When I was arrested for hitting my wife, I knew my behavior was wrong and fit squarely in the definition of domestic violence. I’d lost my temper, and in my rage, become physically abusive. I desperately wanted to change, but couldn’t help wondering: should I be in a domestic violence program, or take anger management classes?
The court ordered me to attend a Batterers’ Intervention Program (BIP). There, the main message was that my actions stemmed from my desire for power and control. My craving for power and control, the program said, grew from my attitude of entitlement and a sense of male superiority. I needed to lose the attitude, and my abusive behavior would stop.
But this didn’t fit with how I felt or thought at all. How would changing views I didn’t have help me stop hurting my wife? The focus on patriarchy also didn’t address women that become violent with men or abuse that happens in LGBTQ relationships. It was disappointing, frustrating, and ultimately, not useful.
Whether you’ve been ordered to complete a BIP, you’re weighing the pros and cons of anger management, or both, this post is for you. Hopefully it will help you understand when anger management classes can be helpful and when they might not. I’ll also cover what to look for in selecting a high-quality anger management program.
When anger management classes make sense
A lot of domestic violence advocates say partner abuse is never an emotional control issue. It’s a deliberate strategy to maintain power, they say. I strongly disagree.
For many (though not all) of us, uncontrolled anger is the problem behind our actions. The overwhelming majority of men I talk to don’t hate women, think we’re better than our partner, or feel we should always get our way. We just get upset in certain difficult situations, and our reactions end up hurting someone we love.
That’s not an excuse – abusive acts are still wrong. Changing our behavior is still essential for everyone’s benefit: our partner, our relationship, and us. Identifying the right cause, however, puts us on track to successful change. Good anger management classes are made to address these kinds of damaging reactions.
There are people who cause harm because they feel entitled to get their way, or they have a problem with the opposite gender. If that’s you, you should absolutely seek to understand where these beliefs come from and challenge them. Relationships based on inequality or prejudice are never fulfilling or healthy.
Maybe you feel an excessive need to maintain control. That, too, should be explored for your own sense of peace and the benefit of everyone around you. In neither of these cases are anger management courses going to be as much help.
What to look for in anger management classes
Most anger management classes focus on practical behavioral techniques, such as meditation, breathing exercises, and “time-outs.” These are simple tools we can use if we start feeling frustrated. Learning these kinds of “in the moment” skills is important – it’s actually how I got started on my journey to stop my harmful behavior. It helped me keep a lid on my rage and protect my loved ones from its worst effects.
However, on their own, these techniques aren’t going to help you address a lack of emotional control in a lasting way. Nor will they reduce the amount of anger you feel – which may leave you too overwhelmed to actually use them when it counts.
The solution comes by digging deeper into what’s really going on in our minds. Here’s a preview: anger is almost always masking something else. Often, we’re actually reacting to the powerful emotions of hurt, shame, or fear. Getting angry is usually an attempt to avoid confronting those painful feelings by making it about something external to us.
The roots of anger
At the root of those deeper emotions are “core hurts” that usually come from our childhood. These unhealed wounds can trigger fight-or-flight reactions for even small or seemingly unrelated events. Things like criticism from a loved one, a perceived slight, or a seemingly disrespectful maneuver by someone around us can set us off. Unchecked, or fed by our partner’s not-so-helpful responses, they can quickly lead to out-of-control rage.
Making lasting improvements to our self-control requires peeling back these layers, like an onion, and healing from the inside out. Think of “in the moment” anger management techniques as a stopgap that buys you time and energy for this deeper work. A good anger management class will cover both.
Think of anger like a weed. We can cut the leaves off through in-the-moment anger management techniques, but eventually it’ll come back. The only way to deal with it in the long term is to pull it up by its roots.
Hitting anger from all angles
I believe in going “all in” and using every tool available when working to change behavior that hurts someone we love. The more we do so, the more lasting and complete our change. Anger management classes, or an online anger management course is a good start. Connecting with a counselor that will guide and support you through the process can be really helpful. I wrote in my journal almost every day to work through my thoughts and emotions.
I also read several books that were super useful. Concepts I read about became discussion topics in counseling sessions. Principles I learned from anger management programs were reinforced and explained more thoroughly in the books. Here are a few I suggest:
- Gary Chapman’s Anger: Handling a Powerful Emotion in a Healthy Way
- Albert Ellis’ books Anger: How to Live With and Without It and How to Control Your Anger Before It Controls You
- Douglas Fields’ Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit
- Reneau Peurifoy’s Anger: Taming the Beast
Even if anger is not your issue, I would still encourage you to keep an open mind about anger management classes. Perhaps you struggle with controlling behavior, gaslighting, stonewalling, or some other kind of abuse. You may not need the practical anger management techniques, but any approach that gets to the deeper causes of anger could still be relevant. All these behaviors stem from the same problem: unhealed emotional wounds.
By the way, the Ananias Foundation offers a couple of different opportunities to address anger-related domestic violence. One is by working through the self-paced study program in our Guidebook. Another way is by joining a group that working through the Guidebook together. Both are excellent opportunities to help you discover and heal those deeper issues at the root of angry behavior.
