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:
Anger is deep seated; the emotion rises up in a surprising multiplicity of guises. Any one of five mind-sets can be produced through the hormonal changes triggered by anger and can protect one from attack.
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.
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.
Techniques for defusing anger:
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.