Ralph was furious. In his own words, “I’ve had it up to here. If I wasn’t such a wuss, I’d pack my bag and leave. I’ve thought about it a hundred times. The only thing that stops me are the kids. How can I cause them the pain of a divorce, their house being sold, living in an apartment, having to make new friends, and me being a part-time father? I went through that when mom and dad got their divorce and I don’t want them to go through what I experienced.”
“What are you mad about?”, I asked.
“Everything”, he said. “I live in a house where I’m just a paycheck. I go to work, come home, I’m tired and need a place to just wind down. A place where I feel like I matter and someone cares. But, I no sooner hit that house than there’s all the demands - ‘you’ve got to go to Little League’, ‘you’ve got to go to soccer practice’, ‘you’ve got to go to the recital’, ‘we’re going to dinner with the Rogers’ Saturday night’, ‘the lawn is looking terrible - don’t you think it’s time you cut it?’ That’s before I even get my coat off. I get no appreciation, but lots of criticism and demands. It is the same as when my dad left. I became the man of the house. As a kid, it sounded like a promotion. Little did I know what it really meant. ‘Take care of your sister. Make sure she does her homework. Do yours.’ ‘Start dinner’, or ‘Mow the lawn’. And then listen to her complain about her life. Nothing’s changed , except now, I’m my father and the complaints are about me. If she were here now, I’d put my hands around her neck and I don’t know when I’d stop squeezing.”
“Whose neck, your mother’s or your wife’s?”
“Both, I think.”
“How long are you going to stay mad?” I asked.
He looked at me abruptly and then directed his hostility in my direction. “What do you mean, how long am I going to be mad? How do I know? As long as I live with her, and I don’t see me getting out. So I guess, a long time. What makes you think I have any control over it, anyway?”
“Perhaps that’s the problem. You’re feeling out of control.”
“Well, I am and I’m resigned to the fact that’s the way it’s going to be, unless she changes.”
“I have a different view. I believe you can be in control of your emotions. You can decide whether you’re angry or not. I’ve been there. I suspect everyone, at one time or another, has found themselves furious at their spouse. I can recall times when I was so angry, I’d fall into monosyllabic conversation. I’d answer every statement with ‘yep!’, ‘nope!’, ‘okay!’, ‘never!’, ‘maybe!’, or ‘sometimes!’. It was my ineffectual way of showing her that she couldn’t control me. Sometimes, later, I’d be watching television or reading and she’d come up and say, ‘would you like a glass of water?’ and without thinking, my response would be, ‘yeah, that’s nice’. Then suddenly I’d realize, ‘Wait a minute, I’m angry and I’m not ready to drop it.’ So, I’d quickly correct myself. ‘Nope, I’ll get it myself.’ Think about it. I not only forgot that I was angry and responded in a normal way, but I also made a decision to remain angry.”
“Once I looked at that, it became evident I was, indeed, in control of my emotions. I also realized that the anger wasn’t at her. My emotional upset came from me. It may have been a reaction to her behavior, but the basic problem was me and the way I reacted. But, once I took responsibility for me, I realized that whether she was happy with me or not wasn’t the issue. The problem was, I was angry at myself for me not caring enough for me. It’s the same with control. You may think your anger stems from the fact that you feel controlled. The truth be known, your anger stems from the fact you’re irate with yourself for not having sufficient backbone to be in control of you.”
Let me add, however, that this doesn’t apply just to men. I have seen just as many women in therapy whose view of their marital relationships included the same feelings of rejection and lack of control. In every instance, their initial anger was directed at their spouse. But their spouses weren’t the problem. The problem was, they were too frightened to live on their own, or to enter into a single world and, possibly, discover that no one cared or loved them. These individuals, both male and female, never learned to stand up for themselves, or to feel worthy of being loved and appreciated for who they were, with their warts, scars and feelings of insufficiency. If they had, they wouldn’t have tolerated their spouse’s mistreatment. Nor would they have hidden behind anger. They would have either fixed it or left.”
Holding on to your anger serves still another purpose. It enables you to not have to look at yourself. Unfortunately, most of you live your lives blaming others, feeling the victim and presenting yourselves as martyrs. You don’t realize there is another role you can assume. One that obliges you to stand up for yourself, and to communicate what you feel and what you desire. But, it also involves risking being rejected. Nevertheless, it’s a necessary step that you need to take in order to learn that rejection isn’t certain to happen and isn’t fatal. Further, even if it does happen, you no longer need to feel frightened, to resent others, or hold on to anger. The reason being you’ve finally assumed responsibility for you and learned that you can stand on your own have a choice regarding how, and with whom, you’re going to live the rest of your life.