The anger a father feels when he suddenly can’t see his children as much as he used to is universal and very understandable. No caring and nurturing parent can not experience that anger. The anger is at the mother of the children, at oneself and at the “system” which is seen as biased in favor of mothers. Her earlier pretense at wanting to be cooperative and reasonable meant you had to do it all her way. Now she has lawyered up and the two of them seek to judicially kidnap your children.
Some men are unable to control that anger and end up making things worse for themselves and their children. Some men, fearful of what they might do or say, retreat from the whole scene and essentially abandon their kids. Most get motivated by the anger to change their circumstance. The degree to which fathers actually are successful in meaningfully changing their circumstances is inversely proportional to the degree that they let their anger continue to motivate them. High anger brings low results. Controlled, understood and reduced anger brings about better and more lasting changes in ones circumstances.
The adage “Don’t get angry – get even!” is only half right. Getting “even” still has to much of a connotation of anger in it. A better one is: “Don’t get angry – get to know yourself.” The more you get to know yourself, the better able you will be to understand how and why you let yourself get angry. Only by understanding it do you have any chance of turning it into positive energy committed to your goal of growing through and out of your current predicament.
There is no such thing as an inherently angry person. Anger possesses no independent existence. In a normal person anger is a momentary state in an otherwise non-angry person. It arises because of certain conditions, and it goes away because of a subsequent set of conditions. When you are not angry, anger itself does not exist. It isn’t as if you put it somewhere in the recesses of your mind, to haul it out the next time your emotions require it. Each time you get angry, you create it brand new from scratch. Its components, however, can often be deep-seated and need to be understood.
Anger is often fuelled by the misapprehension that something outside of you is actually responsible for the way you feel. It isn’t. You feel the way you do, with any positive or negative emotion, only because of the way you perceive it, interpret it, or let it affect you.
The deepest protected part of our self is our ego. Anger is triggered by a perceived attack on our ego. It rises up as an antidote to defend against the flooded emotions of sorrow, grief and desperation. Anger is a classic form of resistance.
Unlike anger, positive emotions such as happiness, contentment, and compassion are the natural state of being. They are the rich stream bed of the personality we are born with. Growing up in Western culture is a process of silting over that vein of gold with destructive emotions. In adult life most have lost the memory of happiness as a default emotion. We mistakenly equate happiness with a good movie, a vacation, a joint or a hot date. After the event we fall back into the shadows of anxiety.
How you feel depends solely on the conditions you train yourself to hang out with. It is always your choice. Others may try to impose unwanted conditions on you, but they succeed only to the extent that you allow them to.
Stay away from friends or family who stroke your anger. Go out of your way to find and be with emotionally calm or happy people. Seek out the company of optimists.
One of the best tricks my mother ever taught me was that if you force a strong smile onto your face when you might not otherwise feel too happy, you will actually feel better. For me it has always worked.
It is important that you dedicate a great deal of time and energy to working on understanding and neutralizing these knots of negative energy which are the roots of your anger. Otherwise, these internal anger formations will continue to dictate and determine your behaviour. Some of the knots of anger were formed years ago, and over time have fossilized into permanence. They will require a mental jack hammer to break up. Others may be more recent. Start with the easier ones first.
Psychologists like to tell us to “vent” our anger. Take a baseball bat and hit a big oak tree with it. This psychology is best optimized by the scene in the movie Analyze This when the psychiatrist played by Billy Crystal is telling the panic attack stricken mob boss, played by Robert De Niro, to relieve his frustration he should “hit something.” The patient thinks for a moment, pulls out his pistol, aims into a nearby chair and fires several rounds into a quickly destroyed pillow. A slightly stunned psychiatrist says, “There, you feel better?” To which the mob boss responds “Yeah, I do.”
Venting anger, however, provides only temporary relief and likely has a short-term benefit. All it really accomplishes is being violently aggressive in an alternate way, and as such, it practices a different kind of anger.
Ultimately, a more subtle and fundamental remedy is required. Instead of stigmatizing or even demonizing our anger by violent venting, we need to accept it, understand it, and as difficult as it sounds, embrace it. If your child were uncontrollably angry, flailing around and potentially violent, what would you do? You don’t try to “get rid” of him or her. You don’t leave the room. You try and move closer physically and emotionally. You inquire, trying to understand the causes. Finally, and most effectively, you embrace the child, anger and all thus demonstrating your love. This neutralizes or diminishes your loved one’s anger.
You will be delightfully surprised by the feeling and sense of benefit the first time you successfully work on anger this way. The best way to avoid angry outbursts is to keep a sharp eye out when your ego takes a hit. Recognize the immediate and direct connection between the negative stimulus to the ego and the automatic reaction toward anger. With practice you can easily learn to push the pause button right then. Apply concentrated thought to what is about to happen, and head it off at the pass. Rather than anger taking control of you, take control of the anger..
