Is Anger in the Genes?

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Recently in a marital session a husband was apologizing to his wife for his angry outbursts when he comes home from work. “Doc, it’s in the genes, my father would take tantrums all the time, and my brothers are the same way”.

I asked him if he got angry with his boss, if he got angry with his friends, with his mother, with anyone other than his wife. The answer to each question was “no”.  He did say he got angry with other people but he didn’t express it, “I keep it to myself”. I commented that he apparently saves his pent up frustration for his wife.

He talked of how it just erupts, “it’s not like I plan to take it out on her, it seems like it has a life of its own”. I commented that it may seem this way because he “let’s go” with his wife, he lets his defenses down and he adopts unthinking behavior.                                                                           He is careful with others, not wanting to offend them, he is conscious of being civil, and appropriate. Obviously the fact that he can contain his temper in most situations defeats his genetic argument. But when he comes home he lets his guard down, erupts at some point and then uses the excuse that he can’t control his genetic predisposition.

In our discussion I made it clear that I believed he could control his anger, that on some level he was making a decision.  He was making a decision that it was permissible to be un-civil to his wife, akin to his father being cruel to his mother. Interestingly he hated his father for bullying his mother, yet found himself duplicating this learned behavior.

We developed a plan to increase his consciousness during the day, especially on his ride home. He needed to take inventory of his day, record his frustrations while making a plan to assertively address his suppressed concerns with other people. Otherwise his wife becomes the unfortunate receptacle of his daily, unexpressed conflicts.

I have observed over the years that individuals with the greatest tempers often have the deepest insecurities. They tend to have little faith in working out conflict with others, so they often learn from insecure role models that the way to “win” is to be overly aggressive. It works if you’re partnering with another insecure individual, but as soon as you encounter someone who has a stable sense of self this behavior will be viewed as offensive and intolerable.

The way we treat others is, for the most part, within our control. We may not have learned clear ways of communicating distress, conflict, or differences of opinions. In fact many people have to un-learn ineffective patterns, change their old story, and discover a new set of skills that will prove far more attractive and effective than hanging on to old, defeatist patterns.

The greatest skill set we can possess is the formation of interpersonal abilities that foster closeness, respect, empathy and civil behavior. Personal and professional success, meaning and joy in life, are all sustainable in ways few people ever experience when this unique skill set is developed and put into action.

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Arthur Ciaramicoli PhD

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