Is It Anger Or Is It Abuse?
by Joyce and Barry Vissell
Leonard was yelling at his wife, “Damn it, Mary, when are you going to give me any respect? I work all day long and come home to a messy house—and dinner isn’t even started. What do you do all day?!”
Mary was clearly intimidated. She was sitting wordlessly on the couch while Leonard stood threateningly above her, clenching his fists as if he would hit her. She was hugging herself in a desperate attempt at self-protection, while the tears gave away her fear and pain.
No question here. This is obviously abusive and unhealthy anger. How about this next example:
Tammie was saying in a loud voice, “I’m so pissed off at you, Phil. You did it again. You said you’d be home at six, and it’s now seven. You don’t care about me at all.”
“I’m really sorry, Tammie. The traffic was bad and I wanted…”
“I’m not done Phil. It’s only been one week since the last time you were late. I don’t trust your word anymore. You say you’re going to do something, and then you don’t. Don’t I matter to you?”
“Of course you matter, I tried to call but only got your voicemail.”
“Always with the excuses. I’m tired of your excuses. You don’t mean anything you say. I’m done with this marriage!”
Is Tammie’s anger healthy or unhealthy? While it is definitely healthier than Leonard’s, it is still not healthy.
Lana and Cade went through the same scenario and here’s how they dealt with it:
“Cade, I feel hurt and angry. You said you’d be home at six, and it’s now seven. I felt scared that something might have happened to you.”
“I’m really sorry Lana. The traffic was bad, but that’s no excuse. I should’ve called you.”
“I’m just feeling disrespected, hurt and angry.”
Lana is being healthy with her anger. Why? Because she has made no blanket accusations like Tammie’s, “You don’t care about me at all. I don’t trust your word anymore. You don’t mean anything you say.” She allowed Cade to speak without cutting him off. She didn’t make threats like Tammie’s, “I’m done with this marriage!” Instead, she kept to “I” statements, letting Cade know how she felt, rather than making him feel wrong or shaming him.
Expressing anger is rarely enjoyable to your partner, but it can still be healthy and safe. I remember going through a phase early in my relationship with Joyce when I felt that expressing anger was definitely not healthy or safe. Joyce would express her anger and I would repress mine, and even put her down for getting angry. Because that didn’t work for her, her anger would then escalate to the next level. This would feel intolerable to me and I would leave, regardless of where we were. Definitely not healthy on my part.
One day, we were outside the house, and Joyce was expressing anger at me. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I yelled at her in anger. First there was a look of shock on her face, then gradually a smile appeared and she reached out and hugged me. She was actually thanking me for my anger.
I have stopped holding in my anger. Sometimes I go to the other extreme and let it out too loudly. At those times, I imagine that Joyce wishes I would go back to the way I was. But she assures me that she’d rather have me yell too loudly than not at all.
Ideally, most anger can be headed off by addressing the feelings underneath, which are usually based in hurt or fear. When these deeper feelings are expressed and acknowledged, there often is no need for anger. For example, it is unavoidable for Joyce and me to sometimes say or do something that triggers hurt feelings in the other. Usually this is completely unintentional. Our goal is to say something like, “I know you didn’t mean to hurt me by your action, but it did hurt me.” I have to admit, Joyce is better at it than I am. When she makes that statement, it helps me in two ways. Firstly, it acknowledges that I didn’t mean to hurt her. This is very important to me, often preventing me from going to the old tape of “I’m a bad boy,” or “I can’t ever do it right.” Secondly, it allows me room to hear her feelings and immediately apologize, which can bring us back to love very quickly.
When the hurt or fear is not felt and expressed, anger is the next level. Here are some guidelines for the healthy expression of anger:
“I” statements are rarely abusive. Try saying, “I am angry,” rather than “You did this,” or “Why did you do that?”
Healthy anger is not intimidating or controlling. Even “I” statements can be abusive if you are scaring the person you are addressing. If you are physically or emotionally dominating this person, you are being abusive. This includes not letting him or her speak, and of course, touching him or her in inappropriate or aggressive ways.
Healthy anger stays in the present, rather than bringing up unrelated things from the past to fortify your argument: “You came home an hour late without calling, yesterday you forgot to take out the garbage, and the day before, you left your dirty dishes on the table.” Not healthy.
