By verbalizing your aggression, you prevent acting it out or stonewalling.
Source: Ionas Nicolae/Pixabay
Before I begin I want to be clear that I do not endorse, encourage or normalize any form of violence or abuse – of any kind.
And with that clearly stated, lets explore why most of us are afraid of our unavoidable aggression, hate, vengeance or other forbidden feelings towards the one the people that we love?
A few days ago with my friend shared about his marriage. “I only want to get close and intimate, but she is so aggressive and dismissive.” He kept saying that he just wants to get closer and have more intimacy. Basically he presented himself as the innocent victim, a martyr, and his partner as the aggressor.
As a couple and family therapist, I’ve seen this dance dozens of time: My friend did not own the sh!t in his marriage. He did not own up to his part of the ‘dance’ of their relationship. The partner cast in the victim role rarely acknowledges their own aggression in the relationship. When choosing to see these relationships through a systems therapy, it is clear that these altruistic sufferers have a secondary gain: they are seen as being gentle, humane, benevolent while positioning their partner as morally inferior to them. They are exempt from taking responsibility for their part of the conflicts in the relationships. They become ‘blame proof’.
What these ‘victims’ can’t usually see is the price they’re paying for this role: They are cast in a role that is reactive, dis-empowered, with little agency or self-respect because all the aggression is allocated to their partner and they are left with a narrow emotional repertoire of self-pity, humiliation, silent anger, helplessness and depression.
Why are we denying this natural aggression?
Some say that the opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy. Usually we’re taught that the opposite of love is hate and that we should not hate people. And if you hate someone, that means you don’t love him. But actually if you don’t love someone, you’re probably apathetic to them. Hate and love go together. “All is fair in love and war” because love is a real battlefield. Most of us grew up in families where it’s not okay to hate, where you are supposed to be nice and sweet and polite and altruistic and compassionate (especially if you’re raised as a woman) and you’re not supposed to hate or be frustrated toward the people who love.
It was Donald Winnicott, the famous psychoanalyst who wrote back in 1949 about the unavoidable hate mothers feel toward their babies as a normal phenomenon. Freud coined the term sublimation, channeling aggression in socially acceptable ways. David Schnarch, a pioneering couple and sex therapist, coined the term Normal Marital Sadism. He writes: “we all have a nasty side… that’s bad – evil. All of us have a touch of it; some have more. We all torment those we love while feigning unawareness. Marriage is perhaps the place we do it most frequently – and with impunity.”
As a couple therapist, my experience over the years is that if each partner doesn’t own their natural sadism (usually experienced as unavoidable aggression/hate/anger/vengeance), and can’t find a healthy way to express it toward their loved ones, then two possible reactions will occur:
1. Repression – Those dark feelings get repressed and dissociated from their image of themselves. Statements like “I ONLY love my partner, I have no idea why he is so angry at me”, or “I NEVER have any resentment for the fact that he never spends time with me.” What usually results is that these natural feelings ooze out of the partner through cynicism, passive aggressive, boredom, depression and other psychosomatic expressions.
a. For example, I once treated a couple where the woman was cast as the benevolent victim and the husband as the heartless aggressor. When I asked her how does she express her anger at her husband, she initially said that she doesn’t, she only cries. After a bit more prodding, she confessed that when she is done driving their car, she purposely keeps the driver’s seat way up front so that when her husband enters the car, he would bump his forehead and knees on the wheel of the car. That is an example of a passive aggressive move that is not only inefficient but also cements the limiting homeostasis of that marriage.
2. Acting out – acting out means that instead of verbalizing my feelings, I act them out physically, much like young children will hit their sibling or their toys instead of verbalizing their feelings. When Adults deny their natural sadism, and cannot express it in a verbal or sublimatory  way, they end up acting out those feelings through physical, emotional, financial, sexual or other forms of violence or abuse.
