Commentary: Couples need to learn to express, rather than suppress, anger

"Doctor, we never argue or raise our voices," she announced smugly as we began our initial marital session.

Her husband agreed, as they looked at us expecting approving acknowledgment that they were doing the right thing. They hoped we would be impressed with their discipline and control.

In reality, we knew we'd have a long road ahead of us. Because from our perspective, never expressing anger is a liability, rather than an asset.

When it comes to anger, it is easy for couples to suppress feelings because they are afraid of hurting each other's feelings. They are also afraid that if they express anger, it may get out of control and become violent.

Anger is a normal emotion arising, especially with those with whom we are close. Chronic inhibition of it can lead to a lack of authenticity and honesty in a relationship. Over time, this creates a sense of alienation. Intimacy and closeness are then compromised.

In our private practices, we often treat couples in varying degrees of distress. One important aspect of how successful the outcome of marriage counseling will be is the way couples resolve conflict and deal with resentment and anger.

One of the hardest things for some to believe is that the healthy expression of anger can actually help resolve conflict. The key is learning how to express it without being vicious and demeaning.

For those who aren't comfortable feeling or expressing anger, there are typically past family experiences that have shaped their discomfort with it. They may have experienced an out-of-control father who became violent or a mother who would throw things when angry.

They have never had good models of safe anger expression, and end up believing that if they allow themselves to express anger, they will lose control just as they witnessed from parents, siblings, or other relatives.

But we can learn how to express anger without having to repeat what we learned from our family.

Women have a heavier burden than men when it comes to feeling and expressing anger. They feel the weight of the culture against their creating conflict, expressing anger, or any other strong emotion that is not socially sanctioned as "playing nice with others."

Any woman who is assertive in speech or behavior risks being labeled difficult, even in the corporate world, where the same behavior is required for men to get ahead.

We teach couples the difference between destructive and constructive anger. We help them become strong enough to bring up issues honestly in a timely fashion so that anger doesn't need to fester until it explodes.

We teach them to combat the tendency to hope resentments will pass on their own, never needing to be addressed or expressed. And we show couples that a lot of what is argued about really isn't about who's "right" but needing to be acknowledged when hurt and be heard and valued by one's partner.

Learning healthy ways of working with anger is well worth the effort.

Drs. STEVEN and DEBORAH HENDLIN are clinical psychologists in private practice in Newport Beach.

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