Healthy anger does not generalize: “You’re always breaking your commitments,” nor does it make threats of any kind: “Break one more commitment and I’m out of here!”
Lastly, name calling or swearing is unhealthy. Period.
After the anger is expressed in a healthy way, it’s time for both of you to address the hurt or fear underneath the anger. Take responsibility for your deeper feelings and apologize for hurting the other. Cade’s apology to Lana allowed her to quickly let go of her anger. Lana acknowledging her hurt and fear made it easier for Cade to apologize.
Address the hurt or fear beneath the anger and there will usually be no need to express anger at all. Prevention is always more effective. But if the hurt or fear remains elusive, you have a conscious choice to express your anger in a healthy way. Follow the above guidelines and you can have an abuse-free interchange.
When Joyce and I are angry with each other, we stay connected and work it through to the very end. We know we are done when we can sincerely hug and kiss one another and even laugh at our behavior. Because of this, the flame of our love and commitment to one another has been allowed to burn brightly.
Joyce and Barry Vissell, a nurse and medical doctor couple since 1964 whose medicine is now love, are the authors of The Shared Heart, Models of Love, Risk To Be Healed, The Heart’s Wisdom and Meant To Be. Call 800.766.0629 or write to the Shared Heart Foundation, P.O. Box 2140, Aptos, CA 95001 for a free newsletter or more information on counseling sessions, recordings or schedule of talks and workshops. Visit sharedheart.org for their free monthly e-heartletter, updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.
Embracing Change with Body Mind Spirit Expos
Sometimes you are simply ready for a change. Now in its 23rd year, the Body Mind Spirit Expo is the largest health and wellness expo in the United States. A quick glance through the program reveals myriad opportunities for transformation: New Thoughts for a New You, Step into Your True Self, Find Your Voice, and Change Your Story—Change Your Life. The vendors there will also offer many insights on how to incorporate positive change into your life.
Body Mind Spirit Expo events explore the dynamics of growth, change and development. This year, the theme of change returns to the creation of the event itself, for the Expo has outgrown its previous location.
This spring, the show will relocate to the beautiful and larger Mission Valley Sheraton Hotel’s Grand Ballroom, located at 1433 Camino del Rio South in San Diego, CA. With chandeliers, carpet and marble, the facility reflects the deluxe, first class setting that the presentations and exhibitors have always deserved.
Proving that magic really happens, this change comes to you at no increase in cost. Weekend admission remains at just $12, parking is still free, and the convenience of a popular Mission Valley location is maintained just a block from our previous venue.So join us February 21-22! The show opens at 10 a.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. Sunday. With presentations covering all aspects of holistic thought, natural health and personal growth, prepare to be inspired to incorporate change into your life!
For more information about Body Mind Spirit Expos, call 541.482.3722 or visit bmse.net for a $2 off coupon.
Off the Beaten Path
A new international exhibition of contemporary art brings together artists from around the world to explore the many dimensions of gender-based violence. In “Off the Beaten Path: Violence, Women, and Art,” running at the Tijuana Cultural Center in the El Cubo museum through April 4, 33 well-respected artists from 26 countries create new stories through their artwork, addressing gender-based violence from a global perspective.
“Throughout the world, women and girls are victims of countless and senseless acts of violence,” says Randy Jayne Rosenberg, Executive Director of the nonprofit group Art Works for Change and the show’s curator. “The range of gender-based violence is devastating, occurring, quite literally, from womb to tomb. It occurs in every segment of society, regardless of class, ethnicity, culture, or whether the country is at peace or war.”
The idea for the show was born after Houston artist Susan Plum created an installation project, Luz y Solidaridad (“Light and Solidarity”) in 2005 for Art Works For Change to address the plight of the women of Juárez, Mexico. More than 800 murdered bodies of abducted young women have been found in Juárez and Chihuahua since 1993 and more than 3,000 women are still missing.
The goal of the exhibition is to help create a new conversation on the full spectrum of issues that surround this important topic. The hope is that the audience leaves with a better understanding of the roots of abuse, a feeling of empathy, and an awareness of their actions and beliefs.
To promote social change, Art Works For Change serves as a catalyst within the community. Organizational partners for “Off the Beaten Path” include Amnesty International, Art for Amnesty, Global Fund for Women, International Rescue Committee, the UN Development Fund for Women, and The Voices and Faces Project.