I Cannot Sit with your Anger: on Rage and Relationship
Thank you for reading this public post! From today through Christmas Eve, I’m running a special discount for new subscribers — 15% off monthly and annual subscriptions. If you like what you’re reading, and would like to read more, including posts for paid subscribers only, please consider supporting this work by clicking here.
I grew up in a family that did not yell. I can only recall my mother shouting once, when Pip, my five-year-old brother, darted out into the road, right in front of a street sweeping machine. The machine hit its brakes; the driver yelled; my mother screamed at us both, and full of terror and relief, spanked Pip for the neighbors to see.
It was memorable, because it was rare. My father died at 71, and I miss him every day, and I do not ever recall him shouting in anger. He could get cross, which meant a slight raise in his voice and a clear tone of exasperation. His irritation, when expressed, was mild by anyone else’s standards, and it was rare enough that it made an instant impression.
First from 1970s television sitcoms and then from friendships out in the world, I discovered that not all families were like mine. People shouted and screamed and then calmed down in a matter of seconds. Expressions of anger were normal, I discovered; my family’s restraint was anomalous. When I brought my first girlfriend to spend an Easter weekend with my grandmother at our ranch, April enjoyed herself -- but remarked on the drive home that she had felt like she had been both “soothed and warned” from the moment she had stepped out of the car. What I found pleasant and reassuring, April found stifling.
One of the things that attracted me to April, and – with the exception of my third ex-wife, every other woman I’ve been serious about – was the willingness to display strong emotions. Passion, be it rooted in desire or rage, was both terrifying and enticing. I wanted to be near it, unless the anger turned on me, in which case I wanted to shut it down.
The first time April yelled at me in anger, I was so shocked I backed up against the wall, and stared at my shoes. I got an image of myself as a submariner in a storm; if I dived deep and inward and stayed below, I could ride out the chaos on the surface. You will not be surprised to learn that my-then-15-year-old girlfriend found that ”diving” tactic to be enraging. She called me “passive-aggressive,” a term I’d never heard before. I told her that I was nothing of the sort, whatever it meant, and that I was simply being “civilized.” That was gasoline on flame, of course, and April slapped me.
That was 36 years ago. Every woman I dated or married subsequently could tell you they’ve seen me do what April saw me do when we were teens. I no longer claim to be particularly civilized, nor do I assert there’s any moral superiority to never raising one’s voice. I’ve tried to learn how to fight and do so fairly; I’ve gone to retreats and workshops where they teach techniques about how to argue with loved ones. Every time I think it’s safe for my own anger to come out, it instantly boomerangs onto my own skin. My second marriage ended when I locked myself in a bathroom after my wife yelled at me. I broke the mirror, and tried to cut off my nipples with the broken glass. It was not the first time, and Sara was done.
The assumption about the anger-avoidant is that we are fundamentally manipulative. That’s what “passive-aggressiveness” is – an attempt to exert control through subtle means. Every woman in my life has been convinced that my self-harm, no matter how spectacular, was at root an attempt to divert her from her righteous anger at something awful I’d done, like sleep with her cousin or forget to bring home paper towels. That I might be constitutionally incapable of standing still and hearing someone’s rage seemed to them absurd. This was, they thought, vile cowardice hiding behind mental illness.
My 2013 breakdown that led to a suicide attempt, multiple hospitalizations, and the confession that ended my career? That breakdown started when my fourth wife discovered an affair I’d had, and shouted at me in justifiable rage and hurt. Seven years later, there are people, no longer in my life, who still think I blew up my entire world largely as a way to punish my wife for having screamed at me. The idea that a grown man could be so allergic to anger that it could precipitate a life-threatening, career-ending crisis strikes many as implausible at best. What I experience as self-destruction, some folks declare to be particularly malevolent manipulation.
