The Surprising Purpose of Anger

ANGER!

Everyone feels it from time to time.  For some, it seems to be an ever-present emotion, which, even once venting has occurred, does not relent or even recede.

Where does anger come from and why can it linger? The dictionary defines anger as “a strong feeling of displeasure and belligerence aroused by a wrong; wrath; ire.”  It sure is a strong feeling!  In me, anger often feels like rage, especially if it has festered a while.

The late Dr. Marshall Rosenberg would say that festering itself is part of the issue underlying anger.  Dr. Rosenberg founded the Nonviolent Communication process (cnvc.org), and it is his belief that anger stems from the festering of unmet needs.  He specifically stated that at “the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled.”

What needs often go unmet, especially in a difficult or unhappy marriage?  In my practice as a divorce attorney, I often hear about these unmet needs: appreciation, cooperation, closeness, companionship, empathy, consideration, intimacy, nurturing, support, trust, stability, integrity, joy, humor, freedom, understanding, and growth.

When a need like these goes unmet, Dr. Rosenberg says that you’ll have feelings about it.  These feelings are many, varied, and can include fear, anger, confusion, detachment, numbness, withdrawal, surprise, uneasiness, grief, vulnerability, loneliness, irritability, and mistrust.

We can choose something different than suppressing our anger, or blasting others with our judgments.

Here we find a surprising purpose for our feelings, including anger: they indicate when our needs are and are not being met.  When feeling angry, we can conclude that some important need, such as trust, cooperation, appreciation, consideration, etc., is not being met. With open eyes, we can choose something different than suppressing our anger, or blasting others with our judgments.  We can use the anger constructively by identifying there is an underlying need, and finding a healthy way to meet the underlying need.

There are times when we don’t always know either our feelings or our needs. To help us with this, Dr. Rosenberg created a list of needs and feeling, to help identify what’s going on inside of us emotionally.  In fact, there are two lists of feelings – one that identifies feelings we have when our needs are being met, and another that indicates the feelings we may have when our needs are not being met.

Let’s run this idea through an example. Say you and your spouse are planning to attend a family event. You were so excited about the event, but now your spouse has arrived home forty-five minutes late due to an outing with friends, and the two of you are going to be late to this important event!  Grrrr.

What are your options?

  • Option 1:

    You could try and pretend that you’re not mad.  How does this make you feel?  Besides, the anger will probably just come out sideways, in some sort sneer about what your spouse is wearing or some other passive-aggressive barb.

  • Option 2:

    You could blast your spouse with both barrels, right before leaving for the family event to which you will now be late.  So you’ll have an argument in the car, and arrive at the event feeling anything but festive.  Ugh.

  • Option 3:

    You could say in a calm, but firm voice, “you know, I’m angry at your late arrival.  Now we’re going to be late too.  This family event is important to me, and you know this.  I wanted to be on time, which I think is respectful to the host, but also because I don’t want to miss out on anything.  I need you to know that my needs for trust, cooperation and respect are not being met in this moment.”

Does this sound like a tall order?  Being resolute, calm and honest in the face of feeling angry?  I know it’s possible (I’ve done it myself), especially if we have a bit of time to consider our options!  In the above example, the “waiting” spouse had forty-five minutes to consider the options, go to cnvc.org (!), and formulate such a response.

Believe me, I know it’s harder when the space between the unmet need and the feeling are closer together in time, but it’s still possible.  This is when we momentarily bite our tongues, or decide to temporarily remove ourselves from the situation – perhaps by taking a bathroom break.  We turn on the bath fan and say (or think) all the nastiness that might first bubble up and out of our mouths to an empty room. After calming down a bit we remember that there is an underlying problem that elicits these strong emotions: we have needs that aren’t being met.  We also remember that those needs will not be met if we remain silent about the problem or if we scream at the top of our lungs.  As best we can, we identify the needs that are getting trampled and the emotions we’re feeling.  Then we go back out to our spouses and try to have a conversation with a calmer and more objective lens.  It won’t be perfect, but it will be better than holding your emotions all in or raging them all out.

Suzanne E. Grandchamp


UNTANGLE, UNPACK & LIVE WISELY

What needs may not be getting met in your marriage?  What are you feeling as a result of these unmet needs?  Use the resources at cnvc.org if you need help identifying your feelings or your needs.  How can you communicate your feelings and your needs to your spouse in a respectful way?