What is rage? My sweet little cairn terrier taught me what rage is. One day I put down her feeding bowl, and she started her meal. I needed to move the bowl slightly to get it out of my way. As I reached my hand down toward her bowl, she bit me! She had never bitten anyone before. Since I hadn’t spoken before reaching down, I think she might not have even been aware that it was my hand.
Rage is the amygdala-driven fight response to threat. It is a primitive, self-protective survival mechanism–an instantaneous reaction to counteract helplessness. Similar to my dog’s lack of awareness that the hand was attached to me, couples who are reliving rage are not enacting feelings of the present. Their rageful feelings are always attached to events and people who are not there. The threat that is being fought against is from their childhood histories; they are reacting against someone else’s “hands”.
In contrast, anger is an adaptive feeling that enhances communication in our important relationships. It is about preference–“I don’t like what you’re doing”–not survival. Anger is an expression of self, but not primitive self-protection. The helpful aspect of the anger toward each other that couples frequently bring to treatment is that current anger often provides a doorway into historical rage. The competent couples therapist is alert to the transition into more primitive states which must be transformed into words about the childhood trauma that has been awakened through current anger.
An important distinction to be made about rage is that it is not the same as hatred. Hatred involves a higher level of thought and conceptualization. It can be expressed in a rageful tone, but it is critical to be aware that most rage has nothing to do with hatred. Being on the receiving end of historical rage coming out of an adult’s mouth could reasonably cause a partner to feel hated. The therapist’s role at this moment is to reassure both partners that the rage which has been accessed in their recycling dramas is about genuine threats to their wellbeing in childhood. It is a demonstration of self-protection–almost never a wish to harm the partner. (Exceptions will be addressed in the next post.)
Therapists have heard many stories about a partner who becomes violent and then feels horrified and ashamed about harming their mate. It requires much understanding, empathy and restraint to see the wounded child behind a violent act, while advocating safety for both adult partners. Conveying to the offending partner that the self-protective motivation for their behavior is understood in light of their childhood history can be powerfully healing. Safety then becomes the place where there is no judgment of their behavior or labeling of their character, coupled with an agreement to keep their current relationship as a place where both partners can freely express historical rage without fear of either physical or mental harm.