Being Angry With, Not At, Someone
There is a huge difference between being angry at someone and being angry with someone. Being angry at someone creates distance; being angry with someone is an opportunity for intimacy.
The idea that anger could be a path to closeness might sound crazy if you’re uncomfortable with anger, as I was (and still often am). In my family of origin, there was no such thing as being angry with someone; it was all at. Anger was the exclusive property of my father, who expressed it as rage. Yelling, swearing, thrashing volatility that made everyone in the house quake. I dreaded the time of day when he got home from work.
My mother, like many women in relationships with an unequal balance of power, expressed her anger as hostility: burning dinner, “forgetting” to do things my father asked her to do, spending money on things he forbade her to spend money on, making comments she knew would irritate him (yes, even at the risk of starting a fight), and picking at her children because she couldn’t say what she wanted to say to her husband.
With these childhood models, I learned to associate anger with fear and anxiety. To see it differently was unfathomable. Which was sad, because I had a lot of anger corked up inside me, and I had a very uncomfortable relationship with it.
When first presented with the idea of being angry with someone, I couldn’t comprehend it. It was as if the person were speaking a foreign language, gibberish, nonsense. Yet disturbing nonsense, because it shook my core beliefs about anger: that it was bad, wrong, evil, even; a tool to hurt people you’re supposed to love. Something to be deeply, deeply ashamed of if you have it yourself.
Sadly, anger is those things for many of us. But it doesn’t have to be, and indeed, shouldn’t be if we want to fully embrace who we are. Because we all get angry—just like we all get happy, sad, and afraid—and denying that can only be detrimental to a sense of emotional well-being and wholeness.
In order to get to a point of being angry with somebody, I had to start by getting comfortable with anger in general, my own and that of other people. I had to learn to see anger differently, as an indelible part of the human condition, neither good nor bad. Which, I eventually realized, is exactly what it is: like all emotions, anger is a tool to keep me in touch with my wants and needs. A neutral, benign tool with a specific function and purpose. Nothing more, nothing less. All the connotations I had with anger were because of my childhood experiences; a post-traumatic belief that kept me in reactive mode and prevented me from having a rational view.
The sheer realization of this was enough to start shaking it loose. Once I was able to see that my beliefs about anger were skewed and why that was so, I was able to develop a much more neutral relationship with it. And once this was the case, I began to see what that person meant, how anger was an avenue to intimacy.
It’s simple and straightforward, really. Anger is an emotion, and all emotions, when expressed as indications of our wants and needs, are paths to intimacy. Sharing emotions is the bulk of intimacy, what it’s really all about. As such, restricting that sharing to only the positive, non-threatening emotions is a contradiction in terms. You have to be willing to share all your emotions, those you like and those you don’t like, those you’re proud of and those you’re ashamed of. Without the whole emotional picture, intimacy can’t really happen.
I think this is a core cause of unhappy relationships. Many people are unwilling to risk sharing emotions that might make their partner feel angry or threatened. But when people share only the positive, a giant portion of their feelings go unaddressed, so they feel “disconnected” and “distant” from the person they should feel closest to. In his book, Passionate Marriage David Schnarch talks about this idea, which he calls “gridlock,” and how to move past it and even use it to create intimacy.
It’s a hard thing to do, share your anger, your dark side, your negativity. So much so that we often have to find excuses that make the other person a “deserving” object of our uncomfortable feelings, then express them accusatively. But this is anger at, not with, and it creates distance, not intimacy, making you feel worse, not better.
Instead, why not own the anger? It’s mine, nobody else’s, and I have it for a reason. It’s a reaction to something going on in my life; nobody’s fault and nor does it need to be. I can do with it as I please—that is, as long as I don’t intentionally hurt another person with it. And herein lies the key to being angry with somebody.
A person may have done something mean or hurtful, and it made me angry. But it’s still my anger, and I can choose how I want to handle it. Maybe if I want this person out of my life, I can yell at him and berate him for what he did, thus creating distance. But if this is not a person I want out of my life, then maybe I could, instead, explain how his behavior made me feel and why. From there, we might have a conversation about such behavior in general, and why it’s a trigger for me, and maybe he’ll see that he never considered it from that angle before, and maybe we’ll talk about how we might handle that situation differently in the future. And we walk away feeling like we both got something we wanted: he heard and acknowledged my anger (which is, I think, all that any of us really want), and I respected him enough to believe that he would do so. And instead of blaming and fighting and tearful apologies without real resolution, we do resolve something, and we grow closer because of it.
Or, maybe I said something hurtful or thoughtless. In a truly intimate relationship, I have to be willing to listen to my partner explain how it made him feel without getting defensive. If I don’t, he’ll stop talking to me about his feelings, and our intimacy will suffer.
It can be a hard thing to accept, that our feelings are ours alone and nobody else is responsible for them. But this is the truth. If you don’t believe me, here’s an experiment to try. Say something to twenty different people; you’ll hear twenty different responses. Some positive, some negative, some big, some small. Or think of a time when somebody said something that would normally make you angry, but for some reason, that time it didn’t. The point is, the reaction lies within the person, always, in every situation. We truly can choose how we respond to events in our lives, regardless of how emotionally charged they might be.
Once I understood that all my feelings serve a logical purpose, and that attaching a value judgment to them or blaming other people isn’t helpful, I became more able to express them in ways that make me feel good, not bad, and ways that create intimacy, not distance. I still struggle with my childhood legacy, but now I’m usually able to get to the core faster and often avoid the big, messy, ugly parts.
What a concept, that all emotions can be avenues to intimacy! But isn’t it exciting that it’s possible to share our whole selves with another person, not just the pretty parts? And isn’t it just as exciting to see those parts in ourselves without judgment, shame, or the need to deny them?
I sure think so.