I’d like to talk about volatility in relationships. You know what I mean: tempers get hot and things go from zero to sixty at the drop of a hat. Before you know it, you’re both screaming at the top of your lungs, hurling epitaphs at each other, and possibly even crossing the line into physical abuse. It’s when the desire to hurt and injure takes over. (And often it’s when one or both of the partners also realizes there’s a need for anger management.)
Volatility occurs when there’s a loss of control, a loss of the ability to stay grounded in the difficult moment, and an inability to tolerate distress, disagreement, and difference. Mostly, volatility comes from the despair that flows from not feeling validated, heard, or understood. Volatility is born out of rage.
Rage is a powerful human response. Inside rage we find the impulse to destroy in order to avenge and correct the injury that the self has endured. Rage, almost my definition, escapes oversight from the reasonable self. It is not necessarily available for processing or for thinking about, at least while it exercises its grip on the reasonable self. Rage takes place outside of thinking clearly or feeling clearly. Interesting that the legal system in this country has a term for it: temporary insanity. The implication is that in this state, the self is temporarily unable to control itself, and the impulse to destroy in order to avenge and correct an injury takes over.
For most people (and I’m not talking about psychopaths or sociopaths, who lack empathy and are in an entirely different category) rage follows injury. Typically, rage rushes in when the self feels obliterated. A person usually becomes enraged when he or she feels her reality has been denied, dismissed or belittled. Being dismissed is such a powerful injury that it can feel as if one has been wiped from existence and rendered non-existent. This is what it means to be obliterated. And typically rage follows suit, usually without any opportunity to reign it in, consider the consequences, or modulate the response.
Rage is at the heart of volatility in relationships. In marriage counseling and couples counseling with high-conflict couples, part of our inquiry is: why is rage being triggered? Are the partners engaged in obliteration? Is there dismissiveness, contempt, eye-rolling, steam-rolling, or other behavior designed to obliterate the feelings and perspectives of the other? Of course, part of the inquiry must also lead us to investigate why is the rage-response so prominent? What further techniques of anger management can be employed to provide some room to regain control? What part of the problem resides with the couple’s dynamics, and what part of the problem resides with the individual prone to volatility?
Most of the time, real volatility in relationships does not bode well for the couple. However, if there is real motivation to enhance the empathic connection and to work on the rage triggers, then often, intensive marriage counseling can provide the path forward.