Transforming ‘Normal’ Anger into Healthy Intimacy

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Reader’s Question

I’m a 28-year-old female, and have experienced a few long-term dysfunctional relationships in my time. My most recent was about 8 years long (on and off). About 8 months ago I started seeing a therapist to help me move on and get over my ex, and that has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Recently, I started seeing this guy who’s really sweet, considerate, responsible, and basically, everything I was lacking in my previous unhealthy relationships. However, we’ve had a few disagreements, and I’ve come to understand it’s likely that I was to blame. My therapist thinks it’s because I grew accustomed to some unhealthy relationship patterns when I was dating my ex, which I agree does make sense. But I still can’t help but think that maybe he’s over-reacting. Yesterday he got angry with me and, while I can fully understand why he got angry, I found myself getting angry right back. I don’t know if I have a great reason to be mad, but the more I think about it, the angrier I get. I didn’t like the way he confronted me with what I had done wrong. I felt like he over-reacted and immediately jumped to conclusions before giving me the benefit of the doubt. At the time, the argument was about him being mad at me, so I apologized and did my best to explain my point of view. But now today, I don’t want to see him or even talk to him, I’m just ‘annoyed’ with the whole thing. My therapist relates this feeling back to my ex.

I just want a second opinion, and I want to know if it’s normal to be mad at someone simply because they’re mad at you? Do people do this, or is it just me? I can think back to a few times I’ve felt this way, and even experienced the reverse. Why do we do this? Is it a defense mechanism?

How can I distinguish between being legitimately upset, versus trying to figuratively ‘even the score?’

Psychologist’s Reply

I don’t think that “normal” is the criterion you want to use in this situation. For one thing, ‘normal’ is such a relative term and for another, just because something is ‘normal’ (conforming to an average), doesn’t make it healthy. So, while the fact that a lot of people do get angry when someone is angry at them may make this behavior ‘normal,’ it doesn’t make it healthy. In fact, unhealthy relational interactions often seem to be the norm.

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I’m guessing you’re less concerned about what other people do, and are more interested in figuring out why you do what you do. If that is indeed the case, then the place to start is to think about the reasons for your anger. First of all, you must realize that anger is a secondary emotion. It is a cover for the vulnerable feelings of fear or sadness (or both). Being scared or sad can make us feel weak or exposed, so we often protect ourselves by becoming angry. Then, instead of feeling vulnerable, we feel powerful. I’m guessing that this is what is happening to you when you have an argument with your new partner.

Whenever he gets angry at you, stop and ask yourself what you are really feeling. Is it possible that you are scared that he sees a flaw in you and may leave? Are you sad because he misunderstood something? Those are just two of the many possibilities for understanding what may be going on, but you are going to have to allow yourself to be vulnerable in order to find out. Once you know what is truly going on with yourself, then you can express this to your boyfriend and go from there. This is important because it is this type of communication — when people are being honest and open with each other — that leads to emotional intimacy.

Essentially my answer is just a long-winded way of saying that I agree with your therapist. It sounds like she or he is accurately assessing the situation, but you’re not quite ready to accept it. Thus, it seems like this reluctance may be a good topic for therapy, so that you can discover the other obstacles that are keeping you from moving forward.

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