Owning one's anger, discussing it with passion, not insisting that it be mollified, relishing the conflict as a hallmark of differentiation, a divine right to one's point of view, well, this is nothing new.
I just spent 45 minutes today with a kid and his parents and insisted he spleen them, that he argue his point until he won. He lost, but only because it was about curfew, and face it, I can't tell parents to let their kid break a law, and they sure weren't going to give him permission to stay out past curfew.
It's all about the killing on the streets of Chicago, which does have something to do with anger, I imagine. But that's for another day.
That family argued and screamed. They cried and threw up their hands in disgust, and at the end of the session everyone was hugging and kissing and it was a wonderful thing to behold.
Fine. They didn't hug and kiss. But they did feel pretty darn good and went home for another round about something else.
The process of resolving conflict and hurt feelings is the foundation of intimacy. It has to happen to have healthy family (and marital) relationships.
Anger as adrenaline is really functional, perhaps the driving force in some creative problem solving. Even working to avoid anger as such is good; it channels the arousal. But as a concept, anger has always been just that, an interpretation of bodily arousal, an emotion, something we have to contend with, manage.
It's how we express it that separates the amateurs from the pros. We try not to be too indelicate, but sometimes we are! And when that happens, then damage control is necessary. When anger builds up it can be especially nasty, and all the zen distraction in the world won't stop it. And perhaps sometimes that's for the best. As long as there's resolution.
And no one should go to bed mad.*
Mark Epstein writes a terrific little piece, originally published at The Oprah Magazine, "What's wrong with anger?" now up at CNN.com. Check it out before CNN takes it down.
He seems to think, however, that relationship therapies have failed in the past because they focus too much on empathy and understanding. Too much of this "attunement" denies the need for rupture and tension in relations. Rupture and tension are really happy events. Rupture and tension are normal. Healthy.
The language makes me think of child birth, and what could be better than that?
We family therapists have always said that when couples need space, the quickest way to get it is to have a fight. It works wonders. When we've had enough intimacy we naturally attack one another. Or when we're out of sorts, like wounded animals, sometimes we'll go on the offense.
We can't exactly yell at our bosses. We'll lose our jobs! A good spouse knows this.
As soon as we recognize that what we're doing is having an undesirable effect, meaning we've gone too far, or if the "discussion" or tantrum (sometimes it IS a tantrum) is getting mean, then those of us who have learned to fight well apologize and kiss and make up. We compromise, accommodate, yield points.
That process can take a little time.
Family therapists value intimacy over psychological space so we hope to speed up the process with good communication and empathy, quickly get to the kissing and making-up part. You see, empathy IS good.
But people need space.
Otherwise we might melt, merge, lose our identities. Much better to fight for them.
And we have our narcissistic injuries.
And lest we forget, conflictual couples, couples who are destructive naturally with one another, shouldn't be fighting at all. They don't know how to do it well, and it does take a good year in therapy sometimes to get it right. (See the comments section for elaboration on this).
Some people do seem angrier than others, and in therapy this is not a light matter. Anger is a negative emotion, it creates other negative emotions in other people, people who are afraid of anger. So it's not exactly good.
And to be honest? If you're not a little afraid of anger, you might end up dead one day. Best to be careful around angry people, not to embrace them. Most people aren't violent because they're feeling loving.
So no, this will not be a complete discussion because anger is no simple subject.
But it reminds me that anger that is not intentionally violent inspires memories of childhood conflict, the type of conflict that makes us what we are today.
Dr. Epstein quotes D. W. Winnicott and draws a lovely comparison between our relationships between ourselves and our primary care-takers as children, and how we'll relate to partners in future relationships. He says it so well, I'll let you read it yourself. He says that the "new" thing (there's that word again) in psychology is to be 'a good-enough mother', not better than that. It is no longer necessary to be Super, Allstar, Empathy-maven, All-Attunement Mom.
It's good enough to be good enough.
Some of you peaked too soon, I imagine. Here's what he has to say.
'Good-enough mother'Just terrific journalism.
Psychologists who study the origins of intimacy in mother-infant relations support this shift in emphasis. The template for all intimate relationships is the one between infant and parent. Studies of these relationships have exploded the myth of the 100 percent responsive mother. Research suggests that the best parents are fully attuned to their children only about 30 percent of the time, leaving lots of space for failure.
D.W. Winnicott, a pioneering British child analyst of the last century, laid the foundation for this shift with his concept of the "good-enough mother." Parents cannot possibly be at one with their children all the time, he suggested. Babies are not benign beings emitting only love. They are rapacious creatures who love ruthlessly, and who, as often as not, bite the hand, or breast, that feeds them.
The good-enough mother is one who can tolerate her infant's rage as well as her own temporary hatred of her child; she is one who is not sucked into retaliating or abandoning, and who can put aside her own self-protective responses to devote herself adequately (remember the 30 percent figure) to her child's needs.
This "good enough" response, while not denying her own hatred, teaches the child that anger is something that can be survived. Winnicott wrote about how the child whose mother survives his or her destructive onslaught learns to love her as an "external" person, as an "other," not merely as an extension of themselves.
This child recognizes that the mother has survived the attack and feels something on the order of joy or gratitude or relief, a dawning recognition that mother is outside his or her sphere of omnipotent control. This is the foundation of caring for her as a separate person, what we call consideration or concern or empathy.
*One last thought. Although obviously I'm advocating healthy conflict, you probably should keep in mind that whatever you say in the heat of an argument can and probably will be remembered.
You can try to take it back. But even when you apologize and take it back, you've still said it.
That's why it's not so simple for me to say, Let it fly. The safer recommendation is to suggest you say nothing when you're angry, that you wait until you cool down, and THEN have the argument.
It's still an argument. Go for the point!
But try to follow a few rules of basic decency. Watch the expletives (meaning keep them to yourself). Let yourself cool off before you go to the mat. Don't say things you'll regret later. And don't even think of letting the volume get so high that you scare the children.