What I learned about anger from an ex-boyfriend

by Leah McClellan

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AngerI once dated a man whose family seemed to be the epitome of serenity, a late 1980s version of the Cleaver family.

With four grown sons, one daughter, and several grandchildren, his parents had been married for almost fifty years. Both were retired. At their modest suburban rancher, Dad spent his free time painting peaceful watercolor landscapes or gardening, and Mom thrived as a homemaker, orchestrating wonderful family dinners on Sundays, after they came home from church. Later, it was a game of badminton in the yard or, in winter, piano playing and singing indoors.

That the oldest son, in his forties, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and lived at home was no matter to me; it could happen to anyone. That the next eldest son was divorced didn’t elicit a judgment either; why should it? That another son seemed critical of his family and acted as if he were above them—and his wife even more so—did bother me a little, especially since I was included in the equation, but I figured they were just used to a different, more fast-paced life in the big city. That my boyfriend had a hard time holding down a job and making a living wasn’t a big deal either; he was a struggling musician and it went with the territory.

All in all, a lovely family, a wonderful guy. So refreshingly calm at their home compared to my own family home, where chaos and arguments and fighting reigned. I reveled in the comparative peace. I congratulated myself on a fine match, until around year two or three, when I started to see things a little differently.

Something felt wrong

Sometimes things were tense between Mom and Dad. Sometimes, during dinner, Mom’s mouth was set very tight, and her body was stiff as she bustled about the kitchen. Dad would be quiet, and conversation amongst the kids would pick up and become louder, more lively. One time Dad picked up a chair and slammed it down hard while speaking to Mom in a low but intense tone, eyes blazing. He had picked up the chair only a few inches off the floor, so it wasn’t too loud or dramatic, but it was scary. And the look on her face was fearful even if determined, set. As if her lips were sealed or like she were holding something in that would escape if she let down her guard. And I wasn’t supposed to see it; I was coming out of the bathroom headed back to the yard. They both straightened up a little as I tiptoed through, but they said nothing and neither did I.

I noticed scenes like this periodically, and I realized the apparent peace had been deceptive. I wondered about it, but I shrugged it off. It wasn’t my business, and besides, no family is perfect.

Everything was wonderful with my boyfriend; we became engaged and I moved in with him. It wasn’t long, though, before I started wondering about things with him, as well. A comment here, a little wisecrack there, things he did or said that stopped me in my tracks and made me wonder: why would he say such a thing?

Something was wrong

I responded in the best way I knew how: I tried to talk about it calmly and see if there was anything I needed to know: was he upset with me about something? Was there anything I could do differently? With little or no response, I shrugged it off and let it go, but something inside me was getting upset. Hurt. Angry. I didn’t know what it was, but something was wrong. Was he backing out? Unhappy? He didn’t seem so. He was never angry, never upset, never admitted to anything bothering him when asked. None of his comments required different action on my part; he wasn’t usually complaining about something specific.

In retrospect, though, I think he was dropping hints or beating around the bush, but what could I do? Sometimes his nit-picking was about things I knew he didn’t care about, or so he said, and he did things he complained about exactly the same way himself. I tried to sort things out, but any attempt at conversation fell flat or he’d laugh it off or roll over and go to sleep.

Life went on, and most of it was great, or so I thought, until he said something that was over the top and under the belt. I snapped. Shocked with him and myself (what was going on?), I calmed down after a day apart, and I apologized for my own harsh words and asked if we could talk about it. What was bothering him? Nothing. The more I tried to talk with him, the more silent he became, and the angrier I got once again. Now he was outright ignoring me. This was not OK, and I told him so as I went out for a walk.

It was all wrong, at least for me

When I returned, he was gone. He moved in with his parents, and he moved back when I finally got myself together and moved out. I never did figure out exactly what the problem was. I don’t know if he did, either, but if he did, he wasn’t telling.

