What messages did you get about anger when you were growing up?
I bet you heard statements like these:
Girls shouldn’t get so mad.
Don’t curse. It isn’t very ladylike.
Guys don’t like angry, bitter women.
Calm down. You’re being so dramatic.
The people who instilled this kind of thinking in us weren’t doing us any favours. Misconceptions about anger and a lack of healthy strategies for dealing with anger can damage your relationship. So, let’s get a fresh perspective on this intense emotion that you might fear and avoid.
When Anger Goes Wrong
Far too many women think anger is telling them something negative about themselves. Thanks to what they learned from their families of origin and our culture, they fear deep down that anger means they’re a bad, aggressive person. They believe that if they could just be better somehow, they wouldn’t get angry.
These beliefs lead to:
>> Tolerating behaviour that makes you feel disrespected. For example, your husband habitually runs late. Or even behaviour that harms your family, like overspending.
>> Avoiding anger at all costs. Never having an argument doesn’t improve your marriage. In fact, the opposite can happen if you are sweeping issues under the rug.
>> Seething silently in resentment. In many marriages, women build up resentment around housework and emotional labor.
>> Withdrawing and becoming depressed. This happens when you lose any hope of getting your needs met.
>> Complaints that do give voice to your anger, but in a way that’s unlikely to get your husband to change what’s making you angry.
>> Mean-spirited venting with friends. Again, this might feel like you’re doing something with your anger. But you’re actually just cultivating contempt for your husband while avoiding the real issues.
>> We all have a breaking point. If you suppress anger long enough, you’re likely to lash out. When that happens, your words will be a lot more hurtful than the ones you would have chosen if you’d addressed your anger earlier.
How Anger Can Help You
You may not realize that anger doesn’t have to result in screaming and wounded feelings. It can actually help you improve your relationship. Anger also isn’t some indication of your character, or lack thereof.
The very wise psychologist and author, Harriet Lerner, recommends viewing anger as a warning signal. It reliably tells you when something is wrong and you need to take action to protect yourself.
To use anger in a positive way, first notice how you react when you notice angry feelings surfacing. If you tend to judge yourself and say, “Ugh, I shouldn’t be such a bitch,” or push your anger down with “No time to feel that now!” see if you can just let yourself feel the emotion without trying to judge it or squash it.
Instead of recoiling from your own anger, tune in and ask yourself what your anger is trying to communicate to you. Some common messages behind anger include:
Your needs aren’t being met.
You are being disrespected.
You are doing too much.
Someone has crossed a line with you.
When you have a handle on what’s causing your anger, you can act on it in a more effective way and use your anger as catalyst for positive change. For example, you can establish or affirm healthy boundaries around what you will do, how much you will give, and what you will tolerate. You can lovingly but firmly stand up for what you need and what you expect.
Read More About Women and Anger
I won’t lie to you: while embracing your anger is liberating, it can also be an uncomfortable journey. All of those early messages are deeply ingrained in our minds, and our society still has some deeply messed up attitudes about women and anger. To aid you in this work, I recommend Lerner’s book The Dance of Anger, as well as my own book, Strong Women, Strong Love: The Missing Manual for the Modern Marriage.
We tend to joke about how marriage gets boring after a few years.
But it’s actually no laughing matter.
Researchers have found that boredom may be even more damaging to a marriage than conflict is. Psychotherapist and a bestselling author Esther Perel even sees a link between boredom and infidelity:
When you pick a partner, you pick a story, and that story becomes
the life you live. … And sometimes you realize, after years of living those
parts of you, that there are other parts of you that have virtually
disappeared. The woman disappeared behind the mother. The man disappeared
behind the caregiver. The sensual person disappeared behind the responsible
And there is an expression of longing and yearning. Longing for
connection, for intensity, for a sense of “aliveness,” which is really the word
that many people all over the world would tell me when they are having an
affair. They don’t talk about sex and excitement and titillation, actually. …
What they say is they feel alive — as in vibrant, vital; as in a reclaiming of
something that had gotten lost.
And what is boredom if not the opposite of aliveness?
You Feel Alive?
If you have kids, I bet you invested in classes, camps or other
activities for them this summer — and not just to keep them supervised while
you were at work. You wanted them to learn, to try new things, to have
experiences that would enrich who they are.
As good parents, we do this for our kids. But we often neglect to
do the same thing for ourselves. But, just like your kids, you need to stretch,
grow and have new experiences. And your marriage will be better when you do.
So now that the kids are back in school, what’s one thing you can do that makes you feel more alive? This doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. Revive your yoga practice. Take an online class. Make a list of things you’ve never done in your town, and start doing them. Reconnect with a friend you love spending time with. Whether you do something as a couple or on your own, you’ll be bring some new energy into your relationship. Over time, that energy multiplies, and boredom vanishes.
Are you looking for more ways to keep the spark in your
relationship even after you’ve been married for years? Pick up a copy of my
book Strong Women, Strong
Does your husband roll his eyes when you mention particular friends of yours? Does he try to get out of activities where he knows they’ll be present? This might not seem like a big deal, but it could turn into a trouble spot in your marriage.
Researchers have found that conflicts over friends can raise the risk of divorce, especially when a husband does not like his wife’s friends.
So what are you supposed to do with this information? After all, you love both your husband and your friends.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first. You need friends! Having a variety of nurturing relationships makes your marriage stronger. If your husband doesn’t like you spending any time with friends, there’s a deeper problem.
Assuming, though, that his animosity seems limited to a certain friend or friends of yours, let’s take a closer look at what might be going on.
Does He Not Get Your Friendships?