Both of these reactions are unhealthy. I have witnessed that by openly and verbally confessing one’s aggression toward their loved one, people will naturally feel an even deeper love toward that person. Why? Because when I dare to show an ugly ‘forbidden’ side of myself in an intimate relationship, over time the other person will dare to verbalize their own shadow sides to the relationship, thereby making the relationship deeper and more meaningful. Because, as Carl Whitaker explains: when one inhibits their aggression, they also repress their assertiveness. One’s aggression is inherently connected to their vitality, libido, and passion.
As a therapist and as a theater improvisation teacher, I give people permission to sublimate and find channels to express their aggressive feelings. In the clinic it will be through direct verbal expression of anger or hate toward their partner. In improv classes, such sublimation is achieved through portraying aggressive, sexual, vindictive or otherwise immoral or ‘bad’ characters. The actors and the audience, both experience deep catharsis when embodying and vocalizing these forbidden, yet natural feelings. Over time these amateur actors find more and more ways to bring these shadowy feeling in their personal and professional life. They can become less passive aggressive and cynical and report less violent outbursts.
Over time, my clients and students understand that they can just let their hate or aggression out verbally in a direct way to their partner “I really hate the way you treat my mom” “I’m resent you for getting that promotion and I didn’t” or even “I’m really disappointed and angry at you because you’re coming home late on my birthday, so I will hang up the conversation a few seconds early to show you just how mad I am at you”.
When you verbalize it directly, without attacking or being defensive, there is usually a huge release of energy. ‘Stabbing my partner’ in broad daylight, allows both parties to move on and not get stuck or obsessive on the forbidden feeling. This process enables us to organically flow toward the next feeling and not get stuck in trauma mind. Such open expression of aggression over time this translates to a more open ability to express love, affection and sexuality in intimate relationships.
When aggression is more acceptable and owned in the relationship, then there is also less (negative) mind reading by both partners because each is taking ownership of their aggression proactively so the passive aggressive is diminished. How? Because both partners will be able to openly express their aggression and won’t need to jab their partners through passive aggressive behaviors.
A typical example of such passive aggressive behavior can be seen in sarcastic couples. One of them laughs at the other and says cynically “you were so HILARIOUS last night with our friends”. Now the partner is left wondering did their partner just jab them or actually complementing them? Psychologist Robert Weiss coined the phrase negative sentiment override – where each partner in a distressed relationships automatically filters their partner’s expressions as negative. So in our example, the listener will most probably laugh externally but internally they might interpret that statement as an attack or judgment and will be quick to respond with their own attack.
So here are some practical tips how to hurt openly the ones you love in order to deepen the relationship:
1. First of all ask yourself what are your core beliefs about hate and aggression in intimate relationships? What were the messages you received from your environment regarding expressing anger or hatred or aggression or frustration? Was it acceptable? Was it considered barbaric, rude or scary? Take note of these core beliefs. We tend to attract to our lives people with similar core beliefs, thereby maintaining relationships with repeating patterns of interacting.
2. Choose one relationship where you would like to experiment and try to liberate yourself from the straight jacket of altruism and goodwill. It could be your friend, partner or sibling. How can I bring more of my aggressive parts in a direct, conscious, verbal manner?
Own your shit. Allow yourself to express those feelings. It might initially come off as cute, playful or even flirty. But hopefully over time you’ll be able to say it apologetically: “I’m scared you will leave me so I’m acting like an a**hole to you”. Then breath.
3. Ask your partner to just ‘let it land’. They don’t need to react, apologize or get defensive. Let them witness this part of you. Then Breath.
4. Over time, make a conscious effort to verbalize openly these aggressive feelings and see how they impact your relationship. If you feel the need to act out the feelings or jab through passive aggressive tactics, own it and call yourself on it: “I didn’t really forget to leave you dinner, it was my way of punishing you for preferring to work late then to come home to me”.
This is not an easy process, but if you dare step into the crucible (David Schnarch’s metaphor for intimate committed relationships) you will enjoy a richer, more vital relationship, where both of you will feel that all your different sides, feelings and states are welcome.  Pg. 309. The Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch.  Sublimation is the Freudian defense mechanism of transforming of aggression or other unacceptable impulses into socially acceptable ways, such as sports, creativity and arts, martial arts