Protective Patterns in Couple Relationships, Part 3: The Angry Couple
It was my first session with Lauren and Jim (not their real names), and from the moment I welcomed them, they were hell-bent on continuing the argument that had begun on the way to my office. They angrily interrupted, talked over, and screamed at each other. The couple had come to therapy because they were fighting like this so frequently, but here in my office, they were far from interested in anything I had to say.
For couples like Lauren and Jim, anger and the accompanying escalating conflict is a way of life. These couples are constantly at each other’s throats, battling endlessly and chronically unhappy. Curiously, however, they are often together for a long time, and in many instances, they remain partners for their entire lives. To understand how angry couples function, we need to consider anger itself first.
Anger is a complex, multifaceted emotion that can be a profound communication of our deepest longings and feelings as well as a defensive expression of our hurt and pain. The former, which I call real anger, attempts to communicate an emotional injury or to protest against an obstacle that is preventing us from getting an emotional need fulfilled. Dan Shaddock (1998) summarizes real anger nicely: “Anger . . . is a statement of the fact that we are not getting our needs met. . . . Anger from the real self always contains a request for change” (p 79).
Unlike real anger, the latter, which I call defensive anger, doesn’t carry a request. Instead, it carries a warning: “Back off.” Defensive anger occurs when we’re feeling so emotionally injured that we say the opposite of what we really want. If someone is feeling abandoned by her partner, for instance, she may icily spew, “Yeah, go to the office! Getting away from you will be good for me, too!” Although real and defensive anger are similar and often work in tandem, the key characteristic about defensive anger is that it seeks to protect us from getting hurt again.
Considering these reflections on real and defensive anger, for couples like Lauren and Jim, anger carries the emotional life of the relationship. Despite the pain and anguish that the anger creates, both partners in an angry relationship are expressing their desire for change. Each one is expressing their deepest feelings via real anger, but because they can’t recognize the needs and longings that the real anger is expressing (which really hurts), defensive anger swoops in to protect each partner’s fragile, wounded self.
How can couples move beyond their anger? Because anger is a complex emotion, anger scripts in couple relationships are equally complicated and don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution. However, the angry couple would do well to commit to change, even while knowing that falling into the pattern of anger will happen again. To express a desire for change in the relationship means being vulnerable, so it’s a good idea to have the conversation while you’re calm and feeling safe. More importantly, angry partners need to stop blaming and attempting to change each other, take responsibility for their own anger, and start listening to it. Is the anger real or defensive? What are you saying in your anger? Are you feeling other feelings when you become angry? When partners begin to reflect on their anger, sharing their anger and their other feelings finally becomes possible.