Q: I come from a family of loud, working-class Italians who say what we feel when we feel it. Everyone in my boyfriend’s family are all upper middle class New Englanders who never raise their voices, say anything “inappropriate” or express anger directly. I shout and yell when I’m mad, and then I’m done with it. I never get violent, but my boyfriend says he’s scared of me and wants me to go to a counselor to learn to stop being “abusive.” I don’t want to wind up being terminally polite and tasteful like his family, and I tell him that he needs to stop being so scared of honest feelings. How do we sort this out?
Usually, when couples disagree, the solution isn’t found by determining who’s right and who’s wrong, but by finding ways of being together that work for both parties. If your boyfriend is afraid of you, that’s an important issue to resolve, but you also have the right to feel free to express your feelings without having to bottle yourself up or walk on eggshells. It might help if you explore together the question of what the difference is between anger and abuse.
Anger is a natural and healthy response to a perceived threat or injustice. When people are angry, they act angry. They often speak with a raised voice, excited gestures, and a red face, and none of that is inherently destructive or abusive, as long as the expressions are intended to communicate the anger and not to threaten or bully. It’s entirely possible to express anger with passion while managing one’s temper and being mindful and respectful of the other person.
Abuse is different. While it’s associated with anger, its real source is the desire for power and control. When people are abusive, it’s rarely because they “can’t control their temper.” Most people who are abusive to others aren’t “out of control” at all. Typically, they’re acting deliberately and with complete knowledge of what they’re doing. They do what they do because they think they’re justified in doing it. They may believe their gender, status, race or belief system entitles them to more power than the other person or group of people. Or they may feel such a lack of power and control on a personal level that they try to compensate by intimidating others.
Here are a few ways to distinguish anger from abuse. Anger informs others about our own needs and feelings through “I” statements: abuse is about putting down, silencing, intimidating, and threatening others through “you” statements. Anger asks for attention, accountability, amends, and restitution: abuse seeks revenge, punishment and humiliation. Angry people own and express their own feelings: abusive persons export their own fear to others. Anger seeks to address and resolve problems: abuse is about overpowering and winning. Anger deals with the present issue: abuse is more often the result of a build-up of past issues and misplaced rage. Anger is fully consistent with love because it aims at deeper understanding and connection. It moves toward the other. Abuse is motivated by fear and hatred, and moves against the other. Anger is usually a brief flare and ends in closure: abuse arises from a smoldering fire of resentment, bitterness, and vengefulness that is never quenched. Appropriate anger, above all, is always nonviolent, safe, and in control: abuse is threatening, unsafe, and sometimes violent.
I suggest that, after considering the above description, you ask yourself what are your intentions when you express anger. When you’re angry, are you about communicating feelings and resolving issues, or is your real intention to get your own way by bullying and intimidating? If the latter is true even some of the time, then your boyfriend’s fear has some justification. He, in turn, might ask himself what expressions of anger from you wouldn’t scare him. If there are none, then at least some of his fear may not be coming from a genuine perception of danger, but, as you suggest, from a phobic response to anger in general. He might also ask himself whether his objection to your anger is always genuinely self-protective, or whether it’s sometimes a passive-aggressive attempt to manipulate and control you. None of these possibilities are either-or alternatives. Relationships are complex, and often the truth is both/and.