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November 21, 2013

Recently I read a research study where the researchers manipulated manikins to demonstrate that anger can be used as a tool to approach and dominate someone and also as a tool to avoid someone out of fear. The research was based on a hypothesis that anger and fear can be used in similar ways to achieve desired outcomes. However, for the purpose of this post, I am going to focus on the anger portion of the study.

The researchers used manikins to demonstrate in various poses and physical interactions how anger can be used for the purpose of dominating and for the purpose of avoiding in the context of a relationship. Participants in the study where asked to manipulate the positions of manikins in relation to their opponents’ manikins based on a keyword or keywords they found written on the manikins.

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For example,  if the keyword was “fighting,” they squared up and brought their manikins closer towards that of their opponents’. This was a demonstration of anger used as a tool for approach and domination. If the keywords where “stubbornly turning the back,”  participants turned their manikins’ back towards that of their opponent while creating significant distance between manikins. This was a demonstration of how anger can be used as a tool for avoidance out of fear.
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I found this study intriguing because I have witnessed this phenomenon  occurring during martial discord with some couples I work with. For example, a husband develops significant resentment towards his wife, because he feels her tone with him was condescending and disrespectful. Further, he feels rejected and unloved by her because she has resorted to giving him the silent treatment.

silent treatment

While from her perspective, she reports feeling intimidated and unloved by her husband and resorts using a sharp tone in addressing him, followed by silent treatment, as a way to create distance between them. When asked why she felt intimidated and unloved by her husband, she reports feeling overwhelmed by his insistence of resolving their ongoing conflict immediately. She feels he is looking to bully her into an agreement.

insistant husband

So in this case, the husband was initially seeking to resolve a conflict by directly confronting his wife, (dominant approach). His wife became threatened by his approach and lashed out verbally to create space for her self followed not speaking to him(avoidance and fear) which only leads the husband to continue to pursue her. This of course creates a vicious cycle between the two.

In my book Anger Management 101: Taming the Beast Within, I introduce the reader to the concept of taking a preventative approach in better managing anger. Primarily, the preventative approach involves changing your beliefs or interpretations regarding what circumstances traditionally trigger your feelings of anger. The reader also has an opportunity to reinforce what he or she has just learned through the practice of three cognitive behavioral strategies in the book.

So if a husband comes to understand that his wife’s sharp tone towards him was not to put him down, and her silent treatment was not to reject him, but that these behaviors are driven by fear and her need to create space, he would become more understanding. Likewise if a wife came to recognize her husband’s dominant approach style as his sincere efforts to assertively fix issues in their relationship, she would likely become less fearful of him and more than likely assertively stand her ground in politely informing him of her need for space.

Ugo Uche is a Psychotherapist and Life Coach.

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