Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words echo forever
“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words echo forever”
— An honest man.
“You want me to write an article on feminine anger? What aspect? History, intensity, expression, duration…personal experience?”
“You figure it out,” my editor replied.
The gender wars will grind on whether I turn the crank or not. I’m not convinced measuring one gender against the other is a reliable approach to greater understanding. About the time I feel confident sticking a label on one gender, the opposite gender boldly exhibits similar characteristics. I see it more as two halves make humanity whole and attempts to villainize either gender can only end badly.
I imagined what might be relevant, insightful…. incendiary.
When I begin chewing on a topic my habit is to probe friends and family for insight and inspiration. We agreed on some general observations.
Men and women express anger in a very different manner. Male expression of big anger can be destructive, violent, but generally discharged in a physical manner. Female expression of big anger often targets the vulnerable emotional underbelly of her adversary.
Men I spoke with were appropriately alarmed by the topic and commented, “I’d rather take a good punch in the head rather than suffer through an exhaustive list of where I come up short as a man.”
Women I spoke with encouraged me, offered their own personal perspective, and several added an opinion, “Without a doubt, an angry woman can be far more vindictive and vicious than any man.”
Anger isn’t limited to interpersonal conflict and can germinate from various sources, yet we tend to have the most visceral memories of big anger in relation to conflict with others.
As a child the harshest expression of anger I saw from my mother was what my sister and I refer to as “the claw.” She would grip the soft skin under our upper arm and squeeze, often tight enough her nails would leave marks that would linger for hours. She’d swing us around by one arm to face her, make lightning strike eye contact and utter one word, “ENOUGH!” We paid attention when she deployed the claw.
Mom was not an angry woman by nature, so my early experience of feminine anger was benign, controlled, and receded quickly. I was completely unprepared to face an adult woman intent on making me hurt as much as she hurt.
I’m not referring to low grade feminine anger such as cranky, crabby, or cantankerous. I’m talking about full blown “I want to hurt you” anger, the kind of anger that lives next door to rage. On a scale of one to ten, eight or above.
Let me offer an example. Tragic in that multiple angry episodes marked an end to our relationship, I discovered early on that a former girlfriend’s loving self, angry self, and wounded self were all jumbled together. In the full flush of romance, I ignored the early signs; I loved her.
At the time I often worked evenings and our habit was to have dinner together, catch up on our day and then I’d leave for three or four hours. She’d been upset over a conflict she’d had earlier in the day with a co-worker. I returned later in the evening and found her silently brooding with an angry look on her face. I said “hello” and got no response except a stony glare.
Too cautious to ask, “Are you ok, or what’s wrong?” and afraid anything I said would ignite an explosion, I went in the kitchen and started making some toast. “Just mind your own business I thought, maybe she needs space, has it under control, maybe the anger I smelled in the air was winding down not ramping up.”
Of course, I knew the truth; she’d felt disrespected earlier in the day, had spent the evening picking at the wound and I was about to become part of the problem. A year into our relationship a pattern had been established.
I didn’t have to wait long.
She raced into the kitchen before my toast had popped up, threw a cup and saucer in the sink, grabbed my arm, and spun me around. Bright red face and flaming eyes she unloaded,
“Hello? That’s all you have to say? You are worthless as a partner.”
The level of fury in her eyes knocked me off balance, my earlier cautious approach vanished. I could see where this was going and could feel my own defensive anger rise.
“I’m not doing this,” I said, turning back to the toaster.
She shoved me against the countertop and stormed through the house slamming doors behind her.
I knew what to expect. Like the man mentioned previously — “I’d rather take a punch in the head than suffer through an exhaustive list of where I come up short.”
I won’t detail the shouting, slamming, and angry words coming from the other side of the locked door; detail is of little utility. Once I coaxed her out and endured several hours of angry judgments, I surrendered to the fact that logic and reason had no home here and her anger had become about expelling poison.
A sensation like shock crept over my outrage and defensiveness; I numbed myself and did my best to deflect her insults. I was unable to comprehend —how can the person that I know loves me offer up this firehose of disdain and harsh judgment? Was I really that bad and blind to it? I began to doubt myself.
Withdraw or retreat on my part was interpreted as abandonment and served as an accelerant. Yet when I surrendered and said, “Damn, that hurts,” it made no difference; my vulnerability simply fanned the flame. I leaned in and prayed she would exhaust herself. No matter how cruel the insult, it was as if she believed nothing could possibly leave a bruise.
A female friend once explained to me, “You will never understand what it feels like to be physically diminutive to virtually all men. Pressed against a wall and propositioned or groped in an elevator. What can I do at five-foot tall, against an ill-mannered two-hundred-and-fifty-pound male convinced he’s god’s gift to women? My punch has limited effect.”
I find it difficult to imagine. Subway, dark alley, my radar is up but I’m confident. I know beyond question I can defend myself. I’m over six feet tall, have stood my ground and taken on enough lumps and broken knuckles to know the impact and consequence when I lash out physically.
Yet, I remain emotionally vulnerable.
At the time I was a divorced father with two half-time teenagers, pedaling as fast as I could and seldom measuring up to my standard of fatherhood. She hit bone near the end of the list, detailing how I was failing my children.
I stood up, shouted “ENOUGH!” loud enough to rattle the windowpanes and stormed off into the night.
We separated shortly after that evening; it took time to get untangled. I still carry a sense of betrayal over weaponizing pillow talk.
In hindsight I realize she had used doubts and insecurities shared in vulnerable moments to wound me. Ironic in that the harsh judgments she leveled originated from me. I was outraged to hear her poison judgements, yet repeatedly trash-talked myself.
Decades have passed and I still don’t completely understand. I’m sad and full of regret when I remember that very dark period. Rather than assign blame, I accept we both willingly played starring roles in a poison dance.
Fortunate to visit Paris on occasion, I often stayed with a couple who were raising a three-year-old boy. Next door lived the boy’s best friend, a three-year-old girl. I enjoyed watching the children play together and, on a whim, as I passed through the airport, I bought identical teddy bears. Less than an hour after I’d given the children their gifts I looked out in the yard. The little girl was sitting on a garden bench cuddling her bear and cooing in its ear; the little boy was stabbing his bear with a stick. Neither child was angry; they were playing and displaying a very different response to an identical stimulus. Stereotype? Absolutely. Social conditioning, gender preference or baked in the cake? I simply don’t know.
Comparisons based on gender have become increasingly complex as long held generalizations or assumptions are challenged by those who find two narrow choices (male or female) limiting and unacceptable. There is little question the last several decades have blurred the sharp line social conditioning has traditionally drawn to differentiate boys from girls.
It does follow that our individual expression of anger would also reflect a very different experience of being human. We may never unravel the Gordian knot of gender; I’m uncertain whether our differences are a blessing or curse, yet it’s unwise to deny them. The fact remains male, female or somewhere on the spectrum, a full display of anger is a fearsome force.
Perhaps we should abandon feminine/masculine labels and narrow our focus. The expression of big anger whether through physical violence or emotional assault is not restricted to gender.
Man or woman, the expression of big anger is a human phenomenon.
I find it near impossible to justify physical violence as an acceptable expression of anger.
Yet my experience of anger expressed using the violence of words, or condemnation of worth and character, cuts a much deeper wound.
Coming from a lover, the words echo for a lifetime.
Snake ‘Craig’ Bloomstrand