First, if you know he has issues with a friend of yours, don’t let his dislike of your friend become the “elephant in the room.” Try to create a space to talk openly about what’s happening. For example, maybe he worries that the just-divorced friend you’re hanging out with a lot is filling your head with ideas about leaving him. But, in reality, you and your friend actually spend most of your time talking about work or the kids.
Another possibility is that you have different ideas about friendship. Let’s say your husband’s family lives by the famous quote: “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Your family, on the other hand, emphasizes loyalty above else. So it makes sense that he’s not too happy you’re sticking by your aimless friend from high school. And it makes sense that you wouldn’t dream of distancing yourself from her even though she drives you a little nuts. When each of you understands where the other is coming from, you can find a way through the tension.
Is He Jealous?
Your husband might also be jealous of the bond you have with your friend(s). It’s a challenge for any of us to maintain a healthy support system amid all the demands on our time. But men are even more likely than women to rely on their partner to meet all of their emotional needs. Your husband may feel that your friends are crowding out couple time. In this case, it could be helpful to encourage him to build up his own friendships and pursue his own interests. You can also make sure the two of you are actually setting time aside to spend together on a regular basis.
Is He Right About Your Friends?
Finally, consider that your husband may be on to something. Does he dislike your friends because he’s noticed they drain all your energy and leave you irritable? Has he seen a pattern of your giving more than your friends? Do you and your friends say means things about your husbands under the guise of “teasing” or “venting”? That last question is especially important. Research has shown us that contempt is lethal to marriages. So you don’t want to do anything to cultivate it.
Everyone needs friends, but the way to balance friendships and marriage is unique to every couple. You can learn more about how both you and your husband can build and maintain a healthy support system in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
Or at least it’s not the first word that comes to mind when you think about the qualities of a successful marriage. Talking about boundaries doesn’t get us as starry-eyed as talking about love, passion and devotion.
Is your whole life about your marriage and family? Is your husband your only source of emotional support? Do you neglect your health, your basic needs or the hobbies and interests you had before you got married? Then you need some healthier boundaries around your sense of self.
Maintaining a strong sense of yourself isn’t selfish. Neither is tending to your own needs on a regular basis. The reality is that nurturing your independence makes you a better partner. You take pressure off your husband because you’re not looking to him to fulfill all of your needs.
Having a life outside your marriage can also bring fresh energy into your marriage by giving you other experiences to share with your spouse besides the household chores. Your separateness also sends a strong message about how much you value yourself – and that can make you much more attractive to your husband. You may even lower the chances one of you will have an affair. Psychotherapist and bestselling author Esther Perel believes that many people stray from their marriages because they are trying to recapture a part of themselves they lost by getting married.
Boundaries around Privacy
True love doesn’t necessarily equal being a completely open book. You and your husband can have very different boundaries around privacy.
For example, let’s say both you and your husband were married before. You feel comfortable talking freely about your ex with your husband. No detail is off limits. On the other hand, your husband is more reticent in talking about his previous marriage. He does share information that’s relevant to your relationship – like how his ex’s overspending affects his behaviors around money in your relationship. But overall he keeps most things about his first marriage private.
Your approach may baffle him, and vice-versa. But neither of you is necessarily wrong. The important thing is that you can each maintain the privacy boundaries that feel healthy to you and that you understand and respect each other’s boundaries.
Boundaries around Behavior
Every marriage has rules about off-limits behaviors, whether those rules are spoken or not. Almost all of us would agree that having sex with other people and physically or emotionally abusing your spouse are clear boundary violations in a marriage.
But beyond these common rules, there are some other, lesser-known boundaries that are critical to a healthy marriage. Specifically, fighting dirty and openly disrespectful behavior should be unacceptable in your marriage. Displaying contempt is one of the top warning signs that your relationship is headed for divorce. Tolerating disrespect in any form will ultimately damage your relationship, so it is vital you put some clear boundaries around it.
Other behavior boundaries in marriage are important to negotiate. For example, different couples might set different boundaries around social media use. You may need to discuss how you feel about each of you having friends of the opposite sex. You may even have boundaries you want to set around how often you have sex or how household responsibilities are shared.
It’s essential to talk about what the boundaries are in your marriage and to make sure that you’re both playing from the same rule book.
This week, take some time to think about the boundaries in your marriage. Are there any boundaries you want to change? Are there boundaries that you and your husband need to communicate more about?
You can get more useful insights on boundaries and other ways to keep your marriage healthy in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
Whatever you’re doing right now, take a quick break to watch this video of older women looking back on their lives and reflecting on what’s really important. It’ll take just a couple of minutes.
One thing that’s especially poignant and fascinating about this video is that the women point out that standards are different now than when they were younger and that there’s an expectation of “perfection” in the culture that they didn’t have to contend with.
Take parenting. Did you know that even though more women are in the workforce now, we spend more time with our children than women did in the past? We also deal daily with what seems like an ever-longer list of things we are supposed to do to parent the “right” way.
And then there’s social media, which can make it seem like you’re the only mom without exciting vacations, overachieving children, a blissful marriage, the ideal job, magazine-worthy meals and flawless holiday decorations.
When we constantly chase perfection, we miss the flawed but, in many ways, lovely lives we already have. That isn’t to say, of course, that you shouldn’t pursue what’s important to you in life, whether that’s career fulfillment or a strong marriage. But as you do, remember to get out of your head and come into the present moment with the people you love and life you’ve created.
Amid all the doing, take time for simply being. Right here. Right now.
As the women in the video remind us, the years will pass quickly. And you don’t get a second chance to recapture the moments you lost.
When a woman makes the choice to marry, to have children,
in one way her life begins but in another way it stops.
You build a life of details.
You become a mother, a wife and you stop and
stay steady so that your children can move.
And when they leave they take
your life of details with them.
And then you’re expected to move again
only you don’t remember what moves you because
no one has asked in so long.
Not even yourself.