The Taboo of Anger
Some issues and struggles are more easily talked about in the public sphere than others. Some personality types and people feel more comfortable talking about their inner world than others. Some cultures are far better at discussing feelings and emotions than others.
Some issues and struggles carry a sense of taboo. You feel the change in the atmosphere when something is mentioned; an implicit message that discussion around this topic is not welcomed, because it makes people feel uncomfortable. Sometimes this is because we feel inadequate and poorly skilled in knowing what language and terminology to use; sometimes its because these issues are close to home in someway for us too, and threaten to expose our truthful selves in some way to others, or even to ourselves.
I have found it relatively easy to talk about Charlie’s anxiety.
I have usually felt comfortable talking about his experience of depression.
On the whole I have felt at ease talking about his use of medication.
I have rarely felt comfortable in talking about his anger.
Anger seems to carry with it a strong taboo, in Christian circles as well as in the broader spheres of life. In fact, anger was the one dimension of Charlie’s struggles that I never felt able to discuss at church. It was the hardest one to admit, and in some way felt like it cast a shadow of shame over me as much as it reflected anything about him. It felt like acknowledging his anger implied a deficiency in me, or a brokenness in us, that was too painful to admit. The truth of it was that his underlying anger was the dimension that I most struggled with, and the aspect that eventually wore me down to breaking point.
For clarity's sake, his anger was not physically abusive, manipulative, or intentionally damaging. He was horrified when he saw clearly for the first time how his anger had impacted me. He had no idea of its effect, and thought he was largely keeping it under control. In that sense, my experience of his anger was never because he was intentionally wielding it at me, and in no way was he OK with his own anger or my experience of it. There are valid reasons for the fact that he carried such anger, and actually acknowledging its presence and impact was one of the keys to freedom for him and healing for both of us.
Anger is an indicator. Anger tells us that something is wrong and needs attention. We must never ignore or belittle our anger – we must listen to it, expose and express it, and probe it. We must find out what lies beneath and behind it. An injustice, a wound, a frustration, a loss or sorrow, a rejection, an abandonment, an abuse or offence experienced…the list could go on. But whilst it is a helpful indicator, anger must be managed healthily – we must be angry and not sin, expressing our anger in a way that does not damage ourselves, others, or disregard God in the process. And this is hard to do – it needs practice, training, and the humble reception of help from God and others.
We need to find a place for the expression of anger in our prayers, our churches, our families, our marriages.
Anger exists – we all feel it. Just because we are angry does not mean we are off the rails; it means that we are human and need some help and healing.
For those who live with spouses who express anger regularly or unhealthily, it is a lonely place. You can become the one who absorbs the rage with nowhere to take it, simply because you are the one who is there when they feel the anger rise. I’ve heard of anger being excused as ‘that’s just what men are like’ or ‘that’s just how men handle things’; anger is not a male issue and men must not be let off the hook for irresponsible handling of their inner life in the contexts of their families.
Anger is a human issue, one that is addressed repeatedly in scripture, and must be treated seriously, with great love, kindness and compassion.
And for the spouse of an angry partner, churches and relational networks must become a place where we can confess the issues that occur in home life with no fear of shame or exclusion; we must develop a realistic recognition of the anger that pervades our society, naming and addressing it openly so as to nurture the possibility of becoming places of healing and welcome even for those whose anger is damaging.
Acknowledging Charlie’s anger was a turning point for us in addressing his struggles with mental ill health. In some ways, we had been trying to treat anxiety and depression for years, when underneath it all, anger was a major cause, and we hadn’t realised.
Anger must not be ignored, or ‘put up with’; have courage, friends, to name it and own it, bringing it into the open, so that together we can work to heal the wound behind it and build peace and love in our marriages again.