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The Truth About Men and Anger

Some men need to be better understood; some need to better understand themselves

Key points

  • Some men who are referred for anger management may have a right to be angry.
  • Many men who are always angry need to learn to better experience and name their feelings so that anger isn't a default emotion.
  • A man in better touch with his feelings is in better touch with himself, and therefore stronger and more secure in the world.
Peter Ziegler/Pixabay
Source: Peter Ziegler/Pixabay

As a male therapist, I get oodles of referrals from men who are told they need “anger management.” Most often, the person who sends them is their wife. Most men accept this diagnosis and come in sheepishly, wanting me to fix them so they don’t get angry anymore and their wives won't be upset with them.

By and large, these men fall into one of two categories: (a) men who are out of touch with their inner emotional worlds, and (b) men who are being judged according to a double standard and are therefore quite rightly angry about it.

I’ll deal with the second category first, because at least in my practice it’s the less common version. I recently saw a man who was very concerned about his occasional outbursts at home. He works full time and supports his family, supplying nearly 100% of the money coming in. His wife is very busy with a start-up that is not yet successful. She is consumed by her start-up and is not available for much of the care of their children, so the husband is caring for them as well. Occasionally the stress overwhelms him. He is working as many hours as she and 90% of the housework and child care fall on him. Why wouldn’t he get angry? If the roles were reversed, would we tell her she needs anger management?

I think men pay a price for having deeper voices and greater physical strength. Their anger is generally more threatening than that of a woman, so when they get angry it’s easier to focus on the implied threat than to look past it and say: “Is there something here that needs to be paid attention to?” Often in these situations, it only requires outside validation to help the man control his anger. Once he knows he’s not off the wall with his upset, that he has every right to be angry, his anger lessens. And I think it’s important for all of us to recognize the circumstances behind the anger at least as much as the expression of the upset. Related to this is the fact that many women are unaware of how deeply aggressive their forms of speaking can be. Often, they are verbally the more fluent, and while they may not shout as loudly, their words cut at least as deeply. When the man reacts in anger, she may say, "See, I told you he's always angry!"

The other category is, in my experience, the more common: Men don’t have enough awareness of their inner worlds in general, and of their feelings in particular. I liken emotions to keys on a piano: Can you play the whole range of 88, from the lowest to the highest, or do you only know a few found near middle C? For most men, especially those told they need anger management, the answer is usually that they can play just a few keys: happy, sad, hungry, horny, and angry. Anger thus becomes a default emotion, standing in for all kinds of other feelings. It’s not, therefore, that the man is so angry. It’s just that anger is what he knows how to express, how to name.

There’s a fancy word I like to use in these situations: Alexithymia. It means a difficulty identifying and naming emotions. Most men who come for anger management are alexithymic. Helping them recognize and name different keys on their emotional register gives them greater connection to themselves, and therefore greater control of how they behave. Initially I tell men that learning to name their feelings with their partners will improve their sex lives, because it will help their partners feel more connected to them. But ultimately, the biggest benefit is the connection a man will have with himself.

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