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Anger and Gender Expression

"Women don't have problems with anger--- they just manage it differently," stated June Tangney, professor of psychology at George Mason University.

When a woman and a man get angry, itís not necessarily the case that women get angrier than men or that men get angrier than women.

However, when women and men get angry it reflects a process of gender socialization, more specifically, it is how men and women have learned to understand and cope with anger.

In the context of a dictionary, anger is defined as a feeling. In a social context, anger is defined as a reaction according to specific gender stereotypes. For the most part, when women are angry they are classified as irrational and frenzied.

A stereotypical scenario for women is when a woman gets mad and she cries. This may be interpreted as emotional and irrational. Whereas men's anger is sometimes recognized as strength and aggressiveness. An example of the stereotype for men is when a man gets angry and gets into a fistfight. This can be interpreted as not having fear and being aggressive. Hence, gender is a powerful influence on the way society understands and interprets anger.

According to a poll conducted for Girls, Inc in 2000, from over 2,000 students in grades 3 through 12, 63% of both boys and girls believe that girls are under pressure to please everyone and 56% say girls are expected to speak softly and not cause trouble.

Generally speaking, for girls, this stereotype warns them to stay away from the loudness of anger. In order to be a "good" girl then a person has to be soft spoken and avoid anger. For a boy it is the contrary. He has to be more aggressive and louder than girls to reinforce his sexuality as a male. Bullying, attacking and intimidation are their resources for conflict resolution. Yet this double standard restricts both boys and girls.

If the sexist stereotypic roles are endorsed then it is gender that dictates relationships with anger into adulthood. It is no surprise that in expressing their anger women tend not to be as aggressive as men and tend to talk about their anger more. For instance, when a woman gets upset with her husband about leaving his dirty clothes on the floor when he changes, she will talk about how this is bothering her and how it is not just her responsibility to pick up after him.

On the other hand, there is a tendency for men to express their anger in the form of physical aggression, passive aggression and to impulsively deal with their anger. When he gets mad, for example, because he feels his wife won't let him do what he wants in his own home, he may simply walk away mumbling.

From both perspectives in the previous examples, the man and woman's actions to anger may not necessarily resolve the anger but simply perpetuate it by their reactions according to the specific gender stereotypes. In other words, neither the man nor woman see the opposite's point of view as it is but sees the other's reason for anger according to gender stereotypes. From the husband's perspective, he may see his wife's action as nagging. From her perspective, she may see her husband's action as being passive aggressive by ignoring her. But neither, during their argument, understands the other's perspective and reason for anger. Both husband and wife react to the other's anger according to the gender stereotypes. Thus, sexist stereotypic roles are endorsed in this example.

Yet this is not to say that there aren't exceptions to the stereotypes. In fact, as more women and men take on non-traditional roles, the gender social stereotypes have been changing. With models of women as Hilary Rodham Clinton or even on TV, such as the character of Murphy Brown, women are gradually being disassociated from the traditional social roles of compliancy and seen as taking charge and being more "aggressive."

For men, society has come to see and accept more men playing the role of the homemaker, single fathers or simply sharing more household responsibilities with their spouse, including being involved in same sex marriages.

However, there are some individuals that may convey anger utilizing varying degrees of rage, while other individuals are angry very quietly. Anger as rage can be both destructive and violent to all the persons involved in the argument, including innocent by-standers such as children. For example, children may be riding in the back seat of a car when an argument between their parents breaks out. Not only do the children witness the harsh words being passed back and forth between their parents but they also feel the anger and, as a result, are affected by it.

Passive anger such as the silent treatment or withholding cooperation can be more destructive than more aggressive acts such as verbal and physical (non-violent) outbursts. For instance, when a person gets upset by their significant other, that person may swallow their anger in order to not hurt a loved one. Swallowing one's anger can cause problems over time. In turn, the anger simply gets buried alive. Over the course of time, the pressure of anger can accumulate and lead to a great eruption of rage and, more commonly, the individual may also suffer physical consequences. Buried anger can cause ulcers, heart disease, hypertension, headaches, back pain, depression, guilt and fatigue. Needless to say, our emotional health goes hand in hand with our physical health.

Nevertheless, "getting angry" is a means by which to express anger and can be used as a positive force in a person's life. A reaction to anger can also be a means of coping with it. By getting angry, a person exerts feelings that have been building inside. For those who hold in anger there is a need to vent their emotions and a need to find a safe and appropriate way to release them, regardless of their gender. Some take on painting, while others choose kickboxing to express their anger. The point is to find a non-violent way to express the anger so as not to perpetuate the expression of violence, as in kicking the walls or destroying property, and to have some time to think things through before saying something that can be more hurtful and harmful to the relationship in question.

So does one sex get angry more than the other? It is a question that requires a closer look into social stereotypes that have long been influential in how men and women interpret, understand and cope with anger. As social stereotypes change and social roles revolutionize, so does our social understanding and interpretations of anger. In short, it is not one gender that gets angry more than the other. It simply depends on the individual.

About the Author: Andrea Brandt, Ph.D., a licensed psychotherapist in Santa Monica, CA for over thirty years, specializes in relationships, challenges related to blended families, divorce, abuse, women's issues and the mind-body spirit connection.

Dr. Brandt offers a fresh approach to dealing with anger and other feelings. Through her individual sessions, workshops and anger management audiotape and CD she helps people use their anger and deeper emotions to strengthen their relationships and navigate more successfully through life.

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