Anger Management Issues Are Abuse. Just Say That.

I would like to decry, declaim, and holistically reject the frame of Anger Management Issues, a frame so clinical as to create its own pathology: our collective inability as a culture, still and after all these years, to name and shame abuse within our own relationships and those of our loved ones.

Anger Management Issues were invented as a mechanism for abusers to save face, to give them an out for which there is learning and functioning and the bland speak of corporatese. Anger Management Issues seem to be deployed as a couple’s issue just as much as an individual Yosemite Sam’s, for anger is often used within the context of multi-person concepts such as arguments and disagreements and rows.

But when a partner or family member is kicking the living crap out of you — whether physically, sexually, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, financially, and/or otherwise1 — it’s not an Anger Management Issue. It’s an abuse issue. And we hate to say that someone is being abused especially when others have known about the so-called Anger Management Issues for awhile, because then we are all, in some way, culpable for being part of a society or family or neighborhood that allows this Anger Management Issue to occur in plain sight, or at least behind closed (but porously loud) doors.

We hate to say that someone is being abused because too often the judgement of abuse is made, in part, by reviewing the actions or intentions or discernment (oh, please) of the person being subject to another person’s willful violence. “She’s a strong woman and we don’t need to worry.” Or: “She can hold her own,” they’ll say as he is clearly abusing her irrespective of the strength of her will as a person to not be subject to violence. Or “that would never happen to me because I respect myself too much to find myself in that situation,” the unhelpful “model strong woman” will say on the television on the ladies talk show or to her friends over a glass of wine.2

The reality is not really like that. I once purchased a book in hopes of helping someone deal with his Anger Management Issues, and together we sought couples therapy to address his Anger Management Issues. But they weren’t Anger Management Issues. They weren’t couples therapy issues. They were abuse issues that belonged to the person perpetrating the abuse.

What I want you to know is this: No one should yell at you and break you down to pieces. No one should whack at your self-esteem with a machete for sport. No one should break things or punch holes in walls or destroy your property in the hope of scaring you into submission. No one should force or guilt or coerce you to sex. No one should withhold money or health insurance from you, or try to cut you off from participating in the public square or relationships with other people. No one should break your spirit or punch your face or bend your hands back or burn cigarettes into your arm or do any manner of physical things.

If you hear that someone has Anger Management Issues, I ask that you slow down and start thinking really carefully about what behavior is being described, and that if you are the person dealing directly with that person that you develop a plan to get away safely, and if you are a person whom the target of the Anger Management Issues feels they can trust, that you make yourself available non-judgmentally to support them as they navigate their way out. As you go about your life, please question the use of the term Anger Management Issues, and start thinking in your head, is abuse actually what is being described? Even if we haven’t called this behavior abuse in the past, is that actually what it is? Give peace the benefit of the doubt, that peace is in the right on this on this question of what is abuse — the targeting of an individual — and what is a mere issue of executive functioning gone wrong — an inability to control one’s own emotion of anger.


1Please don’t ask the question if abuse is “physical” or “something else.” It is all horrible, and this question and hierarchy sets up a respectability for forms of abuse that can equally threaten (as well as lead to) physical destruction. I know you mean well. but please don’t ask this question as the answer is irrelevant to whether a person would benefit from no longer being subject to abuse.

2Is it always men doing abuse to women and girls? No. Women do abuse to men and boys. Women do abuse to women and girls. Men do abuse to men and boys. There is more than the gender binary and abuse happens in all ways and directions. Gen Z is leading on the ridiculousness and inapplicability of the gender assignment concept as a mandatory checkbox on the birth certificate, driver’s license, and estimate of life potential, and I tend to agree, gender itself is a made-up farce that systematically advantages some over others. I shun all relationship violence. And yet I am unable to resist using she and he as I did in the paragraph above to describe abuse because men are conditioned to expect subservience from women and men’s violence against women is an unavoidable pattern that goes on and on and on and on. Enough!

The ‘Strong Woman’ Myth Can Be Destructive

The mythology of the strong woman is fairly epic, considering that women are supposed to be weak-willed ornaments or maids that make it through every indignity — depending on how those women score on other scales of the privilege lottery. A system of male domination is not supposed to allow for strong women, except that it really does and in a way that reinforces the ongoing subjugation of women as a gender, and as individuals. While of course it feels good to be identified as a ‘strong woman,’ the reality is that this myth is a mixed bag. Strangely enough it can be destructive.

It’s important to note that the moniker “strong woman” is a compliment. But its status as a compliment actually depends on drawing a contrast between you and other women, as if those other women are weak. As if being a woman makes you inherently weak. As if you are rising above the challenge of your gender. Am I arguing that folks who use the “strong woman” language are intending to slam other women? No. I am suggesting that we question why this particular distinction is drawn in comparison to other women, rather than just telling women (or men) they are strong without a gender value attached.

“Strong women” come from many walks of life, but oddly they are heavily represented in two polarized political communities: conservative women, and feminists. I want to examine how this plays out in each community, and how it can be destructive to women as a gender and as individuals.

Conservative political women leaders like Governor Sarah Palin (R-AK) and the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (UK) both played into the strong woman archetype. By virtue of toting guns or being cruel, they were both thought too big to be mired in a second-class status.

What is, I think, most interesting about conservative strong women is that they are propped up early and often by the masses of men who hold most of the power in their movement (the denigratory term is window dressing, although that erases the contributions a slim minority actually does make). Those conservative strong women frequently define weakness as qualities associated with femininity, most notably all peoples’ innate need for interdependence (regardless of gender, however coded woman).

Strong women of the conservative model are supposed to be a reminder for everyone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Well, everyone with enough privilege to do that. It is in this way that the mythology of the conservative strong woman serves to reinforce a status quo where family-friendly policies are a pipe dream, salaries and leadership are blatantly unequal, and you don’t need reproductive rights because you could just not be a slut.

Feminists, too, are often referred to as strong women and it is not always helpful. Recently, I wrote a piece for RH Reality Check detailing Why I Stayed in an Abusive Marriage for Two Years. It is the first time I’ve spoken publicly about this issue. In response, I’ve received feedback from a number of people sharing that they, too, have experienced violence in the course of a relationship.

What has struck me is the number of feminists who have shared the experience, and also acknowledged to me that they also felt they couldn’t admit this had happened to them, because ironically enough being an advocate for women’s issues can appear to create a situation where you are not allowed to have those issues yourself (the strong woman mythology). In other words, being seen as a strong woman can be an impediment to accessing the services you need and the services you and your peers work so hard for.

There are overarching similarities between the feminist model of strong womanhood and the conservative one: When strong womanhood is seen as a personal quality, it reinforces the idea that avoiding the inferior status allotted to women is a matter of personal fortitude. That you are weak if you experience sexism.

The point of this piece is not to ridicule folks who consider themselves strong women, or to take away the fact that someone is complimenting you when they refer to you as such. Rather it is to acknowledge that building up too much of a myth about strong womanhood can be bad, especially when radical honesty — women telling the truth about their own lives — holds so much power toward the cause of justice. For tellers and listeners alike.