Anger

Through NRC, an article that piqued my interest Men’s Fears of Women’s Anger. Sounds familiar? This post will be a bit personal, because emotions always are.

I must say that we don’t get angry often, and I therefore don’t really fear it. I fear my partners sadness the most. There’s just no way it will not change my mood as well, and who wants to feel bad? Although I’m not sure it isn’t the same way the other way round (perhaps I’m sad less often?), this quote contains a few very familiar examples:

While women are often largely unaware of their own anger, men are acutely aware of women’s underlying anger, even if that anger is not openly expressed. In fact, many of the problematic dynamics in heterosexual relationships can be explained by men’s fear of women being angry with and disapproving of them. Men tend to scan their wives/partners carefully for any sign that they might be angry or disapproving, orienting their emotional lives around the presence or absence of anger in their wives/partners.

Men often talk about walking on eggshells, considering everything they say and do in terms of whether it will make their wives/partners angry with them. There are a number of old sayings like “happy wife, happy life,” and “If mamma ain’t happy, nobody’s happy” that speak to the truth of how scared men are of women’s anger. I had one man tell me that he was so sensitized to his wife’s emotional state that he could tell with unerring accuracy how she was feeling when he walked in the front door, before ever seeing her!

My partner and I have also discovered I sense her negative emotions better than she does. OK, this isn’t correct, she senses them perfectly fine, but I can verbalize their presence and precise nature better. Somehow, it’s a topic we obviously both can feel, but not always discuss with a matching eloquence. Now, here I have to admit something I usually do not tell people: as a child I have been in a sort of anger management. From what I gather, some schoolteacher in particular thought it was necessary, since, and here’s another personal tidbit, I quickly learned that I could deal with my bullies most effectively by exercising physical force. Naturally, teachers couldn’t verbally tolerate that, and rather than understanding why I was using force (a lot has changed since then in terms of awareness about bullying) they thought I was aggressive (I don’t remember myself so, and I can’t recall starting unproved fights. Perhaps it’s just my memory filtering out my own wrongs though.) Whether is was for right or wrong reasons, I find I have become comparatively understanding of anger and aggression. I have come to study it, in myself and others, and other emotions too. In many people around me (maybe it’s different for you) I do not see this: a bi-modal distributions of attitudes seem to exist around emotions. Emotions are taken as a sort of sacred ground truth, to be trusted in full. Or emotions are always to be mistrusted, if not repressed. Perhaps this correlates to whether or not an emotion is classified as ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’. In any case, I don’t really remember any clear lessons from my therapy, but I have grown to be someone considerate of emotions. I think of them not in terms of good and evil, but in terms of use and management. Emotions are always valid, because you feel them. Therefore, acknowledging any emotion or feeling (what’s difference by the way?) is important in moving to the next step: where did the emotion come from? As a child (perhaps due to exercises in that therapy) I remember performing self-reflecting root-cause-analysis. I feel bad. OK, for how long? Is there any other feeling? Did anything happen around the time you started feeling this? (often that’s enough to find the cause) Was that event really so terrible? Isn’t it perhaps normal? Shouldn’t you perhaps move on? (also a question I’m very happy to have learned, it turns out tons of things are not worth feeling bad over!) Are there any other consequences, besides feeling bad, to that event? If so, is there anything I can do to change the outcome for the better? Are perhaps such changes already ongoing and are you just anxious about having to exercise patience in anticipation of the outcome? (I am not a patient man, but I have become more patient by using this question to make myself see patience is sometimes a necessary ingredient).

And so on. Such reflections may take 10 minutes, it may take only seconds, in any case it usually settles me down because afterwards I understand my emotion, I know it’s source and solution and I know which steps to take in order to address it or that I worried over nothing that important or I should simply be more patient. An extra ‘rule’ I’ve learned it to make sure I focus what’s left of my ‘negative energy’ after such an analysis towards the solution of the problem. Taking things out on other, even the wall, is simply a waste of resources. If my analysis was done well, I know where to put my energy and the faster I do that, the better I will feel.

I’ve gotten better at this over time, and the process does not fail me often anymore. The main case is where it does fail is when events are really outside of my control, and I still may experience unexpected or unknown consequences of it. (Giant bureaucracies are thus the best way to make me feel bad for a long time. I hope I have no enemies, and if I do that they’re not reading this.) Even then, the solution is always to confront myself with the question: what actions if any will improve the outcome and if none exist would being patient or moving on help? I notice that this is about ‘negative’ emotions, not ‘Bad’ ones mind you, but ones that feel unpleasant. Somehow it seems far less important to ‘solve’ a positive emotion.

