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Anger and Aggression in Couples Therapy

A one-day workshop with Susanna Abse on working with anger and aggression in Couples Therapy

Some questions that I find useful to consider, in relation to couple relationships:

How do you define conflict? When does it move from passion to something more hostile? How does this change when it is in your relationship, to elsewhere?

What does aggression mean to you?

What is your relationship to your own aggression?

How do you manage your anger and aggression?

Are there certain arenas where anger comes out, perhaps in sport, sex, card games? Where is it acceptable and safe for you to express anger?

What did you make of your parents relationship, what did you witness and see?

Do you think it is possible to have a good relationship with no anger or aggression?

How do you define a healthy relationship? Perhaps it is one that can transform, grow, care and develop, in relation to the changing needs of each individual, rather than being stuck.

Aggression can be useful if it means that difficulties are addressed in a creative and open way, rather than a passive, nagging, undermining form. We need aggression for separation and individuation, which is often a problem in couples; how can one accept and relate to each other as separate individuals.

Anger can often be seen as hope – in insecure attachment anger is aimed at getting an attachment figure to notice, in the hope that anger will result in repair and understanding. But there can also be anger of despair, in insecure avoidant, where there is high hostility, but the anger is minimised, denied or unconsciously felt. In preoccupied attachment, there is rumination and a flooding with feelings, and anger can be very hard to manage. With disorganised attachment anger is linked to violence and abuse.

What is the fear around anger, what is being defended against? Fear of conflict, intimacy, abandonment, sublimation? It is important to have confidence in the ability for rupture and repair, so that anger does not have to be avoided. In relation to this, it is worth considering how disagreements and separations were reacted to as a child. Could you believe that parents could survive your necessary attacks – could it be worked through, or was it punished? The beliefs and fantasy underneath the arguments and aggression are important to explore.

It is important to remember that just because people don’t shout, it doesn’t mean that they are not aggressive. Walking away, being put down, sarcasm, blame, emotional manipulation, body language are all acts of aggression to be decoded.

It is very important in relationship to understand misunderstandings – we all continuously make wrong assumptions, and a willingness to constantly check and update these is vital – need to stay with uncertainty and curiosity

A mentalisng state is going on when the following are experienced: selectiveness (not rambling), lively consciousness, freshness of speech, capacity for humour, little self-deception, ease and openness with the ability to alter one’s views, ease with imperfections of self and others, empathy. This is when anger should be explored and dealt with.

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