Mel Seems Really Mad: The Relationship Between Anger and Abuse

As I wrote in a previous post, the media these past weeks has been repeatedly playing taped phone conversations where the famous actor/director/producer Mel Gibson can be heard ranting at his ex-partner Oksana Grigorieva. He threatens to bury Grigorieva “in a rose garden,” and the tapes seem to prove that Gibson hit Grigorieva in the face hard enough to damage her teeth – while she was holding their baby in her arms. His rants are full of racist and misogynist slurs, and one of his favourite words seems to be c***.

As one listens to the tapes, one can hear the rage frothing in his throat. At one point he screams at Grigorieva for the seemingly unpardonable sin of having fallen asleep instead of joining him in the hot tub. Apparently this is something that makes him very, very angry. My previous post explored the possible role (and relevance) of mental illness in abusive behaviour. This post will explore the relationship between anger and abuse.

Sane or not, Mel is clearly extremely angry. And we all have the right to get angry. However, Mel is also extremely abusive to Grigorieva, and abuse is never okay.

Encountering an angry person can be very, very frightening. But in a perfect world, it wouldn’t be. In a perfect world, people would know how to experience the feeling of being extremely angry without lashing out abusively. And we would all be able to sit calmly in the face of such anger because we would know for certain that we were totally safe both emotionally and physically – regardless of how mad this other person was.

Unfortunately, we seem to have a great cultural confusion around the issues of anger and abuse. We often mistakenly think that expressions of great anger necessarily involve abusive behaviour (calling someone names, humiliating someone, giving someone the finger, making threats, initiating a physical attack). At the same time, we often excuse behaviour that is by design abusive by saying things like: “He was just upset.” “He lost his temper.” “He just needs to cool down.” We often confuse that which is actually domination with someone just being angry, and we mistakenly call this relational terrorism an “anger management” issue.

So how do we tell the difference? How do we know if someone is a calculating abuser, or if that person actually has a real problem with anger? We need to ask some questions:

Does he act this way around other people, too? Does he act this way at work? Toward his boss? Toward the cops? In circumstances where he can actually get himself into trouble? If the answer is no, that he is able to keep his cool in these other situations, then the chances are good that he is actually already managing his anger quite well. He is only behaving abusively around those whom he can get away with abusing.

Are there other dominating behaviours that he is also using? Does he try to control where she goes? Control her financially? Control what she wears? Control who she spends time with? Mock her for her opinions? Interfere with her achieving her life goals? Isolate her from her friends and family? These are all instrumental behaviours. They are not the result of anger. They are the result of a desire to dominate.

Are there other outcomes that we can see? Sometimes tactics of domination can be more subtle, and a couple may just look to outsiders like they are always fighting. Again, we need to take a closer look, and take a moment to assess who seems to be losing. Who is losing friends? Who is losing opportunities to participate in activities? Who is no longer attending family or community events? Whose world seems to be shrinking? Who is being held back? If there is an imbalance in this equation, then we should be concerned about domination and abuse. It is quite possible, as Lundy Bancroft writes, that someone is not being abusive because he is angry, but rather that he gets angry in order to be abusive.

But even if after we ask all of these questions and we come to the conclusion that someone’s problem is indeed an “anger management” issue, it is still something that needs to be dealt with. And it can be dealt with. Unlike domestic violence perpetration, true anger management problems are readily amenable to intervention. Raymond Novaco writes that anger is "neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for aggression." You don’t have to be angry to be aggressive, and you don’t have to be aggressive when you’re angry.

We all have good reasons to get angry. But that’s no reason to lash out. Regardless of our intent, lashing out is a form of mistreatment. And everyone deserves a life free of mistreatment.