OK, that’s not what we were talking about. I just though it would be important to highlight my therapy, and that perhaps (although I am not at all sure) it is no surprise I’m a more structured thinker on emotion than most. Let’s go back to the article: women are taught to suppress anger entirely. Well, I think I got similar lessons from certain (female) schoolteachers. I also certainly not learn the opposite from male teachers. Nor from my parents. Yet, I can see what the author is talking about: “If mamma ain’t happy, nobody’s happy” So, what’s going on? The psychotherapist gives us a list:

  • Men are generally afraid of their wives/partner’s disapproval, so they watch anxiously for any sign of anger that may indicate disapproval
  • Men are often uncomfortable with any expression of strong feelings. When their wives/partners are angry, it raises the emotional temperature in the relationship, which makes men feel uncomfortable.
  • Men often feel responsible for their wives/partners well-being. When their wives/partners are upset, most men go quickly into “fix it” mode, believing it is their responsibility to soothe their partners and reestablish equilibrium.
  • Men don’t typically do well emotionally on their own, which is why men generally remarry much sooner than women. As a result, men tend to watch out for signs of potential anger that may lead to periods of emotional separation with their wives/partners that may like abandonment to them.
  • Men often feel emotionally inadequate in comparison to their wives/partner’s emotional capacity. On some level, men often recognize that they do not have nearly as much access to their emotional experience as their wives/partners do, and when relationships become more emotional, they are reminded of feeling less than adequate.

The first two points seem most pertinent to me: I had not considered them before. The latter one is such a classic that I find it hard to believe no man has learned not ‘to fix things’ right away, although I must admit, I still hear this critique from time to time. I think (hope) I am ‘overqualified’ for the latter two due to my personal history. So, I am oversensitive to my partners disapproval, and uncomfortable with high ‘emotional’ temperatures. Unfortunately, it’s here the article stops, so the author has no advice for us. Also, this list seems to place the root cause to woman’s fear of being angry within men’s attitudes. I am not sure I agree: my experience has been that if any gender in particular taught me to suppress anger, it was women. In either case, according to logic and my own methods (because my methods are always perfectly logical): the analysis stopped prematurely, because even if these points are the cause, we haven’t solved anything until we have a remedy. I can only advice my procedure to anyone, I can’t overstate how much it has helped me.

What I can’t solve right now is how my attitudes possibly affect my partner, and men’s attitudes affect women’s in general. I think that, as with most sexe misunderstandings, we’re caught up in some sort of spiral where we are not trying to understand each other. Perhaps that could be a good start: men can be more patient with (i.e. pause) their feeling of disapproval or discomfort with emotional temperatures. Why do men feel that anyway? My feeling is that I do not want ‘second hand’ negative emotions, which sounds of course harsh and totally not like what I expect myself in a relationship. On the other hand, men also are said to not talk about their feelings, so maybe that stems from the same root cause: ‘help yourself first’. Personally, I prefer not to talk about feelings sometimes because I already know I just need to wait out the storm and then it’ll have solved itself. Only if I need help will I discuss it. The critique is of course that men tend to overestimate their abilities, and should seek help more often. I think that can be both true and false: regardless of men women could be underestimating their abilities. It is my observation that many woman tend to hold emotions ‘sacred’: they seem to want to experience them, rather than understand and possibly eliminate them. This observation may be biased by the fact that woman indeed talk more about their emotions, because indeed I really haven’t talked about this subject with men to this degree. In either case: I think any person would help him- or herself by not experiencing (negative) emotions as they are, but to deconstruct them. And if your solution is ‘weathering’ it, which is a perfectly fine solution, you can tell your partner that, instead of having to hide you anger, or attracting negative feedback when you do show it. After all, I think that if we understand our partner (or any person we are in contact with really), we will be able to put aside our primal emotions too (fear of disapproval, abandonment, discomfort). They after all come from not understanding and having to imagine what might be wrong or how he or she might act next.

I did not know I had so much to say on this topic, but I guess the article provoked me. It feels good to have written this, because I do recognize that the mismatch between people results in various secondary emotion that wouldn’t have had to have been present if the mismatch itself had been discussed. That discussion isn’t something to fear, I wager often it needs to be no longer than ‘I’m unsettled, give me some time and it’ll all have blown over’.