Thus far in this series about anger, we have looked at the way betrayal creates anger, and how important it is to slow down and allow ourselves to receive the messages our anger is trying to send. We have also explored how anger is a catalyst, urging us to create change around things that are not serving us well or are creating suffering.
In today’s post, I want to turn our attention to the ways in which, if we are not practicing awareness, we can misuse our anger to create more conflict and relational problems. Then next week we will focus on what it looks like to express our anger well.
All emotions carry within them an action tendency. Shame prompts us to hide – that is its action tendency. Anger, on the other hand, prompts us to fight or defend. Anger is a fast-moving emotion that lights up our nervous system. We often get swept up in the rush of adrenaline that anger produces and are in action before we consciously make a choice. When this happens, we are reacting rather than responding.
Because the action tendency in anger is to fight or defend, the reactionary behaviors that we can easily fall prey to are defensive, protective ones. Below I’ve outlined two common patterns that betrayed partners often fall into when reactionary anger takes over: othering and offending from the victim position.
One of the first things that reactionary anger prompts us to do is to consider ourselves different from the offender. After all, we would never cheat. We would never lie to the person we love. We would never treat our partner so poorly. We would never ____________ (fill in the blank for yourself).
Anger causes us to see the offending party as “other” than ourselves because seeing the person as “other” makes it easier for us to defend and protect ourselves. Remember, the threat center of the brain is not particularly discerning. The rush of anger that sweeps through us when we are harmed or violated can fill us with adrenaline and enable us to do things we would not normally do.
If we are being mugged, this is a great skill. We see the attacker and our threat center labels them as a threat that is different from us and must be eliminated or contained. This can help us move without hesitation to harm the attacker and fight them off. We don’t see them as someone’s child, parent, loved one. We see them as alien from ourselves and in need of vanquishing.
In a relational context, however, this “othering” is not so helpful. Our anger can cause us to start to categorize the cheating partner and use language such as, “They always…” and “They never…” They become cheaters who are liars, narcissists, emotional robots, or whatever other label we want to attach to them. They are now separate from us, different from us, and as a result are deserving of whatever contempt, disgust, shame or rage we react with.
This “othering” of the cheater is often the first step in allowing reactionary anger free reign within our relationships. The second step is offending from the victim position.
Offending from the Victim Position
Offending from the victim position happens when we experience harm at the hands of another person and then feel justified in harming them back. This dynamic is often rooted in a self-righteous belief that we are entitled to treat the offending party poorly because they offended first, or more, or more regularly. Whatever the justification, offending from the victim position is a way of rationalizing becoming an emotional offender ourselves.
Othering allows us to justify this behavior even further. If our partner were not such a cheater and a liar and hadn’t caused us so much harm, we wouldn’t be so enraged and angry in the first place. If they would treat us better or listen to us with more empathy, we wouldn’t need to rage. If they weren’t so unkind and uncaring, we wouldn’t be so shaming and contemptuous back.
Offending from the victim position feels especially good because when we are harmed or violated it makes us feel one-down relationally. One of the fastest ways out of feeling one-down is to go one-up ourselves and offending from the victim position moves us into a one-up stance in the relationship.
Both coping patterns are common and all of us at one time or another fall into them, even when we are not dealing with the excruciating wound of betrayal. However, when we move into othering and allow our rage free expression without containment, we often create more conflict, pain, and disappointment within our relationships. As betrayed partners, we can get stuck in our anger, unable to allow it to move through us, instead nursing our rage out of the misplaced belief that it will protect us from further hurt.
However, anger doesn’t protect us from the pain of betrayal. It can create relational disconnection and we can mistake this emotional distance for safety. But true safety is created through moments of restored trust and connection with ourselves and, when possible, with our partner.
Now that we have looked at the ways that anger can hijack us into othering and offending from the victim position, next week we will turn our attention to expressing anger in helpful and healthy ways.