Using anger to protect love. Sounds paradoxical doesn’t it. That’s because most of us think too simplistically. Love is good. Anger is bad. That’s what most of us think. But the world is more complex than that. There are manifestation of love that can kill. Caring codependent parents can love their heroin addicted sons to death by protecting them from pain. Similarly, we can “nicey nice” our relationships to emotional death by avoiding the use of constructive anger. That’s the type of anger that protects a necessary balance in a relationship.
I remember when I first met my wife Helen. We were at a church singles mixer and the men had been the first to arrive. When Helen came in the room she saw me and chose me out from the rest of the men.
“Hi. I’m Helen. What’s your name?” She said.
“I’m Bryce Kaye”
“Well tell me Bryce Kaye. What are your hobbies? What do you like to do….and that sort of thing?”
I couldn’t help but notice that she was extremely thin and attractive with “Run…Run….Run” printed on her tee-shirt.
“Well, I’m a psychologist but I really like the outdoors.”
“Wow. I do too. I used to do a lot of cross-country skiing and camping in the snows up in Canada.”
“Really?” I said. “I was just up in the Pisgah Mountains doing some wilderness hunting. I just about got buried in the snow up there.”
“You hunt?” She said. “What do you hunt?”
“Well. Out in Arizona I used to hunt javelina, quail and rabbit. Back here in North Carolina I bowhunt and I gun hunt for deer up in Canada with my father.” ( I had been raised on venison in a family where hunting was part of the culture.)
“You hunt deer?”
“That really turns me off!”
I paused but then replied: “Yup.“Yup” I replied.
I hunt ’em, kill ’em…..Then I eat “em!”
There it was! She had been annoyed. I was refusing to buckle to her annoyance. The battle was joined! But we both got the message and the message was more important than the annoyance. We each were going to openly defend our individual truths with our integrated anger. We each saw each others capacity and felt both respect. There have been no lies in 32 years. Last night Helen and I sipped wine together on the deck of our boat and she told me she was grateful to be with the man with whom she planned to share eternity.
Conventional wisdom is that relationships thrive when there’s no anger. We’re used to hearing about raging couples who tear their relationship apart. I wouldn’t dispute that rage is a great destroyer of relationships. But I’m not talking about rage. I’m talking about anger that’s integrated with forethought and wisdom. In hyper-aroused rage we lose all of that. With integrated anger we have judgment and an intuitive model of future consequences. We’re able to consider our responsibilities. And one of our primary responsibilities in a relationship is to balance between connection and autonomy. We need to feel connected but we also need to feel that we have our own separate identity.
We can’t maintain our identity in a relationship unless we have boundaries. Unless we’re able to sometimes refuse our partners and protect our own selves. A good model of a healthy relationship is dynamic. The partners come together and feel close. At other times the partners push apart with integrated anger and strengthen their sense of separateness. It’s like a dance. Together, apart, together, apart. The trick is to do it with enough consciousness that neither partner gets injured in the process.
For several years I’ve been measuring how easily couples can use their integrated anger to refuse each other. I have a questionnaire in which I ask the person to imagine saying certain things to his/her partner. For example: “I refuse to go along with you on that.” and “There’s no way I’ll ever agree to that.” I ask the person to scale his or her anxiety after saying each question. The final score gives me good idea of how inhibited the person is from expressing boundaries with integrated anger. After several hundred couples the pattern is real clear. The highest scores are held by people who use lies and avoidance to defend themselves. The lowest scores are held by people having the closest relationships. The people who are comfortable with refusing their partner are the ones who are able to communicate openly and who don’t have affairs. The people who are most uncomfortable with refusing their partner are the most likely to have affairs. It seems paradoxical but it’s true. Healthy boundaries protect our relationships and we can’t have healthy boundaries without some integrated anger.
What differentiates integrated anger from destructive anger? That’s not a simple topic. You can’t differentiate the two on a behavioral level. You have to explain it in terms of the person’s motivational frame. If we mobilize anger to protect our pride, appearance or comfort then we’re likely to be destructive with it. If we mobilize anger to protect a balanced welfare over time then it will usually be beneficial. This is where where spirituality becomes relevant but that’s a topic for another time.
Read chapters from Bryce Kaye’s next book When Love & Anger Got Married.
Dr. Bryce Kaye is captain of Love Odyssey marriage counseling retreats. He and his wife Helen offer intensive marriage counseling for troubled couples on week-long sailing odysseys to different port towns along the rivers and sounds of North Carolina.