The perfect relationship is not one in which you never get angry with each other, but one in which you are able to quickly resolve and bounce back to normal. – Anonymous
When I was in my early twenties, I attended a small get-together at a friend’s house to celebrate her new home. She was newly married and her husband and she were excited to be starting their lives together. At one point during the evening, my friend became angry with her husband and they argued over the best musical selection for the party. My friend told her husband she thought he was being unreasonable and he glared at her. A few moments later, however, they had come to an agreement about the music and they were sitting together, happily chatting with their guests and holding hands.
I remember feeling immediately on guard once I realized my friends were angry with one another. I had been raised in an environment in which anger was consistently simmering beneath the surface. A seemingly insignificant comment, look or event would trigger an explosion of terrible arguing that could sometimes last for hours. It is no wonder that my body automatically tensed up once I saw my friends were not happy with one another. However, I was pleasantly surprised to observe them work through their spat quickly and reasonably. This did not seem to be the first time they argued and, all in all, it was fairly uneventful. Twenty-five years later, this couple is still together happily.
It is a myth that a great relationship is one in which the parties never fight. In reality, each of us should be able to express anger at someone we love. Not only is that normal, but necessary for the health of the relationship. Each of us needs to have the space to show up fully as our authentic selves and to have our needs met and our opinions heard. It is ironic, but I’ve learned that to confront someone with whom we are angry, in a direct, honest and respectful manner, actually builds trust and closeness in the relationship, resulting in deeper intimacy.
Why is this the case? When feeling angry, if we say nothing, over time, feelings of resentment will build. Unexpressed anger turns into depression. It can result in withdrawal from the person we are angry with or explosive arguments after the buildup has become too much to bear. It can also result in passive aggressive behavior – the indirect resistance of the demands of others. All of these inappropriate behaviors strain relationships and will ultimately alienate those around us.
When growing up, if we experienced another’s expression of anger as disrespectful, attacking or even, perhaps, violent, we may have learned to automatically equate anger with abuse. In response to abuse, people will either fight back, distance themselves or freeze in fear. The irony is, an attacker may be completely justified in feeling angry about something, but because of the way that anger is expressed, the attacker’s point of view will never be heard by anyone. Who is willing to listen to someone who is screaming at them – or lunging at them? No one.
It is important to realize that there is nothing wrong with feeling anger. Our emotions are a valuable navigation system that lets us know when something feels right or wrong and it is healthy to be in tune with that system. How anger is expressed is a separate subject. If anger is expressed in an inappropriate way, by attacking others emotionally or physically then that is unacceptable behavior. If anger is expressed in an appropriate way, however, by talking things through directly, honestly and respectfully, then that behavior is not only acceptable but is normal and healthy.
It is helpful to become aware of our own inclination to avoid expressing our anger – or admitting that we even feel it – due to our fear that anger automatically results in out of control behavior, such as attacking others, abuse, or even violence. Recognizing that feeling anger is perfectly normal and that there are direct, honest and respectful ways of expressing it, can allow us to remain authentic in our relationships.
We need to be aware of our inclination to avoid those who need to express their anger with us. We may be so conditioned to be fearful of another’s anger that even if someone expresses themselves appropriately, we automatically feel threatened. No one likes to hear criticism or that someone is unhappy with us. However, as long as the criticism is expressed in a direct, honest and respectful way, we need to remain open. It can help to keep in mind that someone who is able to express anger responsibly is actually a really safe person. They will not harbor resentment toward us, will not engage in passive aggressive behavior and will not explode at us unexpectedly. A little argument to blow off steam now bodes well for the long-term health of any relationship.
My friend was able to express her anger at not getting her choice of music for the housewarming party. Her husband may have wanted something different but the two of them arrived at a compromise. If my friend hadn’t said anything she would have resented her husband throughout the evening, which does far more damage than to have a short, albeit heated, argument in an attempt to resolve their differences. If you are feeling the ill effects of an unhealthy relationship with anger, it may be time to revisit your beliefs about it and then learn how to feel it, express it and listen to it appropriately.