If you’ve been reading this site for a while, then I’m sure the headline to this post seemed completely out of character. At least I hope it did. After all, since I walked into my first meditation class five years ago, I’ve been working hard to cure myself of anger. You’ve all experienced the results of that quest in various posts I’ve written about patient acceptance.
Some of you accuse me of being too passive.
You’re wrong. One day I’ll prove it to you. But that’s not what this post is about.
Not long ago renowned psychologist Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., mentioned that one of her books, The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships, had sold 3 million copies. This is a book that teaches women to acknowledge, listen to and express their anger in a healthy way.
The news made me a little curious in one of those insecure, self-absorbed ways: Are my readers right? Am I too passive? Is anger ever a positive emotion?
So I asked Lerner to list four benefits of anger, things that patience-practicing people like me don’t take into account. This is what she told me.
1. Anger is a signal worth listening to.
“Our anger can be a signal that something is not right. Perhaps we are doing more or giving more than we can comfortably do or give. Or our partner may be doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence or growth. Our anger can be a signal that too much of our self—our beliefs, values, priorities—are being compromised under relationship pressures. Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of our anger can preserve the very dignity and integrity of the self,” says Lerner.
2. Avoiding anger has a cost.
“When we deny our legitimate anger and tell ourselves, ‘It’s not worth the fight,’ our marriage may become distant and flat. Over time, too much of our authentic self becomes negotiable under relationship pressures. Both intimacy and self-esteem suffer when we fail to hear the sound of our own voice saying out loud what we really think and feel, and we don’t take a position on things that matter,” says Lerner.
3. Fighting with our partner is entirely normal.
“Marriage is like a lightning rod that absorbs intensity from many sources. When marriage has a firm foundation of solid friendship and mutual respect, it can tolerate a fair amount of raw emotion. A good fight can clear the air, and it’s important to know that we can survive conflict and learn from it. The happiest couples are not those that never fight. They are couples who learn how to fight fair (at least most of the time), can add a note of humor or calm into a downward spiraling conflict, and repair the disconnection when one or both act like total idiots,” she says.
“When losing it is a rare and surprising departure from your usual calm, a raw show of emotion may get through to your partner at a deeper level. If you’ve discovered a serious betrayal, such as an affair, it will not help to always stay calm, and talk like a therapist, even if you are one,” she says.
Her case in convincing, and you know what? I agree to some extent. Anger is a signal, and ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Often it does the opposite: intensifies it. Stuffing anger down can also lead to subtle behaviors such as passive aggression (Oh, honey, I just plumb forgot you needed me to do that for you today! I don’t know what came over me!) And it can drive a wedge between you. Silence can be an expression of anger. So can a less-than-passionate bedroom life, as can directing your energy away from your marriage rather than toward it.
Yet allowing anger to express itself in all its fury isn’t a solution, either. As Lerner says, “If feeling anger signals a problem, venting anger does not solve it. Ineffective fighting and blaming serve to maintain, and even rigidify the status quo, ensuring that change does not occur.”
So don’t stuff it down. Don’t vent it out, either. What to do? Meditate on it. (My advice, not Lerner’s). Unplug and go inward. Notice any should language that might be running through your mind: He should treat me better. People shouldn’t act like that. I shouldn’t have to put up with this. Well, maybe that’s all true, but this is happening anyway. Accepting what is doesn’t mean you give up striving for something better. It only means you give up the notion that it should have never happened in the first place.
Also check to see if you are focusing on one negative behavior or trait and ignoring dozens of positive ones. Try contemplating your spouse’s good qualities. Where would you be without your spouse? What would your life really be like? Often, when we’re angry, our minds attempt to minimize the positive impact our spouses have on our lives.
Then once you are calm, you’ll be able to ask your spouse to put his or her socks inside the hamper rather than right. next. to. it. And you’ll be able to do it with a loving tone of voice. In fact, your request for change might sound so loving that your spouse doesn’t even realize he or she has been criticized.
We often assume that people should just know how we feel. More than half of the time, they don’t. And the vast majority of people don’t enjoy pissing off other people. They usually do it by accident.
So when you gently point it out and are met with a “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, I had no idea,” you can’t help but love someone so much more.
You end up closer because, by asking for change, you are showing love.
By apologizing, so are they.
“Change occurs only when we change our own steps in the old dance, ensuring that it can’t continue in the same old way,” says Lerner. “Even if you’re convinced that you’ve tried everything, there is always something new to do.”
If you enjoy reading my posts about patience, forgiveness, and other types of positivity, please consider thanking the source: the meditation center where I learned all the lessons I pass on to you through my writing. To help raise funds for the center, I’m participating in a Walk for Peace and I need sponsors. Please consider sponsoring my walk. All donations are welcome, no matter how small. Your donation will help the center continue to bring teachings to people like me, who then pass them on to readers like you. This cause couldn’t be closer to my heart. I’m grateful for any amount you might be able to offer.