When I got married I was such a happy person. My husband was gentle, kind, giving, and such a great dad. It came as a complete shock to me the first time he got angry with me.
You see, I am an anger phobic from way back. I will never forget cringing as my grandmother screamed at my mentally retarded uncle. She would go on tirades that filled the house with angry blasts of her voice (this was no small task as the house was a 3 story boarding house). I was never comfortable with anger (especially not my own!) and I would do just about anything to avoid it. Additionally, when anyone was angry I had huge judgments regarding them. Anger, in my opinion meant ugliness, abusiveness and there just wasn’t any excuse for it.
So marrying someone human enough to get angry startled me. I didn’t understand where my loving, gentle husband had disappeared to and who was this person in my bedroom anyway? After all, I didn’t see that I could possible have done anything to have brought on his wrath. I never did anything to deliberately hurt anyone, especially him, my most beloved. The anger that I felt as a response separated us. I felt totally disconnected from him. I couldn’t understand where he got off being so angry with me for nothing I could comprehend. Who was this angry monster and why did he seem to hate me?
That’s how it felt to me. If someone was that angry with you they had to hate you, right? Consciously I knew that was wrong, but it definitely felt that way. The little kid inside cringed at every angry word he spoke.
I was fearful of his getting angry so I started editing what I told him. In other words, controlling him by not giving him all the information. That always backfired of course, because eventually he would discover what I had not told him and it would make him even angrier.
I don’t recall how long it took for me to realize that underneath the raging exterior of my formerly loving partner was a lot of fear and hurt. What’s more, what he was angry about was never really about what I thought it was about, it wasn’t really about what I had said or done, it was about something far bigger, and older.
His anger was what I call a “Self-Protective” stance that he took to manage his hurt and fear. Often when someone is hurt they will become larger than life. They will raise their voice, puff up their physical self to maximum capacity and try to look as threatening as possible in an effort to appear more powerful than they feel (Imagine a puffer fish here). They appear large and loud and scary so that you will be intimidated into stopping whatever it is you are doing that is hurting or scaring them. Underneath there is a kind of desperation and terror. But that is not what they show; they show an overpowering, larger than life toughness to attempt to force change.
The person that had been so frightening to me was in fact scared and hurt. Now, for some of you that might not be new information, but for me it was a huge newsflash. Knowing this changed everything. It empowered me to respond differently than I ever had to an angry person.
Instead of responding as a helpless victim and cringing, trying to control them by placating them with platitudes, running around trying to fix the problem that upset them, or worse, reacting with anger in return – I learned to give them empathy. All of the old ways of responding, I discovered, created more resentment and anger.
Empathy, I was thrilled to realize, created a whole new kind of relationship and helped me find my kind, gentle husband again. He had always been there, inside the attitude that had scared me so badly. His Self-Protector stance had left me fearful and confused. But once I figured out that I could change everything by changing how I viewed his anger, our relationship was transformed.
Our anger is a survival mechanism that kicks in when we are threatened in some way. It throws us into a Self-Protector position in order to keep ourselves alive. Now, in most cases in today’s world, we are not really going to die, but on a brain level, that’s how it feels. If our partner responds to our hurt and fear with empathy for our feelings, then we can slowly let go of our need for our Self-Protective reactivity and let ourselves be vulnerable again.
The next time your partner is angry with you. Stop. Don’t do what you always have done. This time, notice the hurt or fear and say something to indicate that you noticed they are hurting, like “I’m sorry, I can see there is something I did that hurt you. Can you tell me what’s going on?” or something similar in your own words. Give her some indication that you understand she is hurting. Let him know that you care that he is hurt. Odds are you will find out that the upset wasn’t really about you, but about something from your partner’s history. So be open, be curious and empathetic. This will allow their anger to bring you closer instead of pushing you further apart.