Divorces often are messy, and are particularly so when the parties openly are expressing hurt, resentment, or anger. Of these emotions, anger often is the most daunting. For anyone — a divorce attorney, for example — who is thrust into situations in which clients are angry at spouses, partners or, what is more common, themselves, it may be useful to learn how therapists identify and manage destructive behaviors.
Most therapists agree that anger is an emotion, and that emotions affect our bodies and behavior in a myriad of ways. I also make the basic assumption that anger is a response to personal pain and, therefore, when someone is beginning to get angry it makes sense to ask, “What hurts?” As with all management strategies, the sooner this question is asked, the more effective it will be.
There are many ways that anger can be expressed in behavior. Here are a few that you might recognize:
- Verbal Behaviors: criticism, blaming, threatening, (“if you don’t shut up right now, I’ll . . .”) using expletives, stonewalling, teasing, sarcasm, and dismissing comments (“Why don’t you leave now; I don’t have time for you.”).
- Body Language: pacing, shaking a fist, pointing a finger
- Voice, Tone, and Volume: a cold frosty tone, loud and harsh words, mocking in a contemptuous tone, snickering
- Facial Expressions: rolling one’s eyes, narrowing one’s eyes, sneering, frowning, raising an eyebrow, scowling
Anger is deep-seated; the emotion rises up in a surprising multiplicity of guises. Anyone of five mindsets can be produced through the hormonal changes triggered by anger and can protect one from attack.
- Feeling empowered — you don’t doubt yourself
- The energy to cope — you find the strength to move into action
- A way to block feelings such as fear and guilt — anger blocks feelings that might inhibit you from protecting yourself
- Become egocentric — forget about the other person’s needs
- Self-righteousness — you are justified in your actions
Using one of the five reactions to anger helps one obscure or cover up an important inner experience. It makes it easy to understand how anger works as a defense. For example, it defends against: guilt, hurt, loss, feeling helpless or trapped, anxiety or fear, the feeling of being bad, wrong or unworthy, emptiness, and frustrated desire (sour grapes.)
Stress also plays an enormous role in anger behavior by blocking or discharging awareness of painful levels of emotional or physical arousal. Stress and anger are normal and appropriate in divorce. There is a lot to be angry about. The primary task in dealing with the anger is to acknowledge and accept the feelings of anger one has toward their spouse and others, while at the same time helping them avoid behaviors that will be hurtful. The stages of divorce do not move in a logical process, and one can move back and forth between the stages.
- Denial: It is difficult to believe the relationship is over or that this is happening.
- Shock: Everyone reacts to shock differently. You may go through this stage quickly, or it could last for months. Many feelings come up, including pain, lack of feeling, thinking you are out of control and going crazy. Others may experience mood swings, alarm, rage, liberation, hopefulness, liberty, anguish and apprehension.
- Uncertainty/Roller Coaster: You will be in a state of flux as you explore questions, concerns and outcomes that seem to go in circles without any resolution. You are trying to make sense of what has happened. During this time your imagination might run wild. Everyone is to blame, including you. You may question your own judgement and feel incompetent. At this point depression may take over.
- Hope and Bargaining: Now you believe that the relationship might be reconciled. You are willing to make changes that might help you heal the relationship. Unfortunately, you can’t control what your spouse is thinking, and no matter how much you want to repair this relationship, he or she may be in another place.
- Letting Go of the Old Relationship: You finally realize and accept that the relationship is over and you can’t turn back and make things the way they were.
- Growth and Emergence: You’ve finally reconciled some of the confusing thoughts and feelings and you’re ready to move on with your life.
One of the most important lessons to be gained from divorce is learning how to use anger constructively. Anger is the flip side of fear and guilt. When someone is afraid, little things will set off an angry reaction. Anger is a protection, and it diverts one from feelings of helplessness. Anger also helps break the bonds of affection and attachment.
Finally, here are some pointers to help you deal with an angry client.
- Anger is not reasonable. When someone reaches that “point,” the ability to reason gets less as anger increases. Don’t feed the anger; let it run its course.
- Don’t give in or be a doormat.
- Be assertive and constructive by confronting the problem. Defuse the hostility, and disengage from the conflict.
- Silently, do some deep breathing
Techniques for defusing anger:
- Remain calm
- Acknowledge that you understand, or that you are trying to. You can nod, paraphrase or mirror what you hear.
- Use “I” messages; not accusing “you” messages.
- Set your limits.
- Don’t defend or attack, and don’t generalize.
- Deal with the specific matter at hand.
- Avoid the win/lose attitude.
- Don’t expect a quick fix or miracles.
The therapist or attorney must find ways to acknowledge and understand the person’s feelings while still providing their professional services. The major complaint that I hear from my clients who are going through a divorce is that their attorney does not return phone calls. One of the reasons may be that the attorney wants to avoid the client’s intense feelings, but the reverse reaction occurs, and the client’s feelings become more intense. The information that I’ve included in this article should help professionals understand the complex emotions of [your] clients and assist [you] in managing situations that occur as a result.
Andrea Brandt, Ph.D., is a licensed Marriage, Family and Child Therapist specializing in couple counseling, divorce, custody issues, and women’s concerns. She is a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.