Keep your attention focused on it. Where did it arise from? What is its fuel? How and in what ways does the anger affect your body and other emotions? This may sound pretty silly to some but it is an age-old way of neutralizing the anger. Once you see it for what it really is, it subsides. You will be amazed. Merely bringing awareness to the anger helps reduce it. Steady awareness can eliminate it. Don’t be judgmental of yourself. As you are turning your attention to the anger, it is very important that you don’t try to remove it, banish it, or condemn it. Focus on it and embrace it. It has no substance. It is not real. Bare attention and understanding will do the trick.
As an experiment, think positively of the feelings of anger as a benefit and as a welcome opportunity to practice using your attention like a laser beam to gently neutralize the emotion. Play affectionately with the anger. Take the time to study it and to find out just exactly what aspect of your self- image is under challenge. Then, if you work at repositioning, reframing, redefining or abandoning that aspect of your self-image, you will experience the anger subside. The number one task throughout all of this is to reduce your ego.
Having shed your former self concept, like a snake skin, inner strength will underlie your new awareness. Success here will give you the strength to grow through ego demands. Sweeping away the silt and mud in the stream of your life will uncover a glimpse of the vein of gold that is permanent contentment.
The break up of a dysfunctional relationship can focus a persons awareness on just how deeply they have been sucked into seeing themselves, others and life itself from a negative view that really can be busted loose from. There can be anger at oneself for having allowed oneself to slip so deeply into such a constrictive world view, surviving on behavioural strategies designed to avoid the pain of your reality.
Our emotions too often can create a bias in how we perceive and think about the other.
When one can no longer bare the suffering of being stuck in the negative circle of a bad marriage, it is an often frustrated sense of anger that pushes one out the cage.
The two most important qualities a father must have at this point is extreme patience, and a dedicated persistence.
I had a client, a friendly and well intentioned father, I’ll call Dan. His inability to understand and control his anger epitomized the problem such men have in dealing with custody issues before the courts. In fairness to him, he suffered from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) which made his and my task all the more difficult. I use him as an example because all of the possible problems that anger can introduce into a lawyer’s attempt to help a man’s children were exaggerated and caricatured in Dan. His marriage had been short and he and his wife (Alice) had a 3 year old son that was the center of his life. Dan’s father Greg gave me an interesting perspective on Dan and Alice. Wherever possible I want to talk with my client’s parents.
Greg disclosed that he too had ADHD. This had raised considerable difficulties in his own marriage but he said that his wife had overcome them in her own way. Greg told me how the ADHD caused him to speak out somewhat suddenly, often harshly and critical to his wife on a topic she felt was basically inconsequential. But rather than rise to the challenge and argue back, she remained silent in the full knowledge that in moments it would pass and that her husband was being nothing other then his normal loving self. Greg told me that his son exhibited similar mannerisms of expression when talking to Alice. Greg made a very astute observation as to why his marriage worked and his son’s had not. Dan’s wife Alice was a very insecure woman who had tragic experiences in her youth with her own family. She was in denial and never sought help. Alice never learned to just let Dan’s sharp remarks slide, to see them for the exaggerations they were and not take a literal interpretation and store it away in memory. She kept a growing library of negatives associated with her husband. She became what I call an “injury collector.” She never learned to trust him. I suspect that without therapeutic help Alice will never be able to trust any man. As tough as it is going to be on her son to have a mother who views the world through cracked lenses, it could be much worse if she had a daughter.
When Dan first came to see me his wife was accusing him of intending to abduct their son and skip town. Why? Because he had made some comment after she left the matrimonial home to an undisclosed location with his son that he would do what ever it took to get him back and demanded his passport. It was on some one’s advice he asked for the passport to prevent her from leaving the country. Her false allegation against him caused him to accuse her of being an unfit mother because she was preventing their child from seeing his father, and this allegations against her convinced her even more strongly that he was out to get her and so the vicious spiral escalated.
Throughout all of this Dan had no idea where his wife and child were living. She had taken off without any warning. It was a period of time before very minimal access for the child with his father could be arranged between lawyers. For the first time in his life the 3 year old was without meaningful contact with his father. Dan had just started a new job and had no freedom to take time off to deal with the nuclear bomb that had gone off in his family. Dan’s indignation, with or without ADHD, was justified and his growing anger understandable.
It is the role of parents, doctors and lawyers to try and help such a couple de-escalate the rhetoric and destructive emotions that have taken charge. In this regard Dan was perhaps the most difficult client I ever had. On top over everything else, Dan was very bright and articulate. Combined with the facts of his case and his ADHD, these traits caused him to obsess over his wife. I initially advised Dan, and later repeatedly warned him, that he was the one who had to change his behavior, his emails to his wife, accept the temporary limitations on his son’s time with him, and dig deep into his financial reserves of which there was little to pay her child support. His initial response was typical of men in his situation: why should I have to be the only one to make accommodations? Why can’t she? That is always my cue to give a short lecture on the fact of gender bias in the legal system. I top it off by pointing out that in a case like his where the child is only 3 years old, his demands for an instant implementation of an equal time shared parenting schedule may not be in the cards. Maybe later, but not now.
