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Anger Springs from Three Separate Emotions
by Gary Smalley

Anger is an emotion. Like all of our emotions, there's nothing wrong with it in and of itself. It's our human response to something that occurs, or at least to our perception of the problem. In fact, some anger is good; we should get angry when we see some injustice or when someone is trying to violate our personal property lines. In such cases, our anger is what motivates us to take appropriate action. But after anger motivates us to do something good, we can't afford to let it linger inside us. We have to get it out. Anger is a good emotion when it gets us moving, but if we let it take root, we set ourselves up for a great deal of potential harm.

Dr. Howard Markman of Denver University, a leading expert in the prevention of divorce, gives a strong warning about hidden anger. He reminds us that all those little discussions that just don't seem to get resolved and continually provoke an inappropriate outburst—issues that don't necessarily call for heated feelings, such as whether the toilet paper rolls from the top or the bottom or whether the toilet seat is up or down—are usually driven by anger that's just below the surface. No matter how many times a couple tries to resolve those issues or enter into deeper intimacy, the anger can keep them apart and in turmoil. Living with angry people is like living in a minefield. If you say or do the wrong thing, kaboom! They explode all over everyone. And you're left thinking, Oh, I had no idea that one thing I did would cause such a reaction.
Actually, anger is a secondary emotion, not a primary feeling. It arises out of fear, frustration, hurt, or some combination of these three. For example, if someone says something harsh to us we first feel hurt and then anger. When we strip the word anger down to its deepest level, we see a thread that runs through this entire book—unfulfilled expectations. Frustration is not receiving what we had expected from other people or from circumstances.

Hurt is when we don't hear the words or see the actions we expect from other people or circumstances. And fear is either dreading what we expect will not come as we wish it to or expecting that something bad is going to happen. In his book Banishing Fear in Your Life, Charles Bass clearly explains, "The process by which fear provokes anger is relatively simple: we use anger to cope with fear." He goes on to tell a wonderful story of counseling a couple "who interacted with a fear/anger reaction." From the husband and wife he heard two completely different stories. Here's the husband's version:
Every time I come home, Mary is waiting for me with a chip on her shoulder. I hate to go home. As I drive home, I get more and more tense. When I get home and see her waiting for me with her hands on her hips, it just makes me mad, and I tie into her before she can get the jump on me.

The wife's story:
Joe is always mad at me over something … He always comes home in a bad temper. I really have to stand up to him to defend myself.

For both people a smoldering anger was fueled by fear—of the other's anger.

There's a wonderful line in the classic Christmas carol written by Phillips Brooks. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" refers to "the hopes and fears of all the years." If those hopes aren't realized and those fears are realized—anger can settle in. Anger at ourselves. At specific others. At the more generic world. At God. We feel the need to blame our unhappiness on someone or something.

Anger is our choice. We choose to respond in anger when something happens to us that's outside of our control. It's a normal response, even a good response, when it's controlled. But we are the ones who choose hold on to anger or to let it go. We can choose to see its powerful potential for destruction and take the steps to reduce it within us. Otherwise it's an iceberg sinking our love.

© Copyright 2005 Smalley Relationship Center