Anger is Essential to Healthy Relationships
by Kevin B. Burk
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Anger is Essential to Healthy Relationships
Many of us have
some very definite ideas about anger. We see anger as destructive
and hurtful. We consider it to be an inappropriate response. We
equate anger with violence. In short, we feel that anger is simply
wrong, and that when we experience anger, there’s something wrong
with us. Anger isn’t nice. Anger isn’t polite. And anger certainly
isn’t our friend.
Anger can be
all of these things. But anger is also useful, necessary and even
healing. We need our anger. We simply need to learn how to express
our anger in appropriate, conscious, supportive ways. On its own,
anger is neither good nor bad. It can be used to hurt, or it can
be used to heal. It may not be a particularly pleasant emotion,
but it’s an important one. And anger—or rather the skillful use
and understanding of anger—is essential to creating healthy relationships.
a friend of mine who also happens to be a minister of Religious
Science offers a tremendously insightful approach for understanding
anger. Guy says that anger arises from a communication not delivered
or an expectation not met. Anger is actually a tertiary response:
our initial responses are grief and fear. First, we grieve the death
of the expectation that was not met. Next, we fear that things will
never change. Finally, we experience anger.
So few of us
recognize that anger can be a positive, healing response. When we
allow ourselves to experience anger, it focuses our minds, and strengthens
our resolve. We discover reserves of strength and power. Our anger
is what gives us the courage and the power to confront our fear
that things will never change, by creating change.
So many of us
equate anger with aggression. We believe that when we experience
anger, someone will be hurt. In order to create a more spiritual
and skillful relationship with anger, it’s helpful to recognize
that we can defend ourselves without attacking.
we each carry a sword. When someone crosses a boundary, we experience
anger (because our expectation that our boundaries will be respected
was not met). At this point, we have a choice. We can choose to
use our sword to attack, lashing out at the person who crossed the
boundary. This will inevitably violate our partner’s boundaries,
and make our partner feel unsafe and angry. They will, in turn,
pull out their sword and begin to attack us in earnest. The result
is a classic “lose-lose” scenario, where both participants are wounded
and feel less safe than they did at the start.
We do have another
choice, however. We can choose to use our sword to defend our boundary
by simply removing it from its sheath and displaying it. Brandishing
our metaphorical weapon is usually more than sufficient to hold
the attention of the person who crossed the boundary. Once we have
our partner’s attention, we can calmly make them aware that they
have crossed a boundary, and ask that they take a step back and
respect that boundary in the future.
Because we are
merely defending ourselves and not attacking our partner, we are
far less likely to make our partner feel unsafe, which in turn means
our partner is far more likely to apologize for having unintentionally
crossed a boundary. It’s a “win-win” situation because we feel safe
once again in the expectation that our boundaries will, indeed,
be respected, and our partner feels safe because they are now more
aware of the boundaries in the relationship, and no longer need
to fear that they will accidentally violate them.
If we choose
not to take things personally, and always assume that the boundary
violation was unintentional, we not only avoid stepping into the
role of victim, but we also avoid the need to forgive our partner,
because we never blamed them in the first place.
by the way, is another way that we defend ourselves without attacking.
When we blame someone for their actions, we are, in fact, attacking
them. We cut them off from the flow of our love. This makes them
feel less safe, and frequently is interpreted as an attack. More
importantly, when we blame someone, we reinforce the lie that we
are separate from All That Is, and cut ourselves off from the universal
So how is anger
essential to healthy relationships? Anger is our call to awareness.
relationships are all about meeting our fundamental needs. In every
relationship, we need to feel safe and we need to feel validated.
As long as those needs are met, our relationships are truly amazing.
When we feel
angry, we know something is not right. We become acutely aware that
some of our needs are not being met. Anger is most often associated
with safety violations. If we feel angry because our validation
needs are not being met, it’s usually an indication that we have
an attachment to meeting our validation needs—a sign that one of
the main ways that we feel safe is to feel validated.
When we feel
angry in our relationships, we usually respond in one of two ways.
The first response is to express our anger, most often by lashing
out in some way. We’ve already seen how this is always a lose-lose
The second response
is to repress our anger in order to avoid a full-out confrontation.
(Notice how this response also assumes that the only other way to
deal with anger is to express it by attacking!) When we repress
our anger, we attempt to restore the balance in our safety accounts
by isolating ourselves and disengaging from the relationship. Eventually,
we will no longer be able to repress our anger, and it will manifest
in a confrontation of unexpected and inappropriate intensity.
meets our relationship needs, of course.
When we cultivate
a more skillful relationship with anger, however, we have a third
option. When we feel angry in a relationship, we can become aware
that we’re feeling unsafe, that some expectation has not been met,
and that our needs are not being met. We can own this experience,
recognizing that it’s about us, not about our partner. And we can
choose to take appropriate action. Instead of attacking or withdrawing,
we can choose to engage in the relationship more fully.
Before we engage
in the relationship, however, we must first recognize that we’re
feeling unsafe, and remedy this. We may be able to shift our awareness
and restore the balance in our safety account in an instant. We
may need to disengage (briefly) so that we can cool down before
we reengage in the relationship. Whatever the method, it is essential
that we feel completely safe before we proceed. If we don’t feel
safe, we won’t behave in a reasonable or rational manner.
Once we feel
safe, we can explore why we felt angry. Remember, anger arises because
an expectation was not met, or a communication was not delivered.
What was the expectation? What boundary was crossed? What was not
communicated? What was not understood?
Now that we’ve
identified the reason for the anger response, we can consider it
objectively. The most important question is whether our expectations
were reasonable. Remember that we are responsible for meeting our
minimum daily requirements of safety and validation on our own.
When our unreasonable expectations aren’t met, we do experience
anger, but that anger is a call to make us aware that it’s time
to adjust our expectations, and this does not involve our partner
in any way.
If we discover
that our expectations are, in fact, reasonable, and that our partner
is responsible, then it’s time to defend our boundaries and hold
our partner accountable.
partner accountable, however, is not the same thing as blaming our
partner, yelling at our partner, insulting our partner, “tearing
our partner a new one,” or in any way making our partner wrong.
to recognize that much of the time, all that we need is an acknowledgement
that our partner has not met an expectation, and an apology. All
we need in order to feel safe again is to be able to believe that
our expectations will actually be met in the future.
This may seem
hard to accept—how could a simple apology ever be sufficient? It’s
something each of us has to experience for ourselves. The desire
for punishment or revenge exists because we have disengaged from
our relationships, and we believe that our partners are responsible
for meeting our safety needs. When we take responsibility for restoring
our sense of safety and choose to engage in our relationships, all
we need is an apology—an acknowledgement of the boundary violation—and
then forgiveness comes naturally.
Kevin B. Burk
B. Burk is the author of The Relationship Handbook: How to Understand
and Improve Every Relationship in Your Life. Visit www.everyrelationship.com
for a FREE report on creating AMAZING Relationships.
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