Anger in Intimate Relationships
The traditional marriage vows are emotionally moving and express a noble
commitment: "I take thee, for better or for worse...until death do us part." However,
we often come to dislike many things about our partner, leading to serious conflicts.
Indeed, although all start with sincere intentions, almost 50% of all marriages end in
divorce, in spite of enormous pressures to stay married. Why the pressures? If
marriage is considered a sacred public pledge or even "a union made in heaven,"
then divorce might be regarded a sin (like in the Catholic Church) or, at least, a
violation of a solemn promise. In addition to external pressures from family and
divorce courts, there are also intense personal needs to "make it work" because it
seems as though "you have failed" if your marriage fails.
Many marriages fail but do not end in divorce--the so called "empty shell"
marriage. These marriages may not have intense conflicts; indeed, they may be void
of feelings. There must be disappointment in such marriages, however. Let's look at
some of the sources of conflict in the traditional marriage (see chapter 6 for a
discussion of the sadness of breaking up; see chapter 14 for generally unhappy and
dissatisfying marriages; this chapter deals specifically with anger, abuse, scorn, and
Most married people initially try to build a smooth, close, safe relationship,
preferably one without friction. In this process, sometimes the roles for husband and
wife become very rigidly defined; there is no freedom, no room for growth or
change. Sometimes people think they need to pretend to be or feel some way to
appeal to their spouse; there is little honesty and intimacy if you think your spouse
may not accept you as you really are, i.e. for better or for worse.
Fullerton (1977), in the mid-70's, explained how "the perfect wife" becomes sad
and angry. A woman with self-doubts may be unusually anxious to please her new
husband. She tries to do everything the way he would want it done. She believes: "if
I'm the good, perfect wife, I will be loved." Eventually being perfect with
housecleaning and diapers and children gets tiresome and boring. She becomes
resentful. Some evening when her husband arrives home from work late and finds
her still mopping the floor, he asks, "Are you still cleaning?" She bursts into tears.
She cries because the only ways she can vent her frustration are either to go into a
rage against her husband (which she--the perfect wife--can't do) or turn her anger
inward on herself. Her self-criticism increases, she clings more desperately to the
husband, and feels more and more like crying.
The 1970's "perfect wife" was also prone to be jealous. According to Fullerton, a
female was likely to get her sense of worth from a male--her father, her boyfriend,
her husband, and later her sons. She may have gone from being Daddy's little girl to
being someone's wife without ever becoming a person. She was dependent on her
looks and on being a "good girl" and "perfect wife" in order to be loved. She saw her
husband as having strength and purpose; he was her whole life. Even when he was
at work, she carried on an inner dialogue with him. She made her decisions in terms
of what he would want and expect. Being so needy and unsure of her worth,