I remember being somewhat perplexed the first time I met with a client who said they were in my office because of needing “anger management skills.” Of course, I’d heard of something like that, but realized specific skills for handling anger was not something that was covered in grad school.
Did my program have a gap in the curriculum? Was there some list somewhere of what exactly I should be teaching this client?
I consulted with my supervisor, who told me that “anger management” is just another term for “emotion regulation.” I realize that for people who are not therapists, “anger management” may actually seem like a clearer description, but from a clinician’s perspective, what my supervisor was telling me was that clients who present with “anger management issues” really need help in identifying their feelings (which may be anger, but also may be something else) and deciding what the appropriate way to respond to those feelings is.
The part about those feeling being “something other than anger” is also important. Humans feel a range of emotions, but in our society, not all of them are acceptable, especially in public. For example, it’s generally a cultural expectation that men will not cry in public. That doesn’t mean men don’t feel the urge to cry, nor that men never cry in public, but it’s not a common occurrence. As a result, many men channel that sadness into anger. A man yelling or displaying his physical strength in public is much more acceptable, even if it can be unpleasant.
Unfortunately, there are many losses that come with converting one emotion into another:
- Your partner may not even realize that is what’s happening. Childhood messages about what is acceptable behavior may have taught your partner that sadness is unacceptable, but anger is okay. As a result, any time your partner feels sad, the emotion comes out as anger. It becomes automatic and is usually an unconscious reaction.
- Your partner may “forget” what their different emotions feel like because they have one default emotion for upsetting events: anger. Your partner may look at you like you are crazy for crying, grieving, being terrified, or acting disgusted, to name a few relevant emotions for upsetting events. You may look at your partner and think, “What is wrong with you? How can [fill in the situation] make you angry?”
- Communication and support when times are tough can be extra challenging. People who are angry can be scary to be around, especially if they are aggressive while angry. If you and your partner are experiencing an issue that requires emotional support, trying to get close to an angry partner might be impossible.
The anger your partner feels may indeed by genuine, and they may truly have issues with controlling it. It is true that some people are more prone to anger than others. These people are sometimes referred to as having “low frustration tolerance,” and there are ways to help them manage situations they find triggering. Therapy can help with this. There also may be classes in your area that are marketed as targeting “anger management skills,” and depending on your partner’s interest and willingness to work for change, they might be worth checking out.
On the other hand, your partner may discover that what has been popping up as anger might actually be something else, and in that case, they need to relearn how to appropriately name what they are feeling. This will take practice and a caring, supportive partner to validate their experience.
The APA has a guide called “Controlling Anger–Before It Controls You” that might be helpful as well.