Anger Is a Symptom of Abuse, But Managing It Is Your Responsibility
Anger is a symptom of abuse, but not one we tend to recognize during an abusive relationship. At least, we don't recognize the deep, seething, never-goes-away anger caused by being abused. One day in 2001, I recorded in my journal: "I don't know why I am so angry." Hindsight is 20/20 (or maybe the "hindsight bias" is at play). Either way, by piecing together the evidence from my journals, I was angry because my abuser:
- dishonored the goals I set for myself, following only his own
- ignored my thoughts or feelings when planning "our" life together
- demanded I raise our children by his rules as if he were their only parent
and on and on...
In short, I was angry because he denied that "I" existed. "I" meant so little to him that he wanted to pretend he was the only person in our "relationship".
Anger Is a Symptom of Abuse
Before I realized my husband abused me, I held a deep-seated, unexplainable anger in my belly. Mostly I would feel my anger as a tight constipated mass that made me feel nauseous and irritable. But sometimes, my anger writhed in my guts, squeezed my insides like a gooshy pimple, and erupted with tears and terrible, loud yelling. The heavy feeling of guilt followed quickly.
I didn't know why I was so angry all of the time. I thought I was mentally disordered or needed an anger-management class. I felt helpless in my fight against the beast in my belly. I knew that "no one can make me feel" anger (or any other emotion), so I interpreted that as meaning I was doing this to myself.
Abuse Victims May Displace Anger onto Children
Displaced anger describes a pecking order in which one person acts out their anger on a second person, and the second person looks down the pecking order and takes out their frustration on a third person instead of re-communicating with the first person.
You would be right to think that my displaced anger fell onto my two children's shoulders. A portion of the time, I forced my little boys to withstand my frustrated yelling and ugly tones. My ravings were always followed by, you guessed it, GUILT. I feel horrible for doing this to them; I've apologized repeatedly to them. Apologizing doesn't make the guilt go away, but learning not to displace my anger onto them has helped ease the pain, in time, for all of us.
Now that they're older, we've talked about those days when they were young. They remember those days, and they also remember the day I promised to stop yelling at them. Sometime after my yelling stopped, my older son Marc revealed that he feels his childhood was lonely. My younger son Eddie feels likewise. When they told me this, I cried.
I was a stay-at-home mom, I was always with them. I asked them how they felt lonely when I was present every day. My boys said, "You weren't really there, Mama." My tears fell like rain because I knew exactly what they meant. I was disconnected from them due to depression; I isolated myself from them. I turned inward.
This brings me to the third person who suffered from my displaced anger: me.
Abuse Victims Displace Anger onto Self
This may sound strange, but I feel as if there were three people involved in my marital relationship. My husband Will, me, and the fake person I was trying to be in hope of making my husband happy. I'll name that fake person "Kassandra" because that's what I call my evil twin (the name is a joke between my boys and me).
Kassandra spent a lot of time beating up on me. Her voice echoed Will's; Kassandra was Will's best invisible friend ever. Kassandra told me that I was too fat, too sensitive, too delusional, too insane to be of worth to anyone.
"I" was angry with Kassandra because she was turning me against myself. "I" was fighting for my existence, my life. I displaced my anger onto Kassandra.
Anger Results From the Abuser's Behaviors
In an abusive relationship, the idea of being angry at the abuser becomes foreign. Anger expressed to him about his actions leads only to more abuse. It becomes important to not be angry at the abuser at any cost. "Resistance is futile" because there is no way to make the abuser "see" or "understand" or "hear" their victim. Instead, the abuser doubles down the attack, puts the screws to the victim more tightly and leaves the victim to self-abuse. It felt better to abuse myself than to hear him do it.
If my husband was not abusive I could have safely expressed any anger about his behavior to him. I could have said something like, "When you yell at me, I feel intimidated and afraid." If my husband were not abusive, he could have responded, "Oh. I don't want you to be afraid of me! I am so sorry that my yelling affects you that way! I am going to stop yelling at you." And in the weeks that followed, he would find a non-threatening way of communicating his anger.
However, he was abusive. His response could have been, "I am so tired of your boo-hooing! You are so sensitive and I am sick to death of changing for you! When are you, for once, going to change for me?"
The abuser rarely accepts responsibility for his behavior. On the rare occasions, he does accept responsibility verbally, he does not walk the talk (at least not for long).
It is up to the victim of abuse to accept that your anger is rational and then give the abuser the responsibility for their bad behavior. Let the abuser own his actions. Just because he won't take responsibility for them doesn't mean that you must. It is not your responsibility to hold onto anyone's anger.
Your abuser's behavior is not your fault. You can't "make" him angry, so don't turn his anger toward you inward onto yourself.
Jo, K. (2011, June 4). Anger Is a Symptom of Abuse, But Managing It Is Your Responsibility, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, June 5 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/verbalabuseinrelationships/2011/06/abuse-victims-anger
Author: Kellie Jo Holly
Hi Kelly, this article has this one phrase in there that cleared it up for me. I am recovering from an emotionally abusive relationship, which I found the strength and suitable circumstances to end it. I am reading a lot about emotional and verbal abuse and I feel proud of myself and I know that the secret to calm myself down is inside my mind. When I trully let go, I will be totally free.
However, I realised a while ago, I am still angry to myself. One of the conditions to make the relationship flow with less tantrums and eggshells and sulking and cursing was to stop practising my hobby. I gave up on it and, believe or not, it would come back to me in my dreams. I would experience dreams where I see myself doing my hobby, that much I loved it and missed it. But I was suffering from it and "Kassandra" of myself convinced me that to stop suffering from it, I should let go, I should give up even the thought of it - practically I should forget the pleasure I was getting from my dancing and I should hate it, because it was an obstacle to a peaceful relationship.
Today, I find myself trying to remember what I actually liked in it. I am angry that I do not find the same excitement and pleasure. Have I forgotten or am I doomed to stay with "Kassandra"? I am angry that I allow
"Kassandra" to be around. Do you have some advice for letting go "Kassandra", the version of myself he wanted me to become? Should I allow more time to myself?
I love your posts and I am sorry you went through difficult situations in your marriage and parenting. You sound rational and, most importantly, you sound you have found the words to describe your feelings and unblock your mind. This is impressive, encouraging and helpful. I will browse within your posts to find something related to trusting again a new potential partner... I am not into that yet but I am looking forward to being into that mindset soon.
Hi Kelly, thanks again for this blog. Words from someone who has directly experienced a similar expereince are so important to clients. I'm currently counselling two clients who are victims of verbal and psychological abuse one for nearly 3 years, and a new client.
Neither I believe, will leave their partner, and as such may need support to maintain their boundaries and self-worth for perhaps life.
I would love things to be different, but must honour their autonomy, and I respect their courage in their course.