Partner's Workshop: Stage Five; Lesson One
Experiencing Anger and Rage
The experience of anger is something that we are all familiar with. What we often fail to recognize, however, is the wide-reaching consequences of anger. Both the degree to which anger is felt and the manner in which it is expressed will ultimately determine the constructive/destructive consequences it will bare on your own life and the lives of those around you. If you have ever experienced some of the more severe degrees of anger — rage, for instance — you will benefit from working to develop a healthy perception of this anger. One that will allow you to see it not as a measurement of something negative in your life, but as a constructive tool in reaffirming your own boundaries and values. The best way to achieve this healthy perception is to first consider your partner's compulsive behavior — which we will do in just a minute.
Before we continue, note that the following paragraphs may be controversial. Do not allow that to distract you from learning the information that is being presented. Your role in this workshop is not to agree with all that is shared, but rather, to understand it...and then to integrate the information that "fits" within the context of your own life. Especially as this workshop relates to anger, ensure that you do not screen out the concepts that you disagree with...as you will lose a valuable opportunity that will ultimately further your healing.
Your Partner's Compulsive Behavior
By now, you should have a general understanding of the process involved in the development of a pattern of compulsive behavior in a person's life. How it is used to produce an action (or chain of actions) that generate emotional release. How the pattern itself fuses to the person's identity — taking on the illusion of being a completely natural event in their lives. And while this is a significantly summarized version of compulsive behavior, your understanding of the mechanics of this process is important because there is a strong correlation between the patterns involved in your partner's compulsive behavior and those occurring in experiences involving extreme emotions such as anger/rage.
For you, the extreme emotional reactions will likely include one or more of the following: anger (rage), profound sadness, paralyzing anxiety, helplessness, etc. In compulsive behavior, the emotion involved is always anxiety. Always. Every compulsive behavior is completed as a result of not wanting to face the increasing anxiety that would be experienced if they didn't complete it. That is the very definition of compulsive behavior. Think of the compulsive hand washer...or the compulsive door checker...they MUST complete the task or face unbearable anxiety that may lead to extreme anxiety/panic. This is not to say that sexually compulsive behavior will lead to panic. In reality, it won't. But to the person experiencing the compulsive urge to act, they do perceive it this way.
Breaking down the compulsive experience into its simplest terms: an urge or an opportunity presents itself...which triggers an emotional reaction. Because all change is stressful, and all stress produces anxiety...this urge triggers an anxious reaction. It may also trigger other emotional reactions like excitement or anticipation, but when compulsive behavior is involved — anxiety is always present. From the time the opportunity/urge presents itself, the anxiety is present...triggering a desire for action. Ideally and logically, the response is to fight this urge or deny this opportunity..but in reality, the more a person fights their compulsive tendencies, the more anxiety that is created. The harder they fight, the more intense the anxiety. Eventually, if they can somehow force themselves to deny this current urge, if they can somehow distract themselves for a significant amount of time, the anxiety rescinds and all is well...until the next urge comes along. Distraction and brute moral force are ineffective methods for ongoing urge control, but they are used here because they are the most common methods attempted by the general population.
So how does this relate to me and issues of anger?
The answer to that question lies in your ability to isolate the emotions that your partner experiences at the time they are making the decision to engage in whatever destructive, irrational, selfish, immoral behavior they may be choosing to engage in. When you can recognize that, in their mind, the emotions that they are experiencing (or are about to experience...if they do not act in a particular way) are extreme...and that it all feels "natural" to them...you have come a step closer to truly understanding the experience of the sexual addict. And, you will have taken a major step towards gaining insight into your own extreme thoughts. Why? Because the healing process for feelings like rage...and the recovery process for urge control are practically identical. They both involve gaining a realistic perception of the emotions involved, then applying rational emotional management skills.
"What do you mean...a 'realistic perception'? I can't help the way I feel. If I feel rage, it is because I feel it — it's not something that I can control."
This is EXACTLY the response that is offered by many of your partners regarding the emotions surrounding their compulsive behavior. They can't help how they feel. They get urges that have to be acted upon. It's 'beyond their control'. And while it may indeed FEEL this way to your partner, it is not an accurate perception. Just as your irrational behavior is not justified by how you perceive the intensity of your own feelings.
"But I don't engage in irrational, destructive behavior..."
If you are far enough along in your healing process, chances are that you don't. But most people in the early stages of the discovery of a partner's compulsive sexual behavior do. They develop an intense anger — or other extreme emotion(s) — from the betrayal, immorality and/or suspicious behavior exhibited by their partners. This anger often makes them do things they would have never done otherwise. Things like having an affair, engaging in compulsive eating (or starvation) binges, massive spending sprees, intense 'snooping' behavior, stalking. These are just a few of the irrational, destructive behaviors that result from such an intensely emotional and vulnerable situation. When you examine these behaviors, you will clearly see that they are both irrational and destructive. They are not associated with your own value system. They are not how you would have chosen to act in such a situation. And yet, you have most likely exhibited some of these behaviors since the discovery — or ones similar to those listed.
