughter what to do.  The father believes he's justified in his anger and presupposes it will help his daughter grow moral fiber.  But remember the prime psychological force.  From his daughter's gut level viewpoint, his anger isn't a moral lesson that calling a parent an obscene name is wrong.  From the perspective of her “prime psychological force”, her father is trying to assert his dominance and she has no choice; and, at the emotional level, no right to be a separate person! Now, all daughter can do is either knuckle under to his commands (while feeling her sense of self undercut by his anger); or she can try to preserve a sense of unique “personhood” by resisting with silent withdrawal or angrily fight back by telling dad what to do with his rules.  

Going Through The Doorway of Sadness Instead of Madness

    Now, let's consider a different style of response.  Father B takes a half step back and says, “God, I can't believe its gotten to the point that you're calling me names like that.  It breaks my heart that our relationship has dropped to this level. It's sad that you're  not going to get to go to the dance now, but it's really so sad we gotten to this way of talking!” Typically, the teen will be responsive to this communication because it respects her sense of self or choice in responding to him.  It doesn't trigger the prime psychological force.  The father knows his daughter understands that calling him a name is disrespectful; that leaves room for her to come forward and exercise her responsibility.  In contrast, Father A's response presupposes he needs to tell her what respect is and what actions she has to take. Instead of responding with anger to the loss of respect and connection with his daughter, Father B expresses his emotion of sadness over those losses.  At that moment, he isn't asserting his dominance over her ability to go to the dance though he's fully intending to hold to the consequence.  So, she can hear his sadness over the disrespect and his logic about the curfew.  This doesn't mean he condones it anymore than Father A.  In fact, Father A is much more likely to shout an obscene name back at his daughter and then justify it by blaming the whole of the exchange on how his daughter started it.  

     Sadness may be conceptualized as a spectrum of emotions just as anger.  At the mild end is disappointment.  At the intense end of the spectrum might be grief or all out feeling bereft.  Irrespective of the details, consider again both anger and sadness as responses to “loss”-any unfulfilled need.  However, in most cases of chronic anger, sadness functions much better.  In chronic anger, people project their unmet needs onto others and blame them for the pain the angry person feels.  That presupposes that angry person is at the “effect” of the other who maintains the “cause” position.  But that means that the angry person can't control his or her life because the other is in control, “at cause”.  In effect, even if the anger is justified, it leaves the chronically angry person with a victim mentality.   

    Of course, Father B could be just as effective by staying emotionally neutral.  Whether sad or neutral, he doesn't take his daughter's behavior so personally.  A routinely angry parent may initially balk at exploring how their own self esteem is involved in their anger. But that can be quite freeing.  Take a parent angry at a child for not doing a chore after they've talked about it a “million times”.  Frequently, the parent emphasizes the child's “disregard” much more than the chore.  Consider a mother of a 5 year old who says, “I hate you mommy”.   The mother who takes offense has difficulty holding on to a sense of her own self love and simultaneously condemns herself to a lot more of the same behavior by the child. A relaxed mother, confident in her own self worth, might simply and  lovingly  put her hand on the child's head and say, “Oh honey, it's so hard to hate, isn't it?”.  Of course, the 5 year old will keep talking to mom.  Ten minutes later mom can deliver an important lesson by asking the child not to say "I hate you" because even momies and dadies have feelings.  The parent who screams at the child just teaches the child not to talk about difficult feelings.

    People brought up by parents who were quick to anger often can't imagine how they could respect a parent expressing sadness.  It is completely counterintuitive for them to express “sadness instead of madness” over a loss of any kind.  They believe Father A is the tough one and Father B is wimpy.  In reality, the opposite plays out.  It's much more often the angry parent who has difficulty sticking with consequences.  Often, the angry parent feels badly for his outburst which sunk to the level of the daughter's--for the tension it created for other family members, for the criticism he's getting from his wifer, or for giving a ridiculously exaggerated consequence in the heat of the moment.  In contrast, Father B easily empathizes with his daughter's sadness for missing the dance and is at home with his sadness and hers to stay with it for days all the way through the completion of the consequence.   Chronically angry parents do anger habitually precisely for lack of ability or predisposition to handle or feel loss in other ways.  In a sense, the angry father runs from the sadness watching his daughter feel so heart broken leading up to the dance that she'll miss, so that he's much more likely to wimp out on the consequences.

    The angry parents and couples in these examples have “openness disease”.  Frequently, accused of being too defensive, they are better characterized as not defensive enough.  That is, every perceived slight or put down from another gets right in on them and their habitual defense of anger tries to push that toxic energy back out of their psychological space. Generally, it's healthy and necessary to allow love and information in from others.  But chronic anger is actually a symptom of letting others' influences in too easily.  Perhaps the primary mark of psychological health is the ability to make critical differentiations between one's own evaluation of self in the face of others' opinions, emotions, and demands.  While basic cognitive behavioral anger management may be helpful for the symptoms of anger, more in-depth therapy is called for growing boundaries that breathe, a healthy osmotic membrane allowing love and connection while “differentiating” out harmful energy.  Of course, that process may involve some pain in recognizing oneself as so vulnerable to others, but it is very freeing to develop healthy ways to keep others' attacks, perceived or real, from incorporating into one's self image.

