Conflicts — 10 November 2003
When anger turns to rage

Anger is a necessary and helpful emotion serving our survival needs. If it escalates to rage, it becomes an enemy to safe and healthy relationships.

Anger is a protective emotion programmed to alert us to a perceived physical or psychological threat. It signals the need to reduce the stress in a protective fashion. Once the issue is resolved, the anger should dissipate.

Rage is a violent, unrestrained anger often used to control and intimidate others. People who rage, shout, demand, threaten, attack and shame others achieve their needs. This use of anger ceases to be self-protective and becomes assaultive to others.

The use of intimidating anger for dominance is frightening to most people. The harmony we all seek in interpersonal relationships is instantly lost at the presence of a raging individual. The highly angry person is not deemed rational and therefore is not amenable to logical negotiations.

Whether the raging person resorts to verbal or physical means to assert his point, the recipient of this aggression is likely to be immobilized, not knowing what to do to stop the abuse. Standing up to an extremely agitated person during a raging episode may be unsafe and is often unwise.

The partners of rage prone people feel fear, panic, and helplessness. Safety within the relationship is lost. These feelings are similar to the defenseless emotions we used to have as children with our parents. The parents had all the power to affirm or shame us, to help or abandon us, to protect or put us at risk, to safeguard our physical integrity or threaten it, to cuddle and love us or to hurt us. We were the powerless recipients of their actions. Even the more fortunate among us who had a positive upbringing can remember how fearful they felt on occasion when they encountered their parents’anger.

As we mature, that fear is often extended to other adults. A public display of anger, even by a stranger, produces grave discomfort and either compliance or avoidance. Compliance, as a means of avoiding a greater confrontation, and avoidance as a way to escape the tirade.

Some label the behavior of the raging person as “crazy”. It does not literally mean that the irate person is insane, only that the logic leading to the anger and the harshness of its expression is irrational to the observer. It is also easier to detach from the rage by attributing it to a tortured mind.

In personal relationship we know of partners who are prone to rage. They are very intense, sometimes righteous, determined to get things done their way. They are easily provoked into confrontations and get their sense of worth challenged readily. They may be insecure or fearful, but come across as aggressive and threatening. When this becomes a persistent pattern their mates feel weary, exhausted and battered.

When one is outraged, his or her capacity for reasoning is temporarily disconnected. No sane, calm or placating words are likely to be heard at times of rageful states. The futility of staying civil with a “hot” person is universally understood. Nor do most people know how to diffuse the intense anger of others.

In love relationships we must distinguish normal occurrences of anger from rage. Mild anger is a response to feeling hurt, misunderstood, disrespected, ignored, or unloved. This is a normal reaction that often leads to discussion and resolution of a relationship problem.

This can be contrasted with the angry person who becomes furious about small issues, who tends to rant and rave, curse, shame, abuse and even do physical damage to objects or people. The frequent rage attacks are often about minor issues and unpredictable. They may be connected to earlier life experiences of the individual, or to perceived offenses to his or her self-esteem, or to loss of power and control or to any other pain that is not evident to the mate.

Some people seem to harbor free floating rage waiting to be expressed. The partner may not know what will trigger the rage attack, how long it will last or how severe the reaction will be. Therefore, the mate is unable to help prevent these outbursts.

Some very angry people discharge their rage only when they drink, others do so when their minds propel them to assert their indignancy. In either case, during the rage expression all the blame is placed exclusively upon the recipient of the rage. The degree, duration and fierceness of the abuse are correlated to the depth of the raging person’s sense of personal unworthiness.

When the tirade ends, there are two or more battered people left to recover from the emotional ruins of the attack. Needless to say, a long time will lapse before normalcy can be restored. Every episode chisels at the sense of safety, security and trust between the mates. The vile accusations, demeaning phrases and loud threatening sounds create a dreaded experience that traumatizes both mates. The remorseful words that often follow these episodes are no consolation to the battered spouses. What matters is true repentance and changed behavior.

Anger management programs help angry people learn to contain their emotions, calm down enough to become logical, dissociate old trauma from current stimuli, increase their sense of self- esteem and introduce rage-free self-empowerment. For some, medications need to be added to talk therapy to expedite recovery.

Those who choose appropriate treatments can regain more effective behavioral patterns and resume satisfying relationships with their mates and others.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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