Excuse #1: Anger
Why do abusers seem to have a problem with anger?
Abusers feel entitled to dominate their partners, and, like most of us, they get angry if they don’t get what they feel entitled to. They get angry if their partner resists their demands, tries to take back control over her/his own life, or “fails” to meet their expectations. Bancroft23 gives the example of a man who was enraged because his wife wasn’t paying attention to him during a 2-day period when her son was missing. This man’s anger may seem extreme, but it is actually in proportion to his inflated idea of how much control he is entitled to have over his partner. It can be compared to the road rage of drivers who feel entitled to go much faster than the cars in front of them, vs. the ordinary annoyance most of us feel when traffic slows us down.
Why do abusers express their anger abusively?
- It works. Abusive expressions of anger are not out of control – they are intended to control the partner.
- They feel no obligation to express themselves civilly to their partner.
- They suffer few negative consequences for how they express anger toward family members.
How does looking at gender help us understand what’s going on?
Abusers of any gender can use anger as a weapon of abuse. However:
As a result of their socialization, many men are skilled and comfortable expressing anger (more than with expressing other feelings). Many male abusers skillfully use their anger to control their partners, and feel comfortable doing so.
Also due to socialization, many women are uncomfortable expressing anger; they may use other forms of expression or manipulation to control their partner. It is entirely possible to be coercively controlling without expressing – or even feeling – anger.
Anger Management programs – a common response to IPV – focus on teaching attendees how to control their anger and express it non-abusively. However, there are many reasons why this is not an appropriate response to abuse.
- Abusers’ behavior outside the home shows that they already know how to express anger civilly, if they decide it’s necessary.
- Abusers do assault their partners when they’re angry, but they are also cruel, intimidating, manipulative, controlling and physically violent when they are not. Control, not anger, is the reason for domestic abuse.
- Abusers use their anger as a weapon. They may appear out of control, but they are often using their anger quite purposefully to remind their partner and children that it is dangerous to cross them.
- Abusers entitlement attitudes lead them to keep finding more reasons to be angry,24 regardless of what interventions are attempted.
- It’s not just about anger. Many abusers have an exaggerated opinion of how important all their feelings are.25 They dominate their partner, not just with anger, but also with how they express jealousy, frustration, fear of abandonment and even love. The issue is not how the abuser feels, it’s what he/she does with those feelings. For instance, while a non-abusive person might feel jealous and say so, an abuser who feels jealous may stalk his/her partner.
Anger Management programs typically don’t challenge attendees’ underlying belief that they have the right to use their anger to manage their partner. They don’t teach them to take responsibility for how they hurt others with their anger. And they may teach abusers new ways to manage their partner. For instance,
- Having learned in AM to take a “time-out” to avoid escalating a conflict, Jamal uses it every time Tonya is winning an argument.26 Tonya has trouble recognizing and confronting this control tactic, because, technically, he is doing what she wants.
- Whenever Helene gets angry, Tom tells her that she has anger control problems – and conveniently ignores the legitimate reasons for her anger.
Questions to ask yourself: Is your partner’s anger a weapon of control?
- Does he control his temper easily, except when he’s with you?
- When he’s angry at someone else, does he express it civilly to them – and then take it out on you?
- What does the pit of your stomach feel like when she starts to get angry?
- Does he do destructive and hurtful things when he’s angry – call you names, throw things, punch walls, get up in your face, hit you, or make threats? Does he care how this affects you?
- How does he treat you when he’s not angry?
- When she sees that her anger scares you, does she back off and soften her tone, or does she ramp it up further?
- How does she act when you get angry? Does she tell you that your anger is abusive? Or does she think you have no right to get mad?
- Does he expect you to accept his being angry as an excuse for abusive behavior?
- Does his anger often seem way out of proportion?
If you answered “yes” to many of these questions…
- Seeing your partner’s behavior accurately could help you stop thinking that you caused his/her anger.
- You may want to talk over your situation with an advocate at a local domestic violence program, or with your counselor, if you have one.
- Do not assume that anger management will help.
- Be cautious in agreeing to couple counseling, which may focus on what you do that makes your partner so angry, rather than on his/her abusive use of anger.
- If you want to know more about the relationship between domestic abuse and anger, scroll up to read this section.