Most fathers with young children understand that advice and agree to think about putting in place a parenting plan, while certainly not ideal for the child at the beginning, has scheduled increases leading to equal time within a reasonable period of time. But not Dan. The whole idea and his wife were patently unreasonable, the courts have to be made to understand, and beside, the mother wasn’t fully capable of providing the nurturing the child required.
This latter point that the mother’s own personality quirks made her less than a good nurturer was new. I could see it was taking on a major role in his thinking. Dan took pictures of his son coming to him disheveled. Bruises were investigated. It is very hard for a lawyer to tell his client he should not be doing all this because judges don’t like to think parents should play cop. Some months later, after the mother dictated to him what the child’s “access” was going to be with his father, Dan sent me an audio wave attachment on an email. It was a recording made the night before of his son’s hysteric reaction to he idea of having to go back to be with his mother.
It is very common for a young child, soon after parental separation, to not want to leave the fun and comfort of the moment in one home to go to the other home. The child may ask to be allowed to continuing playing a game, or watching a show. Or it may articulate an inner need and ask if it can stay one more night. This is all normal. Too many parents read into it a lot more than is really there. But Dan’s audio recording was very different. His child was not saying he wanted to stay to continue with some momentary positive experiences. He was pleading in a most distressed way that he really did not want to go back to his mother. There was real anguish and even fear in his voice. This was clearly something different. Dan might be right that the mother’s environment was somehow toxic to the child. It certainly appeared possible. This presented an added wrinkle to my representation of Dan.
It takes an overwhelming preponderance of evidence favoring a father and condemning a mother to get a family court judge to give half time or custody of a young 3 year old child to a father. The father has to be seen as purer than Caesar’s wife. The inherent societal bias that mothers are best able to care for 3 year olds post-separation needs only the slightest hint of a flaw in the character or behavior of the father as a conscious and often unconscious rational by a judge to press their judicial hand firmly down on the mother’s side of the scales of justice. Dan’s wife could march a parade of his imperfections–as she saw them–before a court. To meet and defeat her allegations would take a lot of preparation, many independent witnesses, a custody and access report by a psychologist and a deposition of the mother. All of this would take time and money. And the time it would take would have to serve a most crucial service: a period within which Dan would have to alter much of his behavior, get a strong grip on his anger, such that there could be no further allegations rightfully brought against him. He had eventually to come to court and demonstrate that he has learned and changed while the mother has not.
I explained all this to Dan. I told him that the court order for child support in an exact sum of money must be paid on time every month and he had to stop his habit of deducting small sums from it on the claim his wife owed him for this or that. I told him he should go along with the idea of seeing a counselor with the child and the mother. He had to seriously tone down his emails to his wife where he carried on the not so subtle warfare. When I had to repeat these requests, I warned him he ran the risk of not getting anywhere near the time he felt his child should be with him. Some of it soaked in. Most didn’t. I’ll never know the extent to which, if at all, his ADHD was destructive of the kind of patience he had to have. Even after he started taking what I had to tell him, and paid less attention to what his friends and the internet hyped him up to do, he couldn’t subdue his extreme impatience.The anguishing scenes he would experience upon telling his son it was time for him to go back to his mother explained a lot.
Mothers frequently try and convince the court that the father has a problem with anger and can’t control his emotions and that it can spill out in the presence of the children. While good judges won’t necessarily believe it merely because the mother swears to it, they always have to consider the possibility that it might be true. A simple way around the entire debate is for the father to enter into courses on anger management. If the father in fact has difficulty controlling his frustration at the loss of his marriage and prospective loss of his children (or is one of those rarer people who has a serious anger problem generally) then anger management is good for him personally. And if the mother’s accusations are groundless, it is easier, quicker and cheaper to take an anger management course than to try and convince a judge through possible multiple court applications that the allegation wasn’t true in the first place.
The end result is that the judge feels that the anger, whether it was a problem or not, has been properly dealt with. The judge can then get on with the job of determining the short term future of the children.
There is a body of empirical evidence that women express anger against their spouses just as frequently, if not more so, than men do against women. They just do it differently. But there is no data on how disproportionately courts order fathers into anger management than they do mothers. In all my decades as a divorce lawyer, I’ve never known of a case where a mother has been directed to take an anger management course. Despite the scientific evidence to the contrary, it remains a social/cultural artifact for society and judges to still think of men as inherently more brutal and dishonest than women.
William Carlos Williams 1883 – 1963
If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,—
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,—
Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?