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Anger To Cover Sadness


My girlfriend is a lovely person, beautiful, someone I can laugh with, have a good time, just be happy with. I’m completely in love… But she has a temper, and it can be triggered by the smallest comment, that would be casual to someone else. She has a history of family abuse, family dysfunction (and it still continues), she’s been raped, beat by boyfriends, when she was younger she experimented with drugs, everything imaginable and terrible has happened to her, and continues. She will not see a doctor, and explains to me that her anger is not really anger, but sadness. Also she doesn’t want to get angry, but she does and can not control it. I myself used to have an anger problem, but I over came it when I was younger, but unfortunately do not know how to help her, and I’ve been trying for 2 years :( Is there anything I can do that does not include medical help?

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You may be completely in love with this woman, but you are also completely in a negotiation with her as well. The issue you are negotiating is the power dynamic within your relationship: who will get a free pass on what bad behavior? At present, she appears to have the upper hand. Her position would appear to be, "I get a free pass on angry behavior even if that behavior ends up hurting you, and I refuse to do anything to help myself overcome this angry tendency". Your position would appear to be, "Okay, lets try to work around that". This does not appear promising, unless, that is, that being an unequal partner in the relationship works for you somehow. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for being a target for her rage.

What is also being negotiated here is whose vision and understanding of the issues will predominate within the relationship. Your girlfriend’s vision is that she has no control over how she behaves, and that she isn’t responsible for her behavior anyway. I assume that she also believes that if you love her you should just accept her as she is and not expect her to change although you don’t specifically state that (It would seem to fit). Your own vision is that anger problems are something you can overcome.

I think this boils down to an assertiveness issue on your part. You have to decide what your boundaries are with regard to what you can put up with and what you can’t. What you think you can (or should be able to) put up with isn’t really important here. It’s more what you can actually put up with. If over the course of two years you have learned that you really do not cope well when your girlfriend goes off on you, then you have accept that this is your boundary. At that point there are about three outcomes: 1) You figure out a way to enforce your boundary and live in relative harmony with this woman, 2) You let her step over your boundary and end up miserable every time she goes off, or 3) You end up leaving her because the other options were not workable.

Let’s assume that you really don’t buy your girlfriend’s story that she has no control over her angry behavior. Let’s also assume that you have realized that you really can’t deal with her getting so angry at you without proper cause all the time; that it would be better for you to be alone if there was no other way to reduce her anger. Assuming these positions are true for you, you will have to have a sit down with your girlfriend and lay these positions out, not in a threatening manner, but rather as simple truths that are non-negotiable.

Having laid them out, you then need to negotiate with her whether the relationship is important enough to her (or whether she is mentally and emotionally flexible enough) to see about getting some help for herself. You can offer to support her in that task of getting help via participation in couples counseling (which might be a good idea at this point anyway). You can help her find some anger management classes (which are definitely a good idea for her). You can express your love and desire for a continuing relationship. Then, it is up to her, and to you to see whether she takes you seriously. She may test your resolve. If she doesn’t take you seriously and then you back down (which is likely enough) then she will know that you aren’t really ready to enforce your position and she can continue on as she has. So it will be a test of you too to see if you are ready to respect yourself more than you need the relationship. The goal here is not to threaten your way into a dominant position, but rather to show her through actions as well as words that you’ve come into your own power, are willing to defend yourself when she is being unreasonable, and that the both of you need to find a new balance as you make your way in the relationship.

You may find it useful to read about assertiveness in our self-help book Psychological Self-Tools. Good luck in making your way.

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