Many of us fear and avoid anger, especially in the realm of intimate relationships. We think of it like fire—a spark could burn the house down. Anger is, however, a vital tool, and if we ignore it or try to immediately transform it into forgiveness, we miss the gems and riches anger can provide for us. Besides, sometimes we need to burn the house down.
Most often, anger’s message in intimate relationships is that a boundary has been crossed or a need is not being met. In her wonderful 1983 book The Dance of Anger, psychologist Harriet Lerner writes, “Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of our anger preserves the very integrity of our self. Our anger can motivate us to say ‘no’ to the ways in which we are defined by others and ‘yes’ to the dictates of our inner self.”
Anger acts like a bodyguard for our sense of self. If we pay attention, anger can reveal our needs and boundaries and help us better communicate those with our partners. Anger can deepen, rather than threaten, our relationships.
Perhaps, for example, you like a clean bathroom, and your partner always leaves it a mess. Instead of yelling, nagging, or passive-aggressively cleaning it, slow down and ask: is a clean bathroom a need or a negotiable preference? Part of the reason anger often makes us want to lash out is because it’s disguising a point of vulnerability—it may be really scary to admit to your laid-back partner that a clean bathroom really is a need, because you don’t want to seem uptight. If it is a real need, your anger won’t let you forget it.
Simply having a need, however, doesn’t obligate anyone else to meet it for you. Part of working with anger means being willing to take responsibility for yourself. “Anger is a tool for change when it challenges us to become more of an expert on the self and less of an expert on others,” Lerner explains.
If you don’t really understand your own needs and boundaries, you may vaguely expect your partner to read your mind. Of course it’s frustrating when he doesn’t meet the needs he doesn’t know you have. Admitting to yourself and him that you really do require a clean bathroom to feel sane and safe can give you many more options than simply yelling over a pile of wet towels.
The first option is to explain clearly how you feel and request that your partner help you out. Maybe he’ll make a stronger effort to clean the bathroom. If he can’t or won’t, however, perhaps he can pick up other household tasks so you have more time to clean the bathroom, or pitch in for a cleaning person to come once a week. If your partner is absolutely unable or unwilling to help in any way, you must ask yourself whether it’s possible and agreeable for you to stay in the relationship and meet your needs on your own. If not, anger may give you the courage to leave. Sometimes it’s appropriate to burn the (metaphorical) house down.
When anger helps us understand ourselves better, it can also help us find more empathy for our partners when they have needs that we don’t understand. Being able to listen to each other and take responsibility for ourselves can help us cultivate more intimate and equal relationships. We must not fear or avoid our anger. We must let it work with us in the service of love.