Later that year, his sister was divorced, and another brother was hospitalized with what everyone called a nervous breakdown (cocaine was involved, from what I heard, and I wasn’t surprised). The big city brother was next to be divorced and, three years later, a woman I never met—the new girlfriend of my now ex-boyfriend—called me in tears to ask “if he did the same thing to me.” Um, yeah, if you mean nit-picking and growing increasingly hostile and never discussing it and then walking out after getting me totally confused and upset, yeah. That’s exactly what she meant. Poor girl cried a river, especially for her daughter, who had become attached to him. My rivers were already dried up.

So much for the Cleavers. And so much for my delusions about a perfect family.

I know his parents did the best they could with what they had, and they were, by the way, really sweet and I cared about them.

Plus, divorces happen, mental illness happens, nervous collapses happen, drug addictions happen. Things happen. Or do they? Some things, like schizophrenia, are diseases, and that’s one thing. And, of course, adult children are responsible for their own lives and happiness and whether the relationships they form are lasting or not.

What tools do we have?

But kids march off into adulthood with the tools they’ve been given and what they’ve learned in their families. And what I’m looking at here is the family “system.” How were the inevitable conflicts handled in this family? What model did the parents provide for healthy and productive discussions of any kind? What did the kids learn? How were emotions handled, especially anger, and how were they expressed? Or not?

From my vantage point, I saw that emotions weren’t allowed in his family. Discussions didn’t take place. In the three years that I was involved with that man, I never had a real discussion with him that went much deeper than the weather, though I tried.

Granted, I was young, in my young twenties and he was only a few years older. I was too young or too inexperienced or didn’t know myself well enough to see that this wouldn’t work for me before I got deeply involved (my family didn’t give me the greatest tools, either, and I was groping my way in the dark, learning as I went along).

I was, however, experienced enough to know that things need to be discussed in any relationship. Needs, wants, and desires need to be shared, understood, and resolutions or compromises made. Irritations and anger can’t be allowed to fester or they’ll come out, eventually, in unhealthy ways.

Was my boyfriend angry? Most definitely. Did he show it? Not really, though it oozed out of the cracks in the form of snide, hurtful remarks and silence while I was hurting. Did he talk about it? No. Did he act on it? Yup. Not only with me but with the next woman he got involved with, in exactly the same way.

Anger is like moles and their cousins the voles, those persistent little rodents that tunnel through yards and are almost impossible to eradicate. You can ignore them, but the cost may be destroyed shrub roots and flower bulbs and a very lumpy yard. You can tamp down the tunnels, set out repellents, and sprinkle the ground with any number of anti-mole products but, if you don’t catch them and deal with them as they appear they’ll never go away. And neither does anger.

What tools can we develop? How can we deal with anger?

Let’s skip the moles for now. How can we discuss something that we’re upset or angry about? Is there any way to be disappointed or upset with someone, angry, or even outraged and not be hurtful toward the other or destroy the relationship? Does being angry with someone equal abuse or is it morally wrong or bad? What if someone is angry with you?

Read more: From argument to agreement: 7 tips for difficult discussions

Comments are always welcome.

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{ 10 comments }

Jean Sarauer

I grew up in a family where ‘negative’ emotions were swept under the rug, and there was a whole sea of things churning under that rug.

I’m a positive person and love things to be upbeat and pleasant, but when something hurts us, angers us, etc., I think it’s important to be real about that and talk about it. It doesn’t spoil a relationship – if handled properly it lays a foundation for trust and respect.
.-= Jean Sarauer´s last blog ..6 Things That Get Easier About Blogging if You Just Keep Going =-.

Leah

Jean,

Love your analogy with the rug–I’ve thought of it the same way. In my family, it seemed like everything was out in the open, loudly. Lots of arguments, lots of anger, lots of fun too. But nothing was ever really discussed. It was kind of “stuff and blow.” That doesn’t work either, as far as I’m concerned.

Definitely positive here too but also realistic–I agree that being “real” doesn’t spoil a relationship. I think it brings people closer.

John Sherry

Leah a very upfront, from the heart and honest story of you. I feel real stories touch people at a deeper level so I congratulate you for sharing one of your own. It does sound, though, that you are still trying to make sense of it all. Maybe that’s also what your then boyfriend was trying to do with his circumstances and hadn’t wanted to share for fear of being more confused preferring to wait till he had some answers. You felt left out he didn’t want to let anyone in.

What you wrote about anger being like moles and voles and their tunneling exploits is inspired observation and a wonderful analogy from the top drawer.

How do we deal with anger? Good question. For me it’s never about NOT dealing with it. Accept and observe why YOU are angry. Not what’s annoying you about someone else. It’s you that’s upset so what’s upsetting you? Why are you angry? What is missing or you want but not getting? Asking yourself direct questions helps get to the heart of things. Anger is a symptom NOT a cause!!
.-= John Sherry´s last blog ..The All-New Well Balanced Approach to Life =-.

Leah

Hey John, Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you like honest stories. Got plenty of those! lol

It wasn’t that I felt left out with the ex-boyfriend. It was that he was treating me in ways that weren’t acceptable to me. I was willing to work with it and try to understand (and maybe do something differently as needed, you know, compromise or whatever) but he wasn’t able to discuss anything or tell me what he was upset about, but he clearly was upset about many things. Meanwhile I was on the receiving end, and it got to be too much. I was actually glad it ended when it did! It could never have lasted. Knowing myself as I do now, I think “what did I even see in him? lol I was young, with rock star fantasies, and I was only in love with his looks and his singing voice, not to mention guitar playing abilities :)

Great thoughts on dealing with anger! Yes, what was missing for me in the story here was honesty.

Ralph

Nothing like the ending of a relationship to teach us a lesson about communication and upbringing.

Our anger towards another person usually reflects something about ourselves. In a relationship, its so important to examine that anger because there will be two people who are involved that will feel the effects of that anger.

Leah

Hi Ralph,

You got that right. I learned a lot from this experience–not only about a face of anger I had never seen or experienced before (or understood), but also what’s important to me in a relationship, where my limits are and what’s likely to set me off, which of course then had me reflecting on my own upbringing and expectations and so on.

Live and learn!

CherylK

I grew up in a family like Jean’s, too. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” was the attitude. Discussions were non-existent. I have to admit that it’s still difficult for me to express my feelings if I’m upset about something. Am looking forward to Part Two!
.-= CherylK´s last blog ..Monarch Butterfly in Our Cranberry Bush =-.

Leah

Hi Cheryl, and welcome!

The way you describe things in your family is pretty common, from what I hear. And probably for most of us, there are challenges not only in expressing our feelings but also doing it in a way that brings the best results for everyone.

Look forward to see you again :)

Adalia

A very transparent article. I am intrigued by John’s comment – he stepped into your boyfriend’s shoes – he would make a great peace negotiator.

There is a school of thought that says anger is a negative emotion … I believe that it’s what you do when you are angry, makes it a negative thing or not.

There are no wrong or right emotions, when we suppress them, they fester and explode. Becoming aware of why we are having this feeling, be it anger or something else, is the beginning of getting a grip on the situation.

When we own our experiences – instead of playing the blame game – healing begins and you have obviously made the choice to learn and move on.
High fives to you, Leah

Leah

Hi Adalia and welcome! Yes, some people think it’s wrong to feel anger–which is pretty much the ex-boyfriend and his family. That’s why they held it in, avoided any kind of conflicts, never discussed anything that might possibly set it off, and so on, at least from what I saw and in my opinion.

Fortunately, John doesn’t seem to be very much like the ex boyfriend at all lol

Definitely not into blame games here. I made a choice to be involved with him, just as we all do with our relationships. I’m responsible for my choices and the lessons I learn, nobody else. Lessons are good!

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