It’s a common complaint which women unpack in the marriage counsellor’s office. She can understand anger when he stubs his toe at 3 am while going to the bathroom and then mutters a bad word. She gets it when a runaway shopping cart scratches their brand new car and his face turns flaming red for an instant.
Anger issues are something else. When a man habitually overreacts to a trivial incident or explodes for no obvious reason, he gets labeled as having an “anger issue.” These outbursts can be puzzling to those around him or more seriously, can lead to damaged relationships. Family members sometimes react with their own anger, adding fuel to his fire. More often they learn to tiptoe around his volatility as a self-protective reaction. Either way, these situations are not healthy. What to do?
Pop psychology sometimes unfairly stereotypes male anger as an understandable reaction to a nagging spouse. Psychiatrists might relate it to bi-polar disorder or alcoholism. Medication is then one proposed solution. But most mental health professionals see male anger only as symptomatic. (I know women can also have anger issues, but it is more commonly recognized as a male problem.)
My friend and psychotherapist, Kent Shelley, will sometimes challenge his male clients to look deeper. “You don’t have an anger problem. Anger can be a symptom of a deeper emotion. How about we look at that possibility?” Lindsay Dodgson (insider.com September 17, 2018) describes male anger as a secondary emotion. Underlying it is a deeper and different one—usually fear, sadness or jealousy. Dodgson quotes Avrum Weiss (Psychology Today, on-line, September 16, 2018) who describes three basic (negative) human emotions: “mad, sad, scared.” He explains anger as the one (negative) emotion that men, historically, have been “allowed” to express. Over my years as a marriage counsellor, I have frequently encountered real-life examples of Weiss’s theory. I’ll use pretend names.
Tom was “orphaned’ while still a teenager. Dad had already disappeared from the family and two years later, Mom succumbed to cancer. While the young man matured physically, he continued to struggle with emotional difficulties. Early in his marriage, Tom often lashed out unexpectedly with harsh words at his partner. Tom’s anger was a symptom of unacknowledged and unexpressed sadness over his past abandonment. It was too painful and “unmanly” to cry. As he had learned from his world, “Big boys don’t cry” but anger was acceptable.
Jim was a middle-aged man newly-diagnosed with serious heart disease. In this case, his rages and threats of violence covered a profound fear of dying. Jim’s overuse of alcohol reduced inhibitions, freeing his anger to be vented. His frightened family could only see a potentially violent husband and father. Jim had been raised to believe admitting to fear was a sign of weakness, very much “unmanly.”
Manuel was excessively controlling of his wife, demanding to know why she had been having coffee breaks with a guy at work or why she was an hour late from a grocery outing. His angry accusations served to hide a deep sense of insecurity. Deep down, he thought she might find someone better than him. Rather than admit to his pervasive and painful feeling of inadequacy, a sign of weakness as Manuel saw it, he played the role of being dominant, surely a more “manly” trait.
To help these men grow comfortable with learning a new language of emotional openness, I often used photos from magazines. These pictures were chosen to evoke sadness, fear or compassion. For example, I would produce a picture of a child crying over her dead kitten and ask what feeling that aroused. Typically, when beginning this exercise, I would hear my male clients respond:
“I am curious to know what happened to the cat.” I gently pointed out that answer came from his head not his heart. He tried again: “Well, it didn’t make me feel happy.” I would then press a bit further: “Well, you told me what you are not feeling, but what are you feeling?”
Eventually, I heard that words I was waiting for: “Really sad.” These male clients were beginning to learn a new expressive language. Counselling then proceeded through that now-open door to explore and understand the roots of whatever emotion—sadness, fear or insecurity— underlay surface anger.
I hasten to add that most men, especially younger generations of males, have no difficulty expressing other difficult emotions beyond anger. Yet, during my many presentations as high school guest speaker in family studies classes, I always noticed more than one young woman nodding her head in silent affirmation.
Historically, men have gradually been learning to be more comfortable with not allowing anger to be their “go-to” reaction, just as women have learned not to have to continually suppress it. We are making good progress toward healthier emotional lives—both male and female.
This column is intended solely for general informational purposes only, not to replace individual professional consultation, counselling or treatment.