On Anger

I interviewed several Aquarius women on anger, and here are their responses:

1. "When my husband starts pushing me about how I feel and I know I feel hostile, I tend to sidestep him. I guess what I do is I start talking about other people. I talk about Johnny's piano teacher, the neighbors' divorce, the scandal on the school board, or the latest gossip at work. Rarely, I may explode. More often, what I do is I get bitchy. Did he know, for example, that the piano teacher is probably a frustrated dyke? Did he want to hear about the principal's balding pate and his practically public affair with his secretary? Why, she's as skinny as a rail and probably never learned her back from her front. And, as far as the neighbors went, why couldn't they have picked better places for their fights? From the kitchen window, the scenes are clearly visible; and she sure is a dud if she thought she could win him back with that face of hers that looks like mashed potatoes."

2. "I defuse my anger with jokes. I have a stockpile of foreign jokes, domestic jokes, sex jokes. I probably use the dirtiest ones when I am angriest, for their shock value. It gives me the feeling I am getting back at my husband without actually expressing my anger at him."

3. "I am a dancer. Anger is no problem. I just take my ballet shoes from the hook in the hall and stomp out. It's a marvelous way to train my body and my mind."

4. "I don't know. I've tried everything, all the therapies—Freudian, Reichian, Jungian, primal scream, the one where they had me beating beds with a tennis racket—and none of them did me much good. The more anger I expressed, the more welled up in me. I even tried rolfing, but that was too painful. I spent time in California; that didn't help. My life hasn't improved. I still feel angry, angry at everyone, but especially at men. And yet, when I try to show anger with my boyfriend, all that comes out is a sort of pacifying voice, an apologetic try at releasing hostility. Besides, I don't think it's fair of me to be angry with him. It's not his fault I've been enraged since I was born."

The first woman seems to have selected a method whereby she parcels out her anger—leaks it, so to speak. She allows her anger to come out through bitchiness at a third party. She is unwilling to create an atmosphere in which she feels safe enough to be honest. Her put-downs of other people siphon off some of the venom of her anger.

When I questioned her about her rare explosions, she said that the few times she had erupted, her husband became terrified. He seemed otherwise unaware of the anger his wife felt and habitually unburdened through her bitchy, satirical anecdotes. She admitted that her explosions caused such discomfort in her husband that over the years she had virtually stopped them.

She came to the next session with a glimmer in her eye. She told me she had discovered that their sex life improved vastly about two days after an explosion on her part and stayed unusually enjoyable for weeks. She said she would try to discuss this with her husband, taking a constructive approach. Also, she would investigate some form of art (which was her main interest) that could help her express some of the anger that now took the form of childish bitchiness. I suggested she could write jokes, short stories, or a weekly report on City Hall for the local paper. I also recommended a vacation for the couple in a romantic spot, with a tape recorder for their forthcoming discussions. She was basically healthy; she just needed some reorientation.

The second speaker is very self-aware. There was little I could say to her that she didn't already know. She was highly analytical and quite deliberate in her use of anger. What I wanted to know was how she felt inside. Was she really able to vent her anger, or did her jokes simply shift her anger around? She told me she had no intention of changing her style; whatever anger she felt, she could handle it. Clearly she wasn't ready to pursue the subject at the time.

The third lady, the dancer, is a self-disciplined, beautiful artist. She had conquered a variety of childhood diseases, a disapproving mother and father. She had survived two divorces, and now she was in love with life. I believed her when she told me she used dance to express anything from love to hate, beauty to anger. As a little girl, when she had been very ill, she had visualized growing up to be a healthy adult and a famous dancer. Everyone thought she would not recover her mobility and strength, but through mind power and strenuous exercise, she was dancing beautifully within a year.

Self-control can be a virtue; in her case, I believe it was. There is a very thin line separating the attempt to escape anger through frantic activity from behavior that is legitimately integrative. In the latter, people use anger as a catalyst to produce something that makes them feel joyous and worthy.

