Richard Gatley, a clinical psychologist, observes that men and women can experience anger differently. He explains what he sees and teaches men how to lovingly respond.
It isn’t just men who can have trouble accessing their feelings. Some women, far more than you might imagine, have great difficulty expressing anger. Men who love these women can help but might need some help understanding what might be going on.
“Are you nuts?” one man I’ve worked with said. “Women are terrifying when they get angry!”
Some women are. Their anger can be hard to understand. Some women have only too ready a capacity for negative emotions. However, not all women are alike. Traumatized by early experience, some women are completely unable to access feelings of anger. So strongly are their negative emotions suppressed, they may not even recognize when they are angry.
“I have never been an angry person,” Janine said. It was hardly surprising. Janine’s father had been a drunk. When he came home after work the children could never be sure it was safe to greet him. Even when he was sober his temper wasn’t to be trusted. His children learned that it was dangerous to displease their father. They followed their mother’s policy of making themselves as small and invisible as possible.
When a person turns off their capacity for negative emotions, they also tend to turn off access to their positive emotions, as well. The authentic person she could have been becomes reduced to a polite individual who smiles with a look of confusion or mild irritation under circumstances that would ordinarily provoke some to lose their temper.
Consider the anxiety these women might feel when circumstances eventually force them to get in touch with their suppressed anger.
A sudden upwelling of anger can be very scary for someone unfamiliar with strong negative feelings. Panic attacks are often a consequence. Ironically, this reaction tends to trigger even more suppression by our culture. Doctors prescribe medication to shut these feelings down. Husbands, terrified their wives are “going crazy”, can sometimes take desperate measures to deal with such unwelcome emotions.
A man who is afraid of a woman’s anger will often tell her she is “irrational” or “hysterical”, reminding her, sometimes forcefully, of the cultural prescription that requires women to be “ladylike.”
I say “forcefully,” because although women are no longer routinely hospitalized for being “hysterical,” they most certainly end up often enough in psychiatrist’s offices and mental health clinics.
It isn’t only emotional paralysis mental health professionals see. Women who are handicapped emotionally often become self-critical and turn their anger on themselves. Being angry at themselves is safer than being angry at someone else.
Depression is almost inevitable and self-compassion is notably lacking all the while the need for “self-control” is over-emphasized. This is incredibly sad because a woman who can’t express her angry feelings will be less herself. Other, more positive emotions will be suppressed. This can limit her emotional contact with others and with her connection to her own authentic self.
Why should this concern men?
The obvious reason is that men often find themselves in a relationship with a woman who struggles when connecting to her anger. Her inability to get mad can have a deleterious effect on relationships. Things fail to get expressed or are communicated so indirectly that they are confusing and ultimately unsatisfying.
Passion can be greatly diluted when there are limitations on what a partner can feel. This is where men can be in a wonderful position to help.
Thanks to a culture that encourages it, men can be more comfortable accessing their own anger. Not all men will be able to do this. Many become upset when a woman becomes angry, or even mildly critical.
Nonetheless, there are men who can recognize when a woman is afraid of her own aggression. They become concerned when they see how this affects someone they care about. Confident in their own capacity to be angry without being destructive, and fully aware of the positive aspects of aggression, they are happy to encourage a partner’s access to these feelings.
They trust themselves, they trust their partner, and they trust the feelings, knowing they are merely emotions.
Even when a man is himself the target of a woman’s ire, he is on her side, validating her anger. Doing so helps her feel the relief of tension as she connects to the thrill of being herself.
Sometimes, things aren’t quite so heroic, of course. Sometimes, if the woman is someone close to you, her anger will actually scare you. The thing is not to retaliate. Admit you’re upset. Acknowledge your partner’s feeling. Let her know she has your undivided attention. Don’t pretend to be unaffected by a woman’s anger. Allows yourself to be moved by it. Be curious about how she is feeling.
Help her see that her anger is just a feeling and nothing to be afraid of.
Photo: Pedro Rebeiro Simoes/Flickr