If you have engaged in such behaviors as a response to the situation that you found yourself in, there is one thing that you need to recognize: How did it feel? How did you feel at the time that you were engaging in the behavior? If you are honest with yourself, you will recognize that at the time that you were exhibiting these behaviors, they filled you with temporary comfort. Sure, afterwards, you may have felt ashamed or guilty, but at the time you were actually engaging in these behaviors you somehow felt comforted. It's human nature. Destructive human nature, but human nature just the same. Think of your mind set as you search through your partner's Internet History folders...as you check their business receipts...as you verify that the car's odometer reading matches the distance to and from their stated destination. Think of your mind set as you secretly validate that your partner is where he/she says they are going to be, with who they said they were going to be with. Your mind set as you secretly interrogate them in hopes of catching them in a lie. Again, if you are honest with yourself, you will no doubt recognize that these behaviors fill you with an eerie comfort.
Without actually struggling with compulsions yourself, evaluating these types of behaviors will be the closest that you will ever come to "feeling" the experience of the compulsive person. To understanding how someone can make choices to behave in ways that are so contrary to their morals and values. To understand how such destructive behavior can actually be intoxicating at the time it is being exhibited. And, to recognizing the difficulty in stopping the behavior.
Imagine that you are a snooper. Your husband engaged in compulsive porn/masturbation for years and has promised to you that he has stopped. Yet, something in your gut tells you that he hasn't. And so you snoop. When the opportunity presents itself, you check the files on his computer... investigate lotion bottles, trash and laundry for signs of masturbation... search any and everywhere for signs that he is lying to you. It is only in this snooping that you are able to temporarily relieve the incredible anxiety that you have building inside you.
Now imagine that you are told not to snoop anymore. What happens? What happens to that anxiety that you have building? How do you resolve it? How do you find comfort in such an uncomfortable situation? Such is the dilemma your partner faces in "stopping porn".
So what is the answer? How do I manage these extreme feelings?
One of the most important insights that those in recovery must come to understand, is that these "urges" are just emotions. Nothing more. They are not unmanageable; nor are they overwhelming. And, they are not unique. Everyone experiences emotions on a similar spectrum. But, when these emotions are experienced at their extreme, a sense of unique panic sets in and action must be taken to resolve the unbearable pain that they would potentially have to endure alone. But the truth to the matter is, that unbearable pain will never come. The feeling they are dealing with is just that, a feeling. And with the right perception...it can be easily disarmed and rendered harmless. Or better yet, used to promote further awareness.
To someone in recovery, once they realize that even their strongest urges are no more than a feeling being registered on a fixed spectrum...once they can visualize the reality that their feelings are nothing to be feared...they are free to use those urges to further develop their own values and boundaries. In the Recovery Workshop, these urges are referred to as Recovery Triggers (versus the more destructive Relapse Triggers so often spewed about in the recovery community).
The same message applies in dealing with your own feelings of anger. Once you can recognize that no matter how intense the anger may feel, it is still only an emotion. It is a feeling. It is not a tangible element that can force you to act. Extreme emotions, like anger, are not mandates (or excuses) to act in ways that subvert your values. Rather, in a healthy person, such emotions are used to identify, define and guide interaction with the world around them — something they can best do with a foundation of values and boundaries in place.
Your specific role in anger management (or other emotional management) is:
First, recognize the intensity of the feelings you are experiencing.
Second, recognize that some type of action will need to be taken to resolve these feelings. (Even if the action to take is a conscious decision NOT to act.)
Third, recognize that an option exists to take either action to help stabilize these emotions — and that you will have to decide which option to choose.
Fourth, when a constructive option is chosen, all remaining options must be filtered through your current values and boundaries before making the decision to act upon them.
Fifth, a monitoring of the consequences of the action taken should be ongoing, with values, boundaries and future options altered as necessary.
The goal of healthy emotional management is to learn to base your reactions on your values, rather than your emotions. Your emotions may trigger the awareness that action is necessary, but it will be your values that should drive which action you take. The equation to memorize is simple: emotion-based actions equal chaos; value-based actions equal stability. That goes for your partner and it goes for you.
I would like to complete this lesson by answering a few of the more common questions regarding anger.
Is anger a natural emotion?
Absolutely. And, it can serve as a very powerful and healthy emotion. But because it is an emotion, it cannot be forced or denied...it must be experienced. Hopefully, what you have gained from this lesson is that, while anger may trigger the desire to act in certain ways, it is your values that will determine which action to take.
Isn't the sharing of feelings a healthy thing?
Of course. And even directly expressing anger can be healthy to not only you, but to the target of that anger. But, it can also be destructive...as the expression of anger can turn a vulnerable situation into an extremely volatile one.
Few emotions are more difficult for people to deal with than anger. When faced with dealing with the anger of others, some retreat into a shell; some respond with hostility; some are motivated by it. Of course, the same thing happens with those who are dealing with their own feelings of anger. Some retreat. Some express it with hostility. Some use it to promote change. The important things for you to recognize in managing your anger are the purpose for expressing that anger, and what you ultimately hope to accomplish in the relationship/event.
A. List three behaviors that you have engaged in since discovering your partner's addiction that you would now describe as destructive:
B. Pick one of the behaviors listed above and answer the following:
a) What decision-making process did you engage in before taking this action?
b) How did you feel just prior to taking this action?
c) How did you feel as you were actively engaged in this action?
d) How did you feel after you completed this action?