People's motivation is very difficult to understand and often irrelevant. What, after all, does it matter if Albert Schweitzer went to Africa to gain fame, to get back at his enemies, or to express his genuine love for people? His motivation was mixed, but the results were crystal clear. In dealing with anger, I don't ask why a person has been angry all along.

The fourth lady went through the 1960s trying all kinds of lifestyles, drugs, and healing methods. She can be a raging feminist on the one hand, and a placating, submissive partner on the other. This woman is a highly competent, assertive career woman who in her private life cannot bring herself to show overt anger. She seems to use some of her anger constructively by applying it to her work. She told me she sometimes felt she could conquer the world or build it in two days, and these were the days when she felt either full of love for people or full of anger.

At home she combines guilt about her anger with placating behavior. She excuses her boyfriend for actions that normally would make her angry. She is afraid of losing him. She is afraid that her professional strength is a threat to him. She thinks she has to protect his ego and so represses her anger.

I pointed out that she was ultimately protecting herself. It was she who chose not to deal with her anger in her most intimate relationship, out of fear of losing it, out of old conditioning that "a nice woman doesn't blame her man and doesn't get angry." Deep inside, she was protecting her boyfriend even from his own feelings while she denied her own.

The Aquarius Woman's basic detachment serves her well in the area of anger. She can instinctively channel her aggression into useful causes. But she also harbors grudges and experiences downward spirals in her relationships. Anger cannot be ignored; she must face it.

Susan did a slow burn over her husband's leaving the toothpaste cap off each morning. She found brisdes in the sink, and she hated the messy bathroom he left in his wake each morning. Her anger mounted. She thought, "If he really cared, he would be more mindful. The least he could do is to close the toothpaste and roll it from the bottom as I do."

Susan has been taught that she cannot love and be angry at the same time. But as the evidence of her man's lack of consideration mounts, so does her anger. And the downward marital spiral begins. Susan begins to get headaches more often. Sex becomes more mechanical, less fun. They both drink more, smile more artificially. They resort to new little rituals to shore up an ailing relationship. She buys peek-a-boo nightgowns she secretly dislikes; he suggests a marital enrichment weekend he's afraid of. They patch up with flowers, candy, dinner out. He never forgets to kiss her goodbye, and she doesn't forget to make his favorite meal. But the atmosphere grows chillier, and an absentmindedness sets in. After awhile, the little rituals fail to help.

Susan's man feels her anger instead of her acceptance. He feels her sexual cool instead of a ready glow. He notices she no longer cooks his favorite meal. She says he has gained too much weight. He feels rejected. She says he never takes her out anymore. He points out that she spends too much money on clothes. She feels rejected.

They go to a party, drink too much, and on the way home have a fight. An explosion begins, seems to subside, then erupts again. They don't trust each other. She no longer calls him to tell him where she'll be after work. He no longer comes straight home from his job. Anger on both sides chips away at the very foundation of their once lovely relationship. Sometimes the sex is better than it ever was—frenzied, wild, though never close. But more and more, sex feels cold, begins to wither and die.

Many couples at this point have extramarital affairs, or they may go into couple therapy or individual counseling. Some decide to separate or divorce. Some take the angry bull by the horn and begin to discuss their feelings honesdy. Three things are necessary to do this: awareness; the will to be honest and to share anger without a win/lose attitude; and communication skills. The couple must decide, too, whether they wish the relationship to continue and in what form.

Susan and others like her will find it helpful to say, "I'm mad!" and then do something about it. Sometimes all she can do is go out for a walk or slam a tennis ball around. These things help, but they'll never repair her relationship. Susan may have to start with "I've had it. I'm angry, and I'm ready to do something about it. Let's see what's necessary."

Anger, constructively used, creates a confrontation between partners that can lead to a greater understanding, to the liberation of all feeling. Susan didn't just suppress her anger; she suppressed hope, love, and self-esteem as well.

In my classes on the constructive uses of anger, the students compiled a list of the basic ways in which they found anger useful and also harmful. Here are the lists:

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