Anger is not inherently bad: it is a God-given emotion. There is, however “righteous” and “unrighteous” anger. Righteous anger is a justifiable response to some kind of injustice, which motivates us to take thoughtful action. For example, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers harness their righteous anger to raise awareness and advocate for laws that will reduce drunk driving accidents and deaths.
When we get angry with our partner or kids, however, it’s usually unrighteous anger. We’re often overreacting, escalating, and bringing our own distorted thinking to the situation. When we do, we cause them harm and miss the good life God intended for us to have.
To stop unrighteous anger, it helps to remember what we can and cannot control. Turns out we can’t control much of anything in this world. Our partner, kids, co-workers, people around us, the economy, or the political environment are beyond our jurisdiction. We can, however, develop the skills to control how we respond to these variables.
God answers the hurt, shame, and fear that creates so much of our unrighteous anger. Accepting his unconditional love frees us from feeling hurt or rejected by others. We can let go of our shame when we realize that we’re enough because he created us specially and uniquely. Fear holds no power when we believe he has authority over what we can’t control, and we can trust him. This equips us to respond to difficult situations from a position of wholeness and righteousness.
Here’s my point of view. Abuse is about power and control over a weaker and vulnerable person. The proof lies in the fact that abusive men (yes, there are abusive women too) target the weak. They don’t beat up their bosses or their best friends. They don’t punch their brothers in the face or kick their fishing buddies down to the ground. They don’t rip their father’s hair out of his head. They target and hit women knowing full well they are weaker and unlikely to protect themselves. If you had an “anger issue” where you were overreacting when upset then you’d be beating everyone up. If you’re only beating up your wife, a woman, or a child then it’s definitely about exerting power and control over a weaker person. Are you punching the bouncer in the face? Are you beating up your pesky co-worker? No. You’re just hitting a woman, so please at least be honest about it and please don’t tell other men they have problems with uncontrolled anger rather than power and control, as that is the wrong message to send. Abusive men (and women) target their spouse. They aren’t displaying uncontrolled anger at other people. They aren’t beating up the bus boy, the waiter, or the coach…they are only beating their spouse.
Hi Katie. Thank you for bringing up this point of view–one that is subscribed to by a lot of people. Unfortunately, it is also one that misses the mark and prevents us from addressing real causes of domestic violence, which is why we’ve made such little progress on the issue.
What you say is partially true: many domestic violence offenders are only violent with their partner, not with friends, co-workers, or strangers. The conclusion of why this is so, however, is where many get off-track. Yours, and others, assert that we abuse a weaker partner only because we can and we can get away with it. What that misses is how our intimate partners reach emotionally sensitive spots which friends, co-workers, and strangers are not given access. See this blog post for more explanation.
Often, but not always as this post points out, domestic violence happens as a result of a lack of emotional control. A deep, emotional wound is touched, and the reaction is over-the-top and harmful to those around us. Good anger management techniques will help individuals identify and heal those wounds, as well as give the individual techniques for managing their emotions and responding better when they are stirred. This process resonates with many of the individuals we work with, and they and their partners report better responses in situations that formerly led to violence.
Telling men, or women, their actions are just about power and control is misguided and terribly ineffective. As a remedy, telling offenders they need to shed an attitude they probably don’t carry is analogous to telling a stranded motorist with a flat tire they need a new battery. Unless we correctly identify the problem, then we’re not going to help them focus on the solution as they are working to change.
Perhaps you are following a different therapeutic model, however most research regarding domestic violence and abuse focuses on one partner feeling a need to control and dominate the other. This may be caused by the abuser’s low self-esteem, jealousy, or difficulties in regulating their anger and emotions, or it may be caused when they feel inferior to their partner in education or socioeconomic background. This domination takes place in the form of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. I am not familiar with that dynamic being excluded from the context of domestic violence and abuse.
We follow an evidence-based model for change like you describe–one that helps individuals identify issues like low self-esteem or difficulties in regulating emotions that are the cause of harmful behavior directed at a partner. This requires identifying and healing the wounds we carry – often from the past – that shape our thoughts and emotions.
The “power and control” ideology (not based on research) assumes that an abusive person just wants to dominate their partner to feel powerful and because they feel entitled to do so. The approach used to “treat” offenders when we start here is to try to knock out their sense of entitlement and superiority. Of course, if that wasn’t the problem to begin with, it doesn’t work, which is why most batterers intervention programs are ineffective.
Looking for help with my anger management issues. Thank you.
Hi BJ. You might consider downloading our Guidebook or signing up for our group. As this blog post says, there is a lot of overlap between anger management and domestic violence because both are about gaining better control of our emotions.
Hello. Require anger-management support – in U.K. Urgent, as anger is potentially harmful to someone who is around all the time. Do you have outlets in this country?
Hi Philip. We are a virtual organization so all of our resources, including our Guidebook and Groups, are available online.