We Rarely Learn Zero Tolerance for Anger Growing Up
Like many of us, Maureen was raised in a home where anger was expressed with such regularity that it was accepted as normal. Because of what Maureen learned at home, she used anger a lot to get what she wanted. She didn't do this intentionally. As a young child she just discovered that people tended to give her what she wanted in order to avoid the exceptionally unpleasant experience of her irritation. Once this lesson had been learned – well before the age of two was completed – she continued to use it.
Maureen was engaged to Eric, who had been raised around less anger than Maureen. But he still experienced it enough to accept it as fairly normal. Because of the lessons of childhood, both of them manipulated others with anger. They also allowed themselves to be manipulated with anger, uniformly failing to recognize the devastating effects always caused by anger. Without the slightest conscious intent, they settled into a pattern. Maureen would usually get angry at Eric – and there's always a great justification for anger, isn't there? – and Eric would respond with anger or withdrawal. In no time at all, every vestige of love between them had vanished.
The Responsibility for Causing Pain Is Rarely Equal in a Relationship
When blood is spilled in a relationship, rarely is the responsibility for it equal between the two parties. In other words, the behavior of one person tends to cause more harm than the behavior of the other. Maureen's anger and controlling, for example, caused roughly 95% of the conflicts between them. This does NOT mean that Eric was 95% more loving or even 95% less responsible for the condition of their relationship. It means that Maureen's anger had a more immediate and destructive effect, like lighting gasoline. On the other hand, Eric's withdrawing or insensitivity, for example, was still unloving but not nearly as immediately volatile or toxic.
When I'm working with a couple, therefore, it's common for me to identify a negative behavior of one person that has to stop first. This does not make that person more wrong. Their chosen Getting and Protecting Behavior just has more immediate or severely destructive effects. Suppose that I tend to hit you in the face every other time we talk. You, on the other hand, tend to withdraw your love from me and often fail to listen to my needs. These are all unloving behaviors – perhaps equally so, since any unloving behavior makes genuine happiness impossible. But it is simply a practical reality that I must stop my unloving behavior first. It is not reasonable to ask you to listen better and to be more generous with your love while I'm hitting you in the face. And so it was with Maureen and Eric.
A Real Life Example of Why We Need Zero Tolerance for Anger
On many occasions, we talked about their unloving behaviors and how they could modify them. We discussed using intellectual approaches – greater understanding and awareness – and with their hearts as they gathered Real Love from others. But their relationship was not improving.
I said to Maureen, "My dear, as we have discussed before, I am not blaming you. I'm not saying you're the problem. But I AM saying that your particular behaviors simply cause more conflict in your relationship. YOU have said yourself that you want your relationship to improve, correct?"
"Yes," she said.
"So if you want a happy relationship, it's a simple fact that you need to eliminate your anger and controlling."
"I'm working on it."
"That's not good enough, which you have proven yourself. Let's assume that every time I see you, I hit you in the face. Would that be acceptable to you?"
"Suppose that I hit you in the face only when you say irritating things, or when you don't do what I want? In other words, I'll hit you only when it's justified. Would that be all right?"
"Okay, what if I 'work on' – to use your phrase – my unpleasant habit. What if I hit you in the face only half as often? Would that be all right?"
"And I entirely agree with you. There are some things that are just unacceptable. Period. Ever. No excuses. You don't 'work on' them. You just stop them. Hitting you in the face is one of those behaviors. What you do not realize is that when you're angry and controlling with Eric, you are emotionally hitting him in the face. It is not tolerable. Ever."
Can We Ever Express Anger?
"You're telling me I can't ever be angry at Eric?"
"Nope, didn't say that at all. You can be as angry at Eric as you wish. But if you express that anger TO HIM, he will take it as an attack. Then things will go very badly, as you've discovered on many occasions before."
"So if I'm angry at Eric, who do I express that to, if not to him?"
"If you tell ME that you're angry at Eric, will my feelings get hurt?"
"No, probably not."
"Will I get angry and withdraw?"
"But if you tell me the truth about your anger at Eric, many good things can happen. First, you can express honestly how you feel, which is almost always liberating. Second, how will I feel about you? Will I respond with anger or criticism?"
"In fact, isn't it true that I will unconditionally accept you?"
"You have every time so far."
"So if you tell ME the truth about your anger at Eric, you feel freer. You also create the opportunity to feel unconditionally accepted. A third potential benefit is that I'm not stuck in whatever crazy thinking is leading to your anger. I'm not afraid or needy. So I can help you see more clearly what the real cause of your anger is and how you might respond instead. That's a lot of benefits, don't you think?"
