From Anger: Taming the Beast
Misinterpreting the behavior of our loved ones is a common cause of inappropriate anger toward them. Often we misinterpret their behavior due to the fact that we view it as coded messages. Most of the time we are not consciously aware that we are interpreting their behavior in this way, but this phenomenon plays an important part in all human interactions. The coded messages that are especially important are our language of love. As we grow, we learn to identify specific behaviors as indicators that others care for us. We then tend to show caring to our loved ones by behaving similarly. We also look for these behaviors to determine whether others care for us. If a given behavior tells you that a person doesn’t care, it can cause you to become angry in order to defend yourself against the pain of rejection. Unfortunately, behaviors that mean caring to one person can often mean something quite different to another person.
Carmen’s case provides a good example. Carmen’s mother expressed her love through hugs, touching, and reaffirming how precious Carmen was. But Carmen’s husband was raised in a home where there was little touching and people rarely complimented each other. Instead, his parents showed love by doing things for others. They were hard workers and very responsible. They would attend all of their children’s school and sports activities, and they always took care of their children’s needs, from helping with homework to buying a new pair of shoes. Of course, Carmen’s parents also did these things for Carmen, but it was a secondary way of showing love. For her husband’s parents, it was primary.
Carmen, following the pattern in her family, often told her husband that she loved him and freely displayed affection through hugs and touching. While he enjoyed this, he rarely initiated this type of intimate contact. Like his parents, however, he was a hard worker and always tried to take care of Carmen’s material needs. His focus on being responsible and solving problems was how he showed his love. Unfortunately, because Carmen was looking for him to demonstrate love for her in the same way that she was expressing it, she often felt unloved. While she appreciated her husband’s sense of responsibility, it did not communicate his love in a way that she could relate to. This, in turn, caused her to time tunnel and reexperience the isolation of her parent’s farm. Sometimes she would even react by pouting, like a child. Other times when she experienced sadness or anger, she quickly covered up by becoming busy.
One of the challenges in marriage is to learn your partner’s “language of love,” so you can express your love in a meaningful way. Carmen needed to learn ways to communicate her needs more effectively while also understanding that verbal expression and touching were like a foreign language to her husband. While he could learn it, it was not his native way of communicating love. When he failed to show love in a way that was meaningful, Carmen needed to learn how to stay in the adult present and ask for what she wanted.
Identifying Coded Messages
There are three ways to identify behaviors that serve as coded messages for you.
Notice conditional assumptions.
The first way is to notice conversation or self-talk that contains conditional assumptions. A conditional assumption is an “if . . . then . . .” statement such as:
Sharon: “If my children cared about me, they’d listen better.”
David: “If my wife loved me, she’d notice when I’m running late and help me more.”
Carmen: “If my coworkers respected me, they’d treat me better.”
Alex: “If my girlfriend really cared about me, she wouldn’t nag so much.”
The second half of each of these statements describes a behavior that the speaker interprets as caring: listening, helping, respecting, and having patience. When you notice yourself making these types of statements, do two things. First identify the behavior you are interpreting as a sign of caring. Then challenge the conditional assumption by reversing the order of the two statements and asking if the same thing is true for you. Here is how to do this with each of the above statements:
Sharon: “When I don’t listen to my children, does it mean I don’t care?”
David: “When I fail to notice that my wife needs help with something, does it mean I don’t love her?”
Carmen: “When I fail to treat people kindly, does it mean I don’t respect them?”
Alex: “When I bug my girlfriend and irritate her about something, does it mean I don’t care about her?”
Identify how you show caring.
The second way to coded messages is to answer the question, “How do I show my mate that I love him/her?” The things you do to show others that you care usually are the same behaviors that you look for to see if others care for you. When I asked Carmen how she showed her husband that she cared, she said, “I tell him I love him. I give him lots of hugs and try to be affectionate. I also do little things I know he enjoys, like making him food that he likes.” These are the same behaviors whose absence in him caused her to feel hurt. Carmen discussed with her husband how important these ways of expressing love were to her. Like most married people, he hadn’t realized how his partner was feeling. Carmen then asked him what made him feel loved. Some of the things he mentioned, such as helping him put a work report together when he was running late, were equally surprising to her. As each learned more how to show the other how much they cared, both found their love for one another deepening. This does not mean that they did not slip into old patterns from time to time—They did. But they now had a way of discussing this aspect of their relationship and meeting more fully their need to feel loved.
Identify recurring situations where you over-react that are due to coded messages.
This is actually similar to third approach for experiencing all of your emotions (see previous section). The only difference is that, in recurring situations where you overreact, you ask yourself, “Am I overreacting because the situation contains the coded message that this person does not care for me?” Occasionally David was late getting out of the house and found that he had misplaced his keys, business papers, or some other item he needed. If his wife and children did not get up and help him, he would become very angry. The fact that his anger was out of proportion to the situation was an indication that for him, others not helping meant they didn’t care about him. I asked him what he usually did when his wife or children were having difficulty with something or couldn’t find something they needed. He said he usually would stop what he was doing and try to help. The main way David’s father showed love was through solving problems and being helpful. David was now following his father’s example and expecting others to respond in the same way. When they didn’t, it was a loud message that he didn’t matter. Most of us tend to show and look for love in ways that are similar to those used by our parents.