Friday, August 18, 2006

Dismaying Story #36: Hurting the Ones We Love

Dear Andrew,

I feel terrible. I'm wiping away tears as I write this. Today I yelled at my husband and my children. Right in the middle of it the doorbell rang and I answered the door. I was civil and polite to a complete stranger and then went right back to snarling at my family. I don't get angry that often, but still ... they don't deserve it.

I don't yell when I'm at work. I get just as frustrated but I don't vent my anger all over my co-workers. No, I save that for when I'm home. Why do we do this to the people we're supposed to love the most?

Signed, Feeling Guilty

Dear Feeling,

After an episode like that, some people say, "I couldn't help it. I was angry and so I exploded." In the vast majority of cases, this is clearly not true. You can indeed control your behavior to a large extent when you are angry. You find a way to not yell at your boss, your neighbor, or the stranger you pass on the street. So your question is a good one. This is, after all, a choice we make. We choose to act poorly toward our family and with more respect and civility toward others. So why do we feel free to unload on our closest family members?

Unfortunately I don't think the answer is going to make you feel any better. We do this because the consequences are not as severe. In other words, we dump on our kids and our spouse because they will take it, because we can get away with it.

That's not a very pretty picture, is it?

Oh sure, your spouse might yell back and say things like, "You're NOT going to treat me like that!" Your children might give you all sorts of pushback, especially if they are teenagers. So what do I mean when I say they will take it? I mean they will still be here tomorrow. More than that, the bond is so close between you that they will almost certainly forgive you. This is especially true if the outbursts are infrequent, if everyone apologizes and if the mood in the home goes back to normal within a relatively short time. The fight will soon be "forgotten."

Compare that with the consequences of yelling at complete strangers, casual acquaintances and co-workers. The bonds you have with these people range from tenuous to non-existent. Yell at a stranger and you'll be labeled a loony. Explode all over a casual friend and they will probably choose to avoid you, to terminate your friendship. Abusive behavior at the workplace puts you at risk of being officially disciplined or even fired. The consequences tend to more clear-cut, immediate and permanent in these circumstances.

I argue, though, that the consequences at home are also long-lasting, just more subtle. Are the arguments truly forgotten or is it possible they may have residual effects? Your spouse is, after all, human and may carry some level of hurt down deep inside, in places you would rather were filled with trust and closeness.

You also want to build the same positive feelings with your children. Have a look at a family where the teenagers are difficult to deal with and unresponsive to the parents' wishes. Do you honestly believe that situation developed overnight when the kids reached a certain age? I contend parents contribute to those relationships from the time their children are born. Respect must be earned. If you want a better chance of having the respect of your teens, treat them with dignity for all the years leading up to that time. Listen to the concerns of your children and give them at least the same level of civility you dish out to your more casual acquaintances.

Now the occasional sharp word might have its uses, to consciously get the attention of a child when a more moderate tone may be ignored. This is not the topic of today's post, however. I am talking about the times when the anger takes over.

There are those among us with mental health issues who may require medication or other types of interventions to help control their emotional behavior. For the vast majority of us, however, angry outbursts are entirely within our control. This is something we choose to do. Yelling can provide a quick "hit" of emotional satisfaction. It feels good to let the snarling anger loose. Is that short-term reward really worth the consequences, though?

Often, I think, the answer is no. We can make better choices.

All the best,

Today is the last day to submit a response to this week's Ask the Faithful Readers question. I will post my favorite tomorrow with a link to the winner's blog.

I have also volunteered to be interviewed online, but this won't happen until readers like you submit a sufficient number of questions. You can find the details here.


  1. HI! First time here from Neer's Blog. OMG I have found the perfect site for answers to a lot of my questions. This post is so true. thats exactly what happens in my home. my husband says he can shout at home but he cannot do it with strangers. I always ask him why?.I have my answer today.thank you.

  2. I loved the subject today! I totally relate. I think anger and other emotions are more comfortable with people we love... I hate that! Alot of it has always been dismissed as "it's just like my mom!" but i really don't want to be like that part of my mom. I'm motivated to change...

  3. Good Topic, but like any issue dealing with anger. You need to find a healthy way to release it rather than yelling regardless of who the issue is with. Going for a walk or getting yourself out of the situation until you're calm enough to deal with it. Or the old taking a deep breath and counting to 10 if you can't remove yourself.

  4. Its so much easier for us to show our extreme emotions to the ones we know and love though. We are timid of strangers for whatever reason but its like the parent who spanks.

    Think on this:

    Your child does or does not do something you've asked and so you spank them and possibly even yell at them.

