Marriage Minute # 7 Rethinking Anger… from my book, Marriage Minutes, available on Amazon.com
Some startling research about anger was published a while ago that has encouraged us to rethink some ideas about anger. Out there in Pop Psychology you hear the pundits say things like, “Anger is healthy, and we have a right to it.” In many cases this is true. Many people have stuffed their anger over the years, and their health and their relationships have suffered for it. Anger can be a good signal to us that our boundaries are being violated. The catch is that we must also be responsible for getting our boundaries right, and respecting the boundaries of others. We do have a right to anger, but we do not have a right to do anything we want with our anger.
The research that I refer to was done by N. S. Jacobson and J. M. Gottman for their book, When Men Batter Women . They studied the physiological changes people undergo when they become angry. As most of us would expect, when most of the subjects became angry their heart rates increased, blood flow increased, and their galvanic skin response showed a defensive mode. But to the astonishment of Jacobson and Gottman, about 20% of the subjects (both men and women) demonstrated the opposite responses. Their physiology relaxed and became calm as their temper rose up. It looked as though they were enjoying the rise in anger and were soothed by it. Jacobson and Gottman called the physiologically aroused group “pit bulls,” and they called the group of people who relaxed when they became angry by the term “cobras.” The cobras were cool, calculating, and ready to strike. Outwardly, you may think they are about to have a stroke due to their angry responses, but inside they are cool and calculating. They tend to be more aggressive than others, and they get angry more quickly than the “pit bulls.” They usually look for dates, and spouses, who become sad and fearful in the face of anger. Conversely, the “pit bull’ builds anger more slowly and experiences the expected anxiety as they attack. Neither is healthy anger, but it looks like the “cobra” is the more dangerous of the two.
Jacobson and Gottman further assert that education, therapy, and rehabilitation can help the majority of “pit bulls” to find more efficient tools for taking care of their own needs while learning to respect others at the same time. They state that “cobras” are not likely to benefit from any of the current treatments. The reason is that while our environment may influence us, and our genetic temperament may also have some effect on our reactions, in the end we discover that the main source of our behavior is our own private logic. The belief system of the “pit bull” is defensive and it can be changed through the personal growth of social responsibility, social interest, and investment in wanting to join the useful side of life. The belief system of the “cobra” is offensive. The “cobra” enjoys anger for anger’s sake, rejects the notion of social interest, and wants to stay on the useless side of life. Rather than being useful to community, they insist that community be useful to them.
Jesus urged us to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) It is wise to watch out for the pit bulls and cobras, avoid them, or escape them.