usually when we fight, and especially in relationships, it is our own internal anger and conflict we are expressing. Yes, there are times in life when we need to stand up to ourselves with whatever degree of force is appropriate, but where people are in a relationship this should not be the case: if our partner requires a fight, as opposed to, say, a heated discussion, then the relationship needs serious work – or our partner has problems and might need your or someone else’s help. In ourselves, by recognizing the roots of conflict, we can obviate the ‘need’ to fight – and be happier.
What’s the problem?
Bad day at the office? Traffic jam hell? Someone said something bad at exactly the wrong time? Or there might be a more general sense of powerlessness, coupled with the feeling of being at odds with the gay-straight world. These are present-day outside influences on our happiness, contentment and self-esteem, as opposed to conflicts we have carried with us from our pasts. And there’s quite a lot out there to be angry about. By this, we do not directly mean the big, global issues – technological slaughter, planetary destruction, universal mendacity and the like. We mean those immediately experienced impacts on our life that leave us shivering in impotent rage, incapable of claiming immediate recompense. The anger seethes within us until we find a victim upon whom we are able to inflict it.
The first rule: if you find yourself prickling and wanting a fight, it is probably not your partner’s fault.
Handle it yourself
People who are happy, well centred and comfortable within themselves are psychologically stronger and more able to shrug off minor irritants than those who have yet to resolve such ‘issues’ they may have. As a general route to happiness, work on yourself, work through yourself, and get your self-esteem high.
Still, there might be times when we are affronted – by a homophobic comment, perhaps, or by something another gay person has done or said, which seems to insult our sense of who we are because it is so downright ugly and crass and, because we too are gay, our mind makes a tribal, identifying connection.
It might well be you want to express anger, but this is different from looking to inflict it on another person by manufacturing a conflict scenario in which anger will be misdirected. It is understandable, though not necessarily right, that we wish another person to feel what we are feeling. It is certainly not right that, to achieve this, and assuming the feeling is bad, we behave in such a way as will reproduce the feeling in the other person. (We feel anger: we behave in such a way as will make another person angry.) This process is called ‘negative projection’. Stay alert to what you’re doing and you can bypass the reflex ‘need’ to engage in the process.
It should be added that it is often best anyway not to express anger in front of a partner – even if it is not directed at them. This is because we can feel we are somehow to blame for our partner’s anger. It can cast a shadow over the relationship – a bad vibe. This is not to suggest that we should never express anger, but that often restraint is wise.
Angry – or upset?
Where you do become angry and are in danger of bottling it up, to the point where you explode, one thing you can do is to acknowledge the connection between feeling angry and feeling upset. The one is very much a combative, energized state, which can be introverted and directed against the self; the other is a state of relinquishment, which can be healthier much of the time.
And – pop-psychology – do make a serious effort to think of the good things in life, about you, about sexuality, about the big wide world, so you have a strong and healthy position from which to regard the temporary irritant for what it’s worth.
With your boyfriend
It seems fair to say that we hope and work for relationships in which we can be emotionally honest with our partners, which doesn’t mean we dump all our problems on them. This is ‘warts ‘n’ all’ love, beyond the dating stage where, if it happens, we project our ideal selves – and expect a pretty good effort to be ideal in return. Here is the purely satisfying knowledge of loving and being loved for who we really are.
If that’s achieved, don’t break it. As we’ve said, it is often a bad idea to express anger, never mind rage, when with a partner – though there will be times when, making it crystal clear it isn’t our partner’s fault, that’s what we’ll do.
If you have your bad feelings managed, if, for example, you’ve taken time to unwind and you’ve let the first fight impulse wane, then you should be able to look to your partner for emotional support. Say you’re feeling a bit down. Ask for a hug. Say what’s happened – and find while you’re doing so that telling the story does a heck of a lot to disarm it: if we can express our feelings in words, there is less need to communicate feeling in other, inarticulate and potentially destructive ways; in addition to which, the process of constructing a narrative out of the raw (and bad) experience puts us in charge.
To do this is to help ourselves avoid the ‘fight or flight’ response, which for many is the natural response to problems: we find ourselves at odds with ourselves or our world and so clam up, often perceived as sulking, or become aggressive.
Your partner should value the opportunity you’re presenting for further emotional contact. Warts ‘n’ all.
Managing your boyfriend’s anger
It is rubbish to suggest, as some do, that we should only ever expect and put up with the very best behaviour from our partner. That’s not a relationship; it’s an employment tribunal. Still, there are those who flirt with the psychobabble term ‘co-dependency’ in such a way as to suggest that if our partner is in a bad mood and we stick around, then we are co-dependent lovers. This is nonsense. Co-dependency is a term that can usefully describe a relationship in which one partner suffers, colludes in and even feels he needs the extremely maladjusted or addictive/addicted behaviour of his partner. It should never be used to suggest that, in a relationship, we should not share our emotional baggage or empathize with our partner’s hurt.
What you’ll be doing, in managing your partner’s anger, will be to engage in an ‘emotional holding’ activity. This basically means that you provide for your partner a safe psychological space in which he can work through his conflicted emotions. To do this successfully, you don’t let your partner’s anger get to you. You don’t become angry or agitated yourself. You don’t feel overwhelmed or helpless. Right now, you are a safe, sure, stable point in a difficult world.
Show your empathy with your partner’s feelings. Try to see what exactly is wrong. Is he tired, frustrated, feeling impotent and small? Is he drunk or being arrogant? Don’t accuse your partner of being anything. Do try to offer your perception of his state of mind back to him in a loving way.
Active listening involves a lot of nodding, a little repetition of what’s been said – and a few questions, which will help your partner to articulate his problem, to form the coherent narrative out of the bad experience, as well as showing him he is being listened to. Often, this sense of being listened to is all an angry person needs: it is often the case that he does not feel he has been listened to in the past.
If this engagement with your partner does not seem appropriate at this point – he really is at the point of incoherent rage – then time out might be the best course of action. Get on with routine tasks, or get out on an errand you’ve just remembered, and give him a chance to subside.
It should be said at this point that we are not recommending a tolerant or collusive response to persistent extreme bad behaviour. There is no excuse ever for physical abuse, domestic violence, and if that seems to be the way the relationship is going, be good to yourself and get out.
Unresolved long-term conflict
The immediate causes of anger are, of course, only part of the story. We have all, to a variable extent, had bad experiences in the past, with which we have dealt, again, to a variable extent. Some have worked through their past and got it all solved; for others, painful experience lingers and can determine their present state of mind.
We would like here to reject another potent modern myth, that which proposes a victim mentality in response to the past, which excuses dysfunction on the grounds that we are passive in the face of whatever bad experience has damaged us – and which therefore strips us of the right to and responsibility for self-determination, accountability and moral being.
So dad beat you up for being gay. So you were bullied at school. So everyone else had a girlfriend and you weren’t even allowed to want what you wanted, let alone find it. Way it is. A person’s personal history, no matter how traumatic, gives him no right whatsoever to be abusive to his partner – or anyone.
If you do feel your or your partner’s past remains as a damaging influence on the present, counselling is one option. A good counsellor won’t chain you further to your story of woe, in such a way as to render you self-pitying; he will help to release you from that story and to find a better one.
That said, professional help might not be necessary. It is often enough to know that other people understand our past. Telling the story, sharing the history, can be enough. It sure beats turning your partner into a cowering, tearful, helpless reproduction of how you were when you were really going through the experience – and forcing them to understand the raging inner-child you that way.
When we are in love we do buy into each other’s whole life, each other’s history. We hunger to know and to be known. So long as enough light is shared, there is no harm whatsoever and plenty of good in showing each other the shade.