My own mental peculiarities aside, there’s a larger issue at play. How much of another person’s anger are we required to bear? Hypothetical example: a woman discovers her husband has had an affair. She is so enraged she stabs him to death with a kitchen knife. We might sympathize with her a little, but we wouldn’t excuse murder. Let’s back it down a little: instead of stabbing him, she hits him with a frying pan, leading to stitches and concussion. Perhaps a few of you would start to think her justified, but most would say she’d still gone too far. Suppose she smacks him hard with an open palm? I think a great many, but not all, would allow her dignity that one strike. Suppose she doesn’t hit or stab, but instead screams at him, her spittle flying into his face? By now, virtually everyone would consider she’s entitled to that much, given the provocation.
We might allow a philandering husband to back away from an angry wife with a sharp blade or a heavy frying pan. Would we allow him to walk away from her if she’s yelling? Probably not. If he asked her to calm down, we’d accuse him of “tone-policing.” Part of being an adult is, presumably, standing there and allowing the people you’ve hurt to confront you, using whatever volume or invective they wish. The offender perhaps gets to request that they not be physically attacked, but they have no legitimate right to insulate themselves from another’s anguish, an anguish that they caused.
My mental illness is not make-believe. It is the defining fact of my life, and that’s true whether or not people believe it to be real. One intractable aspect of that mental illness is an inability to be present with the expression of anger. I told Victoria that, when we first started dating. I recognized that it was an enormous ask, but I was clear: I can talk about anything as long as we both keep calm and friendly voices. If you raise your voice, I will need to check out for my own survival. I told her that I knew that this ask might seem unreasonable, but decades of inner work to make me better equipped to withstand another’s anger had proven fruitless. This was what it would mean to be in relationship with me.
Everyone has the right to ask for the safe boundaries they need, and the person asked has the right to say no. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve learned to stay present when she is angry, as long as her voice stays soft; she’s learned to get across deep and sometimes painful truths while staying outwardly calm. I appreciate her willingness to do this hard thing enormously, even as it as much an accommodation of my inability to fight as installing a cumbersome wheelchair ramp would be if I were unable to walk.
I had a longtime colleague at Pasadena City College, and we were once close. She had suspected, years before my breakdown, that I had slipped back into “old behavior.” I had lied to her repeatedly, assuaging her concerns. When I finally confessed what I had been doing, she was understandably furious and blocked me. In 2017, four years after I lost my job, I emailed this former colleague a letter of amends. I told her, “I am ready and willing to hear whatever you have to say.” She wrote back: “Hugo, you are a father. Heloise and David need you. I have things I very much would like to say to you, but I never will, because I know who you are and what you are like. I cannot take the chance that my honesty would inflame your self-loathing. I do not think you are strong enough to hear what I have to say. I hope you stay well and safe, and please do not contact me ever again.”
I did not write her back, but thanked her in my prayers. She was right.
My allergy to anger is rooted in mental illness, and because of that illness, I assert my self-preserving right to withdraw from rage. I wonder, though, if those who do not have my particular impediments also have the right to refuse to be in the storm of someone else’s anger. As the #MeToo and George Floyd movements convulse this country, there are widespread calls for accountability. The men and the white folks who have done harm, wittingly or no, are asked to take stock of their privilege. Part of that stock-taking is listening to the stories of those who were oppressed, marginalized, or abused. Whites are warned against deploying tears or claims of fragility in order to avoid a well-earned reckoning. The underlying message is clear: rage has a moral claim, and we are required to listen to it. Men do not get to ask women to speak more softly; white folks do not get to ask Black folks to “take it down a notch.” To be Woke is, presumably, to be willing to hear someone’s anger without walking away, without harming oneself, without trying to silence the speaker. There can be no reconciliation, we are told, without honesty – and real honesty requires we put no restraints on the impassioned.
Racial injustice is real. Rape is real. The pain of being cheated on is real. Do any racists, rapists, or cheaters deserve to set limits on the tone their victims choose when a confrontation finally happens? The people we have hurt have a right to ask us to be uncomfortable. Do they have a right to ask us to risk our mental health and our safety? How do we adjudicate the legitimacy of people’s pleas to avoid a reckoning? These are the pressing questions with which a seething and divided nation must wrestle.