    There is an ancient story about a fishing village which shares a number of boats.  A man takes one out to fish before dawn.  It's still dark when a strong wind comes up.  Heading back into the pier, he sees another boat recklessly heading for his boat.  His first thoughts flash to how he was the victim of a boat accident the year before.  He's angry and begins yelling at the other boat to “watch out” and to “stop messing with” him.  But then the boat comes close enough so that he sees its empty!  It had broken loose from it's mooring.  Immediately, he realizes that his anger isn't doing any good.  This story may remind us how ineffective anger is for communication.  But at a deeper level it's hinting at the possibility of being like an empty boat-in other words, don't take things personally.  Most of us have a good idea of the wisdom of that but completely lose this perspective in close relationships.  (Other articles on this site elaborate detailed skills for self validating and appropriately asserting ourselves.)

A Few Caveats

    The anger in these examples creates tension and separation while the sadness invites connection.  Expressing sadness rather than madness is the most fundamental emotional antidote to excessive anger.  For the most part, sadness is simply a more appropriate emotion to meet loss.  Yet, for many chronically, reflexively angry people it is almost impossible to conceive of expressing sadness or grieving over loss especially over something like losing one's keys.  It simply doesn't compute and, by no means, am I suggesting that by reading this, a person with problems about anger will be able to do this.  A few will  but for most it will take a significant therapeutic guidance.  For some I recommend a kind of emotional yoga. That may be as basic as learning self talk like, “I'm so disappointed” rather than “That's so infuriating”.  Of course, “keeping perspective”, time outs, and other anger management techniques are important to master, but for the habitually angry person there is a great benefit to really get at home with loss.  

    It is possible to experientially learn how sadness is empowering.  Listening to very sad music while appreciating the beauty of it is one simple way.  It is crucial to make a few distinctions:  Sadness or grieving is completely different from depression; and sadness is not weakness.  They are entirely different phenomena.  Also, when learning to shift out of anger consistency plays a big role.   We might say that a person on the receiving end of chronic anger develops an emotional allergy to the anger.  After the pattern is established, the angry person doesn't even have to blow up, just a raised eyebrow or a frustrated tone is enough for their partner to react in withdrawal.  When a parent tries the experiment of dropping their habitually angry reactions to a child, it takes repeated trials for the child to trust that.  Even if the parent makes quite a dramatic change, the process will suffer a significant setback the first time the parent slips back into their angry mode. The same holds true with couples.  

Conclusion:  No Dogma

    People are capable of an amazing diversity of emotional responses.  Different cultures encourage wildly different emotional displays:  some encourage polite laughing and others loud lamenting.  Many marriages “succeed” with a fair number of angry exchanges.  

    There is a principle of communication:  the “meaning of the communication is the response that it elicits”.  More often than not, anger gets the opposite response from what an angry person consciously intends while chronically angry people leave a wake of destruction in their path.  There are many possible tools to help people let go of old angry habits.  For some, common anger management techniques work sufficiently well.  For others, refining a healthier sense of self will be necessary.  

Recommended Reading on Anger

Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion
.................................................................Carol Tavris

Written by a social psychologist, this classic book reviews and summarizes a great deal of research on anger.  It’s not a how to book though it does review expert takes on how to curb problematic anger.  And that’s a good thing for people seriously motivated to learn ways to groove healthier ways to express anger (or forgo it altogether).  This tome considers anger by biological roots, physiological ramifications, cultural and gender perspective. It dispels is the commonly held notion oft repeated as, e.g., “I blow up and move on.  I get it out of my system. She needs to move on”.  In fact, the more people vent their angry emotions the more they are likely to vent them again…not less!

The Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide To Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships ................................................................................................................................Harriet Lerner
This book focuses on anger from a gender perspective with some emphasis on women expressing anger to other women.  In my view, it’s general perspective is at least as value for men.  It does offer what I consider to be an essential element of a useful self help book—alternative dialogues for handling interpersonal conflict.  My main criticism is that those alternative dialogues don’t help the reader/learner differentiate sufficiently.  The book addresses angry relationships between overly enmeshed mothers and daughters.

Beyond Anger: A Guide for Men: How to Free Yourself from the Grip of Anger and Get More Out of Life ........................................................................................Thomas J. Harbin
I’m more recommending this book for the simple fact that it’s written by a man addressing other men; some men may then find it easier to digest, especially with the realization that your guide, the author, has been there himself.  Here it’s hard not to recognize the swath of damage unchecked anger leaves in its wake while quickly enough  leading the way to alternatives.  

See Suggested Reading For other books on handling conflicts in relationships