    Your neighbour didn't bring back your hammer or whatnot. Do you spank him?

    We are different people with who are close to the heart. As cheesy and cliche as it sounds "you only hurt the ones you love"

  5. I totally understand....I do this too and always feel bad.

  6. this so hit home..

  7. Clarence "Frogman" Henry wrote:

    You always hurt the one you love.
    The one you shouldn't hurt at all.
    You always take the sweetest rose,
    And crush it till the petals fall,
    You always break the kindest heart'
    With a hasty word you can't recall,
    So,if I broke your heart last night
    It's because I love you most of all.
    Great old song---even before my time ---says it all --- we hurt our loved ones, because we are only really safe with them.

  8. I don't disagree with anything you or anyone else said, but I submit it is much more complex than calling it a simple choice. I'll say right off the bat that I have a problem with anger and this is not meant to justify it or rationalize it. I just think it takes extreme hard work (and in my case professional help) to get the capacity to make those choices. And the parties involved do not exist in isolation. A thousand cues interact to trigger each other's flashpoints. Yes, I read this and it sure sounds like fancy rationalization. I guess my point is is that it is complex, difficult, and challenging -- but worth working on. And over time people can change -- but only after pain motivates them.
    Laugh. Or....

  9. I think we can all relate to this....the older I get the less I yell. I dont even get very angry anymore...

  10. This is my first time here and I am just more than impressed. Splendid post. Thanks Sir.

  11. Hey, I forgot to say "Happy Anniversary" to you and your bride, yesterday. I hope you had a great time and congratulations! I was busily making four kinds of Jello for #5 grandson, who had his wisdom teeth pulled. Best wishes!

  12. I think all of us at one time or another have yelled at our kids. The great thing is, kids love us unconditionally (at least at first), and are willing to forgive you if you truly desire to change and want forgiveness. When I caught myself yelling in the past, I looked up Bible scriptures about anger, lips, mouth, tongue, fool, and temper. You'll be amazed at what you find. Even if you aren't religious, the advice and warnings of the Bible that speak of a man or woman without control of their own emotions/tongues (especially in the presence of loved ones) are enough to make you really take a second look at yourself.

    Here are a few:

    Proverbs 15:1
    A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

    Proverbs 22:24
    Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered

    Proverbs 29:8
    Mockers stir up a city, but wise men turn away anger.

    Proverbs 29:11
    A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.

    Ecclesiastes 7:9
    Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.

    Ephesians 4:26
    "In your anger do not sin" : Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry

    Colossians 3:8
    But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.

    James 1:20
    for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.

    Psalm 141:3
    Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.

    Proverbs 5:2
    that you may maintain discretion and your lips may preserve knowledge.

    Proverbs 10:21
    The lips of the righteous nourish many, but fools die for lack of judgment.

    Proverbs 12:14
    From the fruit of his lips a man is filled with good things as surely as the work of his hands rewards him.

    Proverbs 13:3
    He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin.

    Proverbs 16:23
    A wise man's heart guides his mouth, and his lips promote instruction.

    Proverbs 18:7
    A fool's mouth is his undoing, and his lips are a snare to his soul.

    Ecclesiastes 10:12
    Words from a wise man's mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips.

    1 Peter 3:10
    For, "Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech.

    Job 34:3
    For the ear tests words as the tongue tastes food.

    Proverbs 10:19
    When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.

    Proverbs 11:12
    A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue.

    Proverbs 12:18
    Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

    Proverbs 15:2
    The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.

    Proverbs 15:4
    The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.

    Proverbs 17:28
    Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.

    Proverbs 18:21
    The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

    Proverbs 21:23
    He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity.

    Proverbs 31:26
    She [a wise woman] speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.

    James 1:26
    If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.

    James 3:5
    Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.

    1 John 3:18
    Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

    You have to admit - even if you are not a Christian, that is some sound advice.

    Here's praying for each of us (including me) to keep our tongues in check!

  13. I totally agree with the idea that we hurt the ones we love because we feel safe with them. I have said countless things in my life I have regretted, but I only can recall the nasty things I said or did when it involved a loved one. It is because I regrett them most of all, but when saying them or doing them, felt totally justified. When I react in anger to a loved one, it is because that person has hurt me more than a stranger could if he said or did the same thing. Random people in our life don't elicit the same reaction because they are random!

    This such a good post! I am glad I found your website. It is nice to see people helping others instead of trying to hurt!

  14. I love your blog. It's been a great help for me.

  15. I really really REALLY need to learn this... Thanks for the reminder

  16. ugg... I sooooooooooo do this! Not pretty!