I’m a fan of Harriet Lerner’s books and her blog, The Dance Of Connection. Recently, she blogged that there are rare times when anger can be useful. She reasons that “a raw expression of hurt and rage, will break through the other person’s defenses and get through” (to your partner). Admittedly, she suggests this is a rare exception to the general rule that anger is not a useful expression in an intimate relationship.
Still, I have a problem with her reasoning. Couples must make every effort to not excite that part of the brain that we share with the animal kingdom. This primitive brain only knows self-protection through fight or flight and knows nothing of relationship. Someone fighting or fleeing is not connecting with another person.
When you’re hurt you feel diminished and want to stand strong and say, “I will not allow you to hurt me.” It feels strong to lash out in anger; your adrenaline is pumping into your bloodstream and you’re prepared to make a stand – “I’m not going to accept this.”
Coaches try to motivate players’ anger so they will enter the game ready to “fight.” But these players do not have to be concerned about maintaining intimacy with their opponents. Couples must learn to handle pain in a way that also preserves the connection.
A much stronger response that preserves connection is to share your pain in a vulnerable tone. Express your pain and expect your partner to respond in a soothing manner. If this doesn’t happen, then back away from your partner by becoming emotionally, physically and/or sexually distant (typically you will withdraw by degrees, but sometimes all at once).
When your partner is deprived of the connection, then he or she will be in a position to pursue you to restore the “goodies” that come with connection. Now you have the leverage to ask your partner to address your pain and to reassure you that the relationship is safe from further pain – at least that type of pain.
It is certainly easier to simply go off on your partner in a fit of rage, the question is whether it will be helpful. Reach higher (in the brain) and seek a path that maintains connection.