"Yes, but I don't think Eric will like it that I'm talking about him to somebody else."
I looked at Eric, who was sitting next to Maureen. "Eric, would you prefer that Maureen vent her anger on you or that she share it with me, so I can help her to feel and behave differently?"
Eric smiled. "When she's angry," he said, "I would BEG her to call you. I'd LOVE it if she had somebody to express her anger to other than me."
"It's true," I said to Maureen, "that partners sometimes don't like being talked about behind their back. But in this case, everybody understands that you'll be talking to me or to somebody else who can love and help you. The purpose isn't gossip. If we talk about Eric, it's only to provide context for the conversation that will really be about you and your anger. Make sense?"
"Can't hurt to try it this way," Maureen said
How Do We Stop Doing Something We've Done All Our Lives?
"No," I said, " it will go much better, especially with practice. Now, earlier we established that you would not like me to hit you in the face – not occasionally, not rarely, and not even when I felt like I had a really great justification for it."
"And that's exactly how Eric feels about your anger and controlling. He hates it every time. In case you're missing his expression of that feeling, he's vigorously nodding his head next to you."
"But how do I just suddenly stop doing something I've been doing all my life?"
"Excellent question, and I suggest a two-part answer. The first is that you think before you open your mouth. You make a solemn promise that you will never engage in these behaviors again. This is not an unreasonable solution. Suppose, for example, that you have the nasty habit of texting while driving. But one day your best friend is killed while texting you. Do you think that at that point you'd be able to make a commitment to stop texting while driving? Completely?"
"Probably. Yes, I think I would."
"It's similar here. The effect of your anger and controlling is so negative on your relationship that if you don't soon stop it, you won't have a relationship at all. Eric, would that be fair to say?"
"Yes," he said.
"So, Maureen, does that help to motivate you, knowing that your behavior is very likely to end your relationship, and soon at that?"
"But I might make a mistake."
Let Your Partner Help You Achieve Zero Tolerance for Anger
"Which brings us to the second part of my answer. Eric will help you. Every single time you're angry or controlling, he'll tell you. He'll say it nicely, something like, 'Maureen, my dear, right now you're being angry (or trying to control me). You don't have to stop it – I won't control your controlling---but I will tell you that if you continue it, I will leave. I simply won't participate in the drama."
"What if she doesn't stop?" Eric asked. "Or she argues that she's not being angry or controlling?"
"Then you'll tell her again, nicely."
"And if she still doesn't stop?"
"Then you leave the room."
"What if we're in the car?"
"Then pull the car over to the curb and get out. You can walk, find a cab, call a friend, whatever. The point is that there must be an absolutely ZERO tolerance for anger and controlling. None."
"But what if he's telling me that I'm angry when I'm NOT?" Maureen said with a nasty tone.
"Maureen, my dear," I said, "you've been angry and controlling for so long that you do not know when you're doing it. You're angry right now."
"No, I'm not."
"You've made my point perfectly. You cannot see your anger and controlling, and I say that in your defense. I'm not blaming you. You can't help where you are now, but you CAN help what you do about it now. You can listen to people who will see your anger, OR you can continue to rely on your own terrible judgment on this subject. Which do you prefer? If you choose to be right, you will lose your fiancé. If you continue to rely on your own judgments, in fact, I will heartily recommend to him that he leave you. This will only get worse between you, not better."
"Isn't it possible that Eric could use this power to control ME?"
"Theoretically possible," I said, "but I've known you two for some time. Eric is simply not a natural controller. And he gets angry only when defending himself against you. It's like worrying that a tree will start eating squirrels. Trees just don't eat squirrels, and Eric just won't control you – not as a general pattern. You're only worried about being controlled because it's what you would do."
"Still, zero anger sounds hard."
"It's easier than just trying for less. As we said earlier, simply stopping a behavior is easier in many cases than doing it less. Like hitting you in the face. Or texting in the car. If we try to do those things less, we'll always be coming up with reasons for tolerating or being careless with destructive behaviors. Texting in a car is a great example of that. Zero tolerance is easier than minimum tolerance."
Oh, what a triumph is accomplished by evil when it is simply accepted as normal, because then it spreads unresisted. We must rigorously and consistently identify and eradicate every condition that makes happiness impossible. This is all that evil really is.
What You Can Do to Achieve Zero Tolerance for Anger
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