Have you ever observed a hostile couple and thought, why do they stay together?
If so, read on.
When I started out as a rookie therapist over a decade ago, I had more questions than ever about human behavior. It was a case of the more you know, the less you understand. That scared me since a master's degree in social work meant I should have a leg up on helping others to help themselves.
The lesson learned much later is that people in relationships may say they want a harmonious relationship, but that's not always the case. Especially when anger is the glue binding these dysfunctional unions.
Partnership is defined here as romantic relationships, but extends to other interpersonal duos such as parents and children, supervisors and supervisees, etc. I see this dynamic constantly -- no matter the race, socio-economic level or age.
Here's the thing -- you have two choices when a friend, a family member or a coworker complains about their relationship. You can a) continue to dispense advice centered around how this person is lovable, smart and deserves better, or b) you could politely tell him/her that this topic is off-limits.
I know. It's hard seeing someone you care about go through emotional pain.
It's also hard being mentally and physically exhausted after the umpteenth 2:00 a.m. phone call. And you deserve a good night's rest. It's essential to mental clarity and optimal functioning, after all.
So what's a happy medium between showing support, but also establishing boundaries?
Understanding the dynamics at hand.
I won't lie -- it takes a while to mentally integrate this information. But once you get the connection, you've set the stage for one colossal reserve of mental energy this side of the Grand Canyon.
Here's the summarized version of 11 things I've learned about angry partnerships during the past thirteen years:
1. Things are not always what they seem in relationships. For example, the dependent (or subservient) partner may actually hold the power.
2. The meek and mild may act anything but angry. However, this doesn't mean they're not seething inside. Their anger is just expressed differently.
3. Verbalized or not, anger always goes somewhere.
4. The partner who does most everything is the Power Player. For example -- runs the household, controls the finances, disciplines the children, organizes family events, decides on vacations, etc.
Whenever there's an uneven distribution of jobs within the relationship, the not-so-active partner is dependent upon the other (much like the parent-child dynamic). And when you know where everything is -- important documents, account IDs, passwords, etc., your partner is lost without you.
5. Dependent people are angry people.
6. Partners develop patterns or "agreements." This becomes unhealthy when the purpose is to enable or hide dysfunctional habits, such as infidelity, overspending or substance abuse.
7. Dysfunctional agreements mean both parties are complicit and secretive. And what are we taught about secrets as kids? If it's not in the open, the truth is buried, and reality is a lie. And in order to keep the lie alive you have to continuously lie.
8. Lying creates shame and guilt, which leads back to anger. Anger at yourself for not upholding your values, and anger at your partner for not changing their unhealthy personal habits. The temporary relief of projecting anger onto your partner means you don't have to experience it for yourself.
9. Whenever there is ongoing conflict, there is underlying agreement. Adults are willing participants in partnerships. And as unhealthy as relationships may be, there's ulterior gains for both parties. Common reasons cited for staying include: the kids, finances, time invested, the shame of splitting up, religious or cultural reasons, etc., but the bigger issue is believing you deserve to be maltreated.
However, once you internalize the message that you don't deserve emotional abuse, the stage is set for change. You will eventually develop a healthy ego, and learn to say no. In time you will realize that no amount of social status, material possessions, or external pressure justifies your unhappiness.
10. Emotionally healthy people learn to tolerate, accept and control their anger.
And once anger is acknowledged in all its forms (hidden and overt), and anger management tools are in place, you are ready to walk away.
11. The ultimate reason for taking the solo plunge? You are no longer afraid to be left alone with your anger.
Linda Esposito, LCSW is a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, CA. To learn about getting on the other side of anxiety, subscribe to the blog for mental wellness updates.