Understanding Anger and Intimacy

Relationships can be very rewarding but rather vexing and confusing at times. An example is the dynamic between intimate and angry feelings. This dynamic is an artifact of our very closeness. It causes us to be able to simultaneously feel close to someone but at the same time fight with them more intensely than anyone else. This stunning contradiction properly managed with understanding, respect and commitment, can and should be the source of endless joy and a blissful life as husband and wife.

There is a very close relationship between warm, close, loving feelings - "Intimacy", which is our goal, and cold, angry, distant feelings - the "Problem." Those two feelings may seem to be, and are, in many ways polar opposites. However, they stem from almost the same place.

Emotional Vulnerability

Those polar opposite feelings have one thing in common: emotional vulnerability. To greatly varying degrees it permeates every interaction we have in all of our relationships. It is most prevalent and relevant to our intimate relationships, and therefore central to our discussion of relationship dynamics. This vulnerability is evident in both our loving intimate interactions and our angry hurtful moments. It is the very foundation of all our relationships. Without some level of vulnerability there is no relationship at all.

We all have vulnerabilities. We are all vulnerable because not a single one of us is perfect. It is our choice to share or make ourselves vulnerable to another person that brings about a relationship. How those vulnerabilities are managed is what determines how close a relationship will be. We all have good things about us that we are proud of and enjoy sharing with others. These vulnerabilities are ones that we feel are safe to share with a wide range of people. We do just that when we meet someone new and are putting our best foot forward.

We all have things about us that we are not so proud of. Things we would rather not remember let alone share with anyone. These things are our biggest vulnerabilities and makes us feel truly emotionally vulnerable. We are typically very careful about whom we entrust with this most sensitive information. We share these vulnerabilities only with those people whom we wish to be closest. We communicate them verbally and physically in exchange for closeness and eventually trust and love.

In addition to emotional vulnerability there are other kinds of vulnerabilities that are shared in relationships. There is intellectual vulnerability where we share our thoughts, skills, ideas and solutions. There is also physical vulnerability where we share of our physical selves. Emotional vulnerability however, is the key “flavor” of vulnerability on which we need to focus our attention. It is the foundational component of every relationship. Over the course of time, as we share more and more about ourselves, emotional vulnerability is one of the crucial things that progressively brings us closer together. Properly respected and managed, in time it bonds us together as a healthy and happy couple. In our intimate relationships our closeness / intimacy evolves through the sharing of vulnerabilities.

Emotional vulnerability is only half of what draws us together. In order to feel close we must also feel comfortable and safe or we will not share our vulnerabilities. When we share vulnerabilities and we feel we are being listened to, respected and cared for we begin to feel close. These warm close feelings feel so good that we are drawn to that person emotionally and in time, physically too. The more we share with each other and the safer we feel, the closer we become. As we continue to date another, there typically comes a time when we find that we can talk for hours and hours. We miss each other and long to be together again. When we are having these marathon conversations we begin to share things about ourselves that we are not so proud of: in short, our vulnerabilities. As we share this privileged information about ourselves and are understood and supported, we feel respected, heard, cared for and in time, loved. Through communication and physical touch we cultivate intimate feelings and ultimately fall in love with one another. Our eventual goal is to share all of ourselves with each other and in the end feel loved for all of who we are, flaws and all. Warm, close, loving, intimate feelings stem from the ability to feel emotionally vulnerable and safe at the same time.

Intimacy evolves and so does anger.

Anger begins after some measure of meaningful intimacy has been cultivated. This is because before any meaningful anger will manifest there must be some measure of shared vulnerability. Similar to intimacy, anger stems from feeling emotionally vulnerable but unsafe at the same time. It starts with miscommunication and subsequent misunderstandings. Then as patterns begin to develop communication decreases and resentments begin to accumulate. These resentments will reach a critical mass and destructive anger emerges.

Anger is an individual, defensive and at times destructive dynamic. It plays itself out by hurting the ones we love. Our anger protects us by creating distance between us. The thinking is relatively simple, "If I can create enough distance between the two of us, you won’t be able to hurt me and I will be safe again." Anger creates distance in one of two ways. Either you push away or remove yourself from the situation. Either way personal safety is restored. Typically this happens at the expense of your relationship’s intimacy.

Anger manifests itself as frustration when we perceive ourselves to be in an out-of-control situation. We try to control the situation or when it's more chronic we may verbally and emotionally hurt the ones we love. This is usually accomplished through the misuse of intimate, privileged knowledge. Vulnerabilities that were shared between us to facilitate and maintain intimacy are now used to hurt or to control. The lasting damage anger causes comes from the erosion of trust. The vulnerabilities we shared to create closeness are now used in anger: to hurt and control. A relationship with chronic frustration, anger and the requisite misuse of vulnerabilities will eventually erode the very fabric of that intimate relationship and our ability to feel emotionally vulnerable and safe at the same time.

Understanding the origins of anger and intimacy is just the beginning of a complete picture of healthy relationships. Properly managed with understanding, respect and commitment, our relationship can and should be the source of endless joy and that happily ever after we all signed up for.

There is hope.

Robert Whitman, Licensed Professional Counselor, MA, CAC III - Denver, CO