Lawyers Journal

Getting the words out - Know when to express your anger

The Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers column for the February issue of Lawyers Journal did not appear in that issue due to space limitations. It appears in its entirety here.

Q:While I always feel "in control" in my practice (ironically, domestic law), when at home I often get enraged with my husband. I actually think anyone would get angry in reaction to his manner, which is usually emotionally distant even when I'm upset about something. But he sees my anger as the problem, says he can't stand it, and half the time walks out of the house, which makes me even angrier. Isn't it natural and healthy that I express my feelings?


A:We'll use this question as a springboard for our third consecutive Q&A column on marital problems. Your question brings to mind three kinds of issues that confront most couples:

Family culture - You and your husband were raised in different families. Each family evolves its own culture, influenced often by ethnicity and environment as well as factors unique to itself. It is likely that, compared to members of your husband's family, you are overly emotional, while, according your family's norms, he is very low on emotionality. (This doesn't mean that either family is abnormal.) As in the case of most strains faced by couples, the only answer to these differences is acceptance accompanied by negotiation and compromise.

Assumptions and distortions - When you react to what you see as your husband's coldness, or he to your anger, either of you may be viewing things in a somewhat distorted or exaggerated way. Such interactions often involve a kind of re-play of a childhood family scenario. Married people also tend to assume that they know what the other one meant, based on past experience, even when in fact the assumption is incorrect. These kind of phenomena occur to some extent in virtually every marriage, but can sometimes mount up to become a real impediment to closeness. Insight into these processes will often clarify overly intense reactions and many help both of you deal with one another more constructively.

Anger - In a sense, you're both right. If you kept all your angry feelings to yourself, or tried to pretend they were not there, marital closeness would deteriorate and you might develop well develop symptoms of some kind (such as headaches, backaches, gastrointestinal distress). On the other hand, there has been less and less support in the field for the notion that one must always vent anger, and get all angry thoughts and feelings out of one's system (even when potentially very hurtful).

The "happy medium" here is to acknowledge your anger to yourself, choose an appropriate moment, and express it relatively calmly and respectfully. In this way, your spouse may actually be able to listen.

When arguments begin to get out of hand, a mutual "time-out" (perhaps an hour to cool off) may be a good idea. At the same time, if your husband leaves the house at any expression of feeling on your part, it would be reasonable to ask that he try to understand how it is that he is so intimidated by your feelings.

Finally, anger frequently results from one's interpretation of interpersonal events. Sometimes, considering an alternative explanation (e.g., from "he doesn't care about me" to "he is too tired") can make a big difference in how you feel. This is the sort of examination of thoughts and feelings that would come up in couple therapy. If you choose to pursue couple therapy, we advise getting a referral from a friend who has had a good experience, or from a trusted health or mental health provider (which can be LCL staff).

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association