Q: You responded to a woman who was very proud of herself for leaving the room to compose herself when she got really angry with her boyfriend. It is very unhealthy to stuff your anger. Why would you give this terrible advice — encouraging her to keep holding back — instead of telling her to vent her anger?
A Healthier Way
A: Nothing like screaming obscenities into somebody’s face to get them to respond, “Gosh, I forgot how much I love you. And I really want to make all of those changes in myself.”
Also, unlike a box of Cap’n Crunch, anger does not rapidly get used up. In fact, Charles Darwin observed that raging on will make you even … rage-ier. But thanks to Freud, people still believe that “venting” anger is a healthy way to reduce it. Not because he had actual evidence for that but because he said so and accessorized so credibly, with the cigar, the iconic eyewear, and the groovy Viennese fainting couch.
One of the first modern researchers to debunk this myth (back in 1966) was Michael Kahn, then a Harvard grad student who’d actually hoped to demonstrate the benefits of venting anger. Posing as an aggressively rude medical technician, he made seriously insulting remarks while taking subjects’ blood pressure, making them really angry. As part of the study, some subjects were allowed to vent their anger to a researcher posing as Kahn’s supervisor. To Kahn’s surprise, those who did got angrier, and their already-elevated blood pressure took off toward strokesville.
Some people will say, “I don’t care what the dumb research says; I feel better after I blow my lid.” Well, these people still experience all the ill effects of anger on their physical health. The relief they feel is emotional, coming out of how anger arises from the feeling that we’ve been treated unfairly. Raging back makes them feel that they’ve done something to right the balance. However, it also tends to provoke a defensive reaction in the person they’re raging at, so it’s a counterproductive tactic — assuming they weren’t aspiring to kick off 20 years of trench warfare in the condo commons.
The answer isn’t stuffing your anger; it’s expressing what’s behind it — in a civil discussion instead of a civil war. Controlling the body’s role in anger is an essential part of this. The problem is that surging adrenaline and other elements of the body’s anger response can’t just be thrown into reverse. So, when you feel anger brewing, it’s wise to take a step back — or to do as this woman did and step into another room.
Keeping your cool allows you to present your case — your feeling hurt by somebody’s behavior — in a way that evokes sympathy rather than defensiveness. This is important because sympathy tends to motivate us to do things to make hurting people feel better. This, in turn, bodes better for the future of a relationship — sexy as it can be when a man interrupts a woman’s rage-athon to whisper, “Baby, I don’t mean to turn you on, but that pulsating vein in your forehead looks like an arteriovenous fistula about to blow.”
Q: My girlfriend wants me to compliment her more — to notice how she looks and say something. I know I’m not Mr. Effusive. But honestly, if I didn’t find her hot, I wouldn’t even be with her!
A: It may not come naturally to you to effuse, but civilization is all about doing what doesn’t come naturally. Note that chimps in the wild are rarely observed wearing shoes, ties and cuff links.
Many men complain that women’s idea of communicating what they want is hinting, pouting or slamming drawers while insisting nothing’s wrong. You, however, have a woman who comes right out and tells you, “Here’s what you could do to make me happy,” and it doesn’t even involve risking jail time or going on a double date with her mother. Her simple request: When she’s, say, vacuuming in her new underwear and your jaw drops, run with that. Make it go up and down, and make words come out.
Basically, the terrorism prevention line applies: “If you see something, say something.” Put a daily reminder on your phone if you have to. For added incentive, consider the fringe benefits. Research by social psychologist Sara Algoe finds that the stock-taking that goes into expressing appreciation for a romantic partner actually makes the person doing it feel more satisfied with the relationship. Not surprisingly, being appreciated seems to do the same for the recipient. And yes, you have to do the appreciating using the spoken word. Nonverbal creative alternatives are only (borderline) acceptable if you are a working mime or birthday party clown, and even then, there’s always something lost in translation with balloon animals.