Recently a woman sought therapy because she was feeling overwhelmed in the relationship with her husband. As she sat tearfully recounting her experience of a seven year marriage, an emerging pattern of predatory rage began to take shape. She talked about the charming sophisticated man, capable of tremendous generosity and a razor sharp intellect who has increasingly acted more hostilely with hurtful and demeaning comments and behaviors. Social psychologist such as Harm Veling, suggest that predatory or instrumental anger is used in ways to gain power, control and to manage interactions in the behalf of the one expressing the anger. Clinically, most counselors that have dealt with couples or family therapy have had many an opportunity to view the mechanic of predatory anger first hand.
The question of what is the origin of such aggressive and hostile control strategies can be found most frequently in the developmental history of the individual who acts in the predatory fashion. The developmental history most often illustrates a family dynamic that could be considered Traumagenic in nature. Anger is pervasive in traumagenic family dynamics and it is assumed by many raised in these highly disruptive environments to be a reasonable and meaningful way to bring predictability to chaos and order to human relationships.
Before examining the attributes of the traumagenic family that contribute to predatory anger or rage, it is vital to disclose that not all anger and rage is the same or equal in terms of danger and lethality. Some anger is the result of repeated or long term frustrations, habitual interference with need acquisition, dis-inhibition from the use of substances, and serious mental illness. There is not absolute answer to what generates anger with any predictability, because many attributes of that contribute to the expression of anger are going to be in a constant state of adaption and fluctuation. Many of these traumagenic families possess patterns of behavior that interfere with the normal social, emotional, psychological and physical development of the individual family members, which means there are functioning patterns that disturb appropriate and adequate use of power, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, and connecting in genuine relationships of shared and equal affection. Many times the adults that have matured in this family dynamic will experience an incomplete sense of self; low self-esteem (or pseudo self-esteem), relational stress and anxiety, an illusion of connectedness, a psychological defensiveness toward genuine attempts at emotional attachment, an avoidance of real emotional closeness and affection with a simultaneous drive to possess the same, as well as a high need to exercise control and power to create internal states that are free or possess reduced tension.
This dynamic creates relationships that lack a self-sustaining quality, which would be essential to developing enduringly satisfying relationships and a healthy unfolding of the normal maturing process. When looking at the traumagenic family dynamics related to the generation of predatory anger or rage, one would notice a continuum of family dynamics. Perhaps the simplest or less in magnitude would be those behaviors that a caregiver or parent may demonstrate with a small child for example:
– A baby cries and no one responds or offers comfort.
– A baby is hungry or wet, and they aren’t attended to for hours.
– No one looks at, talks to, or smiles at the baby or young child for long periods of time.
– A young child gets attention only by acting out or displaying other extreme behaviors.
– A young child or baby is mistreated or abused.
– Sometimes the child’s needs are met and sometimes they aren’t. The child never knows what to expect and has little predictability.
– The infant or young child is separated from his or her parents.
– A baby or young child is moved from one caregiver to another (can be the result of adoption, foster care, or the loss of a parent).
– The parent is emotionally unavailable because of depression, an illness, or a substance abuse problem.
These behaviors on the part of the caregiver instruct the child that they must control the environment to have safety, security and predictability. These attributes are also seen as being related to other problems such as attachment disorders. Attachment is about the degree that one feels emotional connected to others, and the predictable nature of that connection. When attachment is inconsistent or poor the predictable nature of the emotional connection is vague and ill-formed. This appreciably reduces trust and the calm expectation of support that human beings rely on to feel a part of a community or family. This triggers a drive to control, manipulate and act aggressively to have some secure expectedness which leads to predatory behaviors.
While having one’s expectation or desire for security, safety, stability, nurturance, empathy, acceptance, and respect may not be met in a predictable manner, this is just one contributing cause to predatory rage and anger. When the family environment creates feelings of abandonment and repeated instability, low levels of reliability and trust, emotional deprivation accompanied by feelings of individual defectiveness and shame then it is more likely to see predatory rage and anger emerge and as an instrument to achieve those missing elements. Some of the strategies that become apparent in predatory anger are:
1. Losing control to get their own way
2. Trains others to avoid them when angry or else
3. Utilize threats of harm to self or others
4. Utilize threats to property or pets
5. Actively control interactions through Sarcasm, Name calling, Put Downs, Rude comments, being critical and harshly judgmental, and being angry when others attempt connections
6. Claim that they “lost control” after and aggressive, destructive or abusive incident
7. Uses anger to have power in a situation
8. Others become timid and “walk on eggshells” when they have to discuss problems or responsibilities
9. Size people up for how much power they have and respond differently based on their view of that power
10. Reacts negatively to or dominates those that appear to have less power
11. Act charming toward those with more power
12. Resist developing relationships with those that might be more powerful than they or threaten their power
13. Use omission and vagueness to confuse or avoid
14. Pretend to have misunderstood
15. Put others on the defensive when they are clearly wrong
16. Put others on the spot so that they wind up explaining themselves rather than focusing on resolving a problem
17. Use statements like “you don’t love me” “you don’t trust me” ” you don’t appreciate me” as away to avoid dealing with an issue and deflect away
Dr. Bruce Perry and other professional suggests that if there are other factors added to the traumagenic family dynamics described above that there will be an escalation of expressed violence attached to the predatory anger and rage. Some of these factors are:
1. Becoming more detached from each other and from common unifying beliefs of a community then there is more expressed violence.
2. Becoming desensitized to the emotional needs of others, loose or impair empathic ability then there is more expressed violence.
3. Promoting hateful ideologies within the family dynamic that makes groups or classes of people to be viewed as different, bad or even less than human then there is more expressed violence.
4. When alcohol or drugs are used regularly or at addictive levels then there is more expressed violence.
Predatory anger and rage can be thought of as a motivated strategy to obtain or possess some perceived end. Since the patterns tend to be long standing and having impacted the normal developmental process of the individual, these stratagems are seen as normal, and part of the ordinary world of the individual, and not seen as being aggressive or hostile but more easily characterized by organic sense that this is “how things are”. These patterns contribute to unsatisfying interpersonal interactions and exchanges, with the accompanying frustration and maybe even recognition that the behaviors are not generating the desired outcomes. However recognition of the failure to achieve the ultimate goal is not generally self correcting primarily due to the rigidity of the stratagem. Rather than act differently they increase the use of the strategy, which further spirals dissatisfaction and failures. Perpetual and repeated attempts to use the strategy creates a cycle of escalating attempts to meet the needs for control, connection and emotional safety through predatory